In our mid-year update, we continued to recommend that donors give to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), and we wrote that we believe AMF has the most valuable current funding gap among our top charities. We also briefly wrote about some new concerns we have about AMF based on our research from the first half of 2016.
This post describes our new concerns about AMF’s transparency and monitoring in more depth. We continue to believe that AMF stands out among bed net organizations, and among charities generally, for its transparency and the quality of its program monitoring. AMF makes substantial amounts of useful information on the impact of its programs—far more than the norm—publicly available on its website, and has generally appeared to value transparency as much as any organization we’ve encountered. But our research on AMF in 2016 has led us to moderately weaken our view that AMF stands out for these qualities. In short, this is because:
- The first two post-distribution check-up surveys following AMF’s bed net distribution in Kasaï-Occidental, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were poorly implemented. AMF told us that it agrees that the surveys were poorly implemented and is working to improve data quality in future surveys.
- We learned that the methodology for selecting communities and households for post-distribution check-up surveys in Malawi is less rigorous than we had previously thought.
- AMF was slower to share information with us in 2016 than we would have liked. Unfortunately, we aren’t fully confident about what caused this to happen. We believe that AMF misunderstood the type of information we would value seeing, and this may have caused some (but not all) of this issue.
These updates somewhat lower our confidence in AMF’s track record of distributing bed nets that are used effectively (i.e., present, hanging, and in good condition) over the long term and in its commitment to transparency; however, this is only a moderate update, and we don’t think what we’ve learned is significant enough to outweigh AMF’s strengths. We continue to recommend AMF and believe that it has the highest-value current funding gap of any of our top charities.
Going forward, we plan to continue to learn more about AMF’s transparency and monitoring through reviewing the results of additional post-distribution surveys and continued communication with AMF.
Background on AMF’s strengths and evidence of impact
We recommend AMF because there is strong evidence that mass distribution of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets reduces child mortality and is cost-effective, and because of AMF’s strengths as an organization: a standout commitment to transparency and self-evaluation, substantial room for more funding to deliver additional bed nets, and relatively strong evidence overall on whether bed nets reach intended destinations and are used over the long term.
In particular, AMF requires that its distribution partners implement post-distribution check-up surveys every six months among a sample (around 5%) of recipient households for 2.5 years following a bed net distribution, and has publicly shared the results of these surveys from several of its bed net distributions in Malawi. It’s our understanding that AMF is quite unusual in this regard—other organizations that fund bed nets do not typically require post-distribution check-up surveys to monitor bed net usage over time, and do not publicly share monitoring data as AMF does.
Evidence of the impact of AMF’s bed net distribution in Kasaï-Occidental, DRC
AMF has sent us reports and data from two post-distribution check-up surveys (from eight months and twelve months after the distribution) from Kasaï-Occidental, DRC.
Donors may not realize that AMF has a short track record of major distributions. It has historically primarily worked with Concern Universal in Malawi, so these are the first surveys we’ve seen from large-scale AMF bed net distributions outside of Malawi. AMF’s post-distribution check-up surveys are intended to provide evidence on how many AMF nets are used effectively over the long-term, but we (and AMF) believe that these surveys in Kasaï-Occidental, DRC were poorly implemented (details in footnote).
Due to the extent of the implementation issues, we don’t think the post-distribution check-up surveys provide a reliable estimate of the proportion of bed nets distributed in Kasaï-Occidental, DRC used effectively over the long term. (Note that AMF earlier provided a distribution report, registration data, and photos and videos as evidence that bed nets originally reached intended destinations.) It seems plausible to us that the reported rates of nets in-use (hung over a sleeping space) from the AMF distribution in the 8-month post-distribution check-up survey (~80%) and the 12-month post-distribution check-up survey (64-69%) are either substantial overestimates or substantial underestimates.
Non-random sampling in post-distribution surveys in Malawi
This year, we learned that Concern Universal, AMF’s distribution partner in Malawi, does not use a completely random process to select participants for post-distribution surveys. We have received some conflicting information from AMF and Concern Universal on the specifics of how the selection process deviates from pure randomization, so we aren’t confident that we fully understand how the selection process works in practice (details in footnote).
Our earlier understanding was that Concern Universal randomly selected villages and households for post-distribution surveys without any adjustments.
We are now concerned that the results from post-distribution surveys from Malawi could be somewhat biased estimates of the long-term impact of AMF’s distributions (though we wouldn’t guess that the effect of the bias on the results would be very large, since AMF and Concern Universal described selection processes that seem likely to produce reasonably representative samples).
AMF told us that it may reconsider its requirements for random selection of participants in future post-distribution surveys and invited us to make suggestions for improvement.
AMF’s transparency and communication
Although we still believe that AMF stands out among bed net organizations for its commitment to transparency, AMF has recently been less transparent with us than we’ve come to expect.
In early 2016, we requested several documents from AMF (including the 8-month and 12-month post distribution surveys from Kasaï-Occidental, DRC, malaria case rate data from clinics in Malawi, and audits of household registration data from Malawi), which AMF told us it had available and would share once it had the capacity to review and edit them. Although we eventually received reports and data from the two DRC post-distribution surveys in June, we still haven’t seen the other documents we requested. AMF responded to these concerns here.
We are concerned that AMF did not tell us about the poor implementation of the first two Kasaï-Occidental, DRC surveys earlier, and that we only recently learned about the details of Concern Universal’s adjustments to random sampling for post-distribution surveys in Malawi. AMF told us it agrees that it should have communicated more clearly with us about these two issues and believes that it did not because it misunderstood the type of information we would value seeing. We are not confident that this fully explains AMF’s lack of transparency.
What we hope to learn going forward
AMF’s track record of providing evidence of impact on its bed net distributions outside of Malawi is currently very limited. Our impression is that DRC is a difficult country for charities to work in; we’re uncertain whether the methodological issues with the first two surveys from Kasaï-Occidental were due to the difficulty of working in DRC specifically, to more general issues with AMF starting programs in new countries and working with new implementing partners, or to the relatively poor performance of an implementing partner.
AMF has told us that it expects the implementation of future post-distribution surveys in DRC to improve, and that it has made several changes to its practices in response to the issues discussed above, including:
- Hiring a Program Director, Shaun Walsh, whose primary job is to work in-country with distribution partners on planning, executing, and monitoring bed net distributions.
- Requiring more detailed budgets and plans from distribution partners for upcoming post-distribution surveys in Ghana, Uganda, and Togo.
- Focusing on improving timeliness of reporting on distributions and post-distribution surveys.
We plan to communicate closely with AMF on its upcoming post-distribution surveys, and update our views on AMF’s track record outside of Malawi when more survey results are available.
AMF’s reports on the surveys indicate that:
- It seems likely that different data collectors interpreted ambiguously-worded questions differently for both the 8-month and 12-month surveys. “Number of nets available” (translated from French) was variously interpreted as the number of nets hung, the number of nets hung plus the number of nets present but not hung, or the number of nets present but not hung. This led to internally inconsistent data (e.g. different numbers of nets reported for a single household for different survey questions) for a large proportion of households (42% in the 8-month post-distribution survey and around half in the 12-month post-distribution survey). AMF excluded households with internally inconsistent data from its analysis of the proportion of nets from the distribution still in use.
- AMF addressed this issue by re-writing survey questions after the 8-month survey, but the corrected survey questions were not put onto the data collectors’ smartphones before the 12-month survey.
- Household members sometimes reported inaccurate information to data collectors when survey questions were asked outside of a home. Data collectors later confirmed that the information was inaccurate (e.g. the household owned more bed nets than reported) by direct observation inside the home, but were not able to correct the data already entered into their smartphones.
- Data collectors did not distinguish between nets from the late 2014 AMF distribution and bed nets from other sources. AMF notes that the average level of previously-owned nets was around 2.5% so this would not have materially influenced the results of the post-distribution survey.
- AMF told us:
Concern Universal selects villages for post-distribution surveys in each health center catchment area where AMF nets were distributed. Concern Universal divides each health center catchment area into three “bands:” a short distance, medium distance, and far distance away from the health center. In each band, Concern Universal randomly selects between 25% and 50% of the villages. In each of those villages, Concern Universal randomly selects around 20% of the households.
- In April 2016, we spoke with a representative of Concern Universal, who told us that, in addition to the stratification of villages by geographic location described by AMF, that villages selected in one post-distribution survey are excluded from being selected for the following post-distribution survey.