This article originally appeared as a World Bank's Today's Story under the title "Learning by Doing: The Social Observatory" by Sonya Fatah, on March 20th, 2013.

It's past 8 p.m. on a Friday. The lights are still burning inside the offices of Jeevika, a village-level collective action project led by the government of the Indian state of Bihar. Inside, Ajit Ranjan, state project manager for monitoring and evaluation, is huddled in animated conversation with Hasnain Yunus, the project's systems analyst, and Upamanyu Datta, an economist with the World Bank’s Social Observatory unit. They’re working out kinks in Jeevika’s evolving management information system. An hour later they have figured out a solution.

Ajit Ranjan, state project manager for monitoring and evaluation, Jeevika, talks with Upamanyu Datta, an economist with the Social Observatory and Hasnain Yunus, systems analyst, Jeevika, about the project’s management information system.

The Social Observatory (SO) is a small unit within the South Asia Livelihoods team in the India office. Led by Vijayendra Rao, lead economist in the World Bank’s research department, it works to create holistic and dynamic learning systems for project implementation. It supports the Bank's multibillion-dollar portfolio of livelihoods projects in India by helping to conduct rigorous impact evaluations, develop effective monitoring systems, and design relevant case studies and innovations such as the use of behavioral tools for project assessment and learning.

"We need concrete feedback on projects," says Parmesh Shah, the task team leader for the National Rural Livelihoods Project and Jeevika.

The Social Observatory’s work is an effort to improve the capacity of community-driven development projects to “learn by doing,” says Rao. A World Bank report on “Localizing Development,” which he co-authored, highlighted this as key to making such complex projects more effective. One place where they have been able to come close to realizing their objective is in Bihar. Here, a committed political leadership and a cooperative government apparatus have created a valuable laboratory to improve the science of delivery.

“The support we received from the SO team was instant,” says Arvind Chaudhury, the project director for Jeevika, which launched in 2007 and has reached 800,000 women. “Improvement always requires the will to see things critically. We recognize that unless analysts point out the problems, we can never improve.” Daily interaction with the Social Observatory team has helped his unit resolve a host of issues, making the project stronger, says Ranjan.

There is a growing consensus—among researchers, team leaders, and project staff—that a research-meets-implementation approach makes livelihoods projects more effective. "The Social Observatory has the potential to improve the capacity of livelihoods projects to empower women, reduce poverty and improve living standards," says Asli Demirguc-Kunt, the Bank's director of research. "This kind of serious and substantive collaboration between research and operations is precisely what we need more of."

The Social Observatory obtained seed funding from the South Asia Gender Initiative trust fund, but the bulk of the work has been funded by another trust fund, the South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative.

By creating sound systems for analysis and adaptation, the Social Observatory team helps strengthen program objectives. “We are generating more evidence and data than ever before on a range of activities from micro-credit and women’s empowerment to nutrition to food security,” says Nethra Palaniswamy, who coordinates the Social Observatory’s work in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu. “This evidence will make our projects more adaptable and accountable.” Currently, the Social Observatory has 12 ongoing and eight planned impact evaluations.

Others echo the need for consistent monitoring. “Monitoring and Evaluation is a mandate that we need to be accountable for,” adds Samik Das, the task team leader of the Orissa Rural Livelihoods project. “The SO has given us some direction here, the capacity to think more intently through this.”

As part of the Bank’s structure, the Social Observatory has the advantage of exposure to programs across India. “The biggest value addition has been having been people on-site,” says Makiko Watanabe, a rural development specialist with the South Asia Livelihoods team. “They have people working on other rural livelihood projects, so they understand the project design and context, and can suggest practical adaptations.”

Moreover, on-ground support leads to capacity building. “You see such a great change in Hasnain since he started working with Upamanyu,” says Ranjan about Jeevika’s systems analyst. “He’s learned so much about developing a strong MIS. He knows much more than I know about the development of a system.”

The Social Observatory’s holistic support in designing and implementing World Bank projects helps them achieve their ultimate objective: improving the living standards of the poor.

“To me the Social Observatory embodies the learning-by-doing approach,” says Shobha Shetty, sector manager of the South Asian Livelihoods team. “It is the only way we can continually innovate, adapt and bring value-addition to our community-driven development projects and move to CDD 2.0. I would like to put in place a regional Social Observatory for all of our livelihood projects in South Asia so that all projects—including those of other donors—can benefit.”