Keen wants to work to translate complex evidence to help a wide breadth of international development actors incorporate it into their decision-making and improve outcomes.
Laura Keen, Headshot
Laura Keen

Laura Keen has spent her career working at organizations that seek to uphold the rights of marginalized people around the world.

But during her efforts to enact on-the-ground programs on behalf of nonprofits, Keen observed that well-intentioned efforts frequently lacked proper data collection or the resources to perform the quantitative evaluation needed to assess programmatic efficacy.

“I saw that if I wanted to help on a larger scale, I needed to learn how to conduct in-depth analysis,” Keen said. “I came to Harris to develop tools to assess which interventions are actually good and which are just superficial.”

Keen, set to graduate in June with a Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree and as a fellow of The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, said she is leaving Harris with those tools. “I learned how to analyze programs critically, to identify gaps, and to think through what might be going right or wrong. It’s exactly what I hoped for.”

Keen’s interest in international work began in 2011. After earning her BA from the University of Pennsylvania, she worked in Peru and Ecuador for a healthcare nonprofit, Medlife, organizing mobile medical clinics to provide preventative health services.

In 2013, at the nonprofit Not For Sale, Keen directed a pilot research initiative that aimed to prevent human trafficking in illegal Amazon goldmines by providing locals with alternative employment. “We explored whether local goods, such as honey, could become small-scale exports to generate income for people living there. It exposed me to global supply chains and agriculture as a tool for development.”

Following the yearlong project, Keen became a supply chain specialist and manager at Fair Trade USA. There, she helped sugarcane and cocoa producers in Latin America and Africa implement fair-trade standards to improve social and environmental practices. Then she helped them implement community-led development projects financed with premiums paid by companies, including large multinationals such as General Mills and Hershey’s.

“We demonstrated to brands that Fair-Trade certification mitigated risk in their supply chains and was a useful marketing tool,” Keen said. “I was drawn to the model because it seeks to empower the communities that implement it, as opposed to existing as an external mandate.”

But many organizations face limitations in evaluating the effectiveness of their programs — deficiencies that Keen said frequently result in the use of superficial metrics. “Saying ‘We reached 1,000 beneficiaries,’ unfortunately tells you nothing. We’ve trained funders and the public to think that’s good enough, but it’s not.”

Keen entered Harris having never taken a statistics class but soon became enamored with the school’s Statistics and Data Analysis II and Program Evaluation courses. The classes teach students how to evaluate the causal impacts of programs using social experiments, regressions, panel data methods, instrumental variables, and other techniques.

“I loved the rigor it brought to my thinking. People told me that grad school would change the way I approach problems, and that certainly has proven true.”

Last summer, Keen was selected for a fellowship with the Open Society Foundations, which placed her with Refugee Rights Europe, a London-based nonprofit. There, she conducted research to advocate for migration policies rooted in human rights in the United Kingdom Parliament, the European Union and United Nations.

“We submitted evidence to the U.N. about conditions asylum seekers experienced in Greek government-run facilities that amounted to torture,” Keen said.

Now, on the verge of graduation, Keen is seeking a position to help foundations, organizations, and government bodies make better decisions about how they invest their international development dollars.

“I want to work to translate complex evidence into approachable language to help a wide breadth of actors incorporate it into their decision-making and improve outcomes,” Keen said. “Equilibrium shifts require significant action, and that should be rooted in evidence-based policy.”