HomeResearchProposal WritingWriting the proposal

Writing the Proposal:

In the previous section we saw what the proposal should cover, but you do not have to follow this particular format. Feel free to come up with your own format as long as you make sure you present all the essential information in an order that makes sense.

Title Page
This will list the title, date, your name(s) and contact details (postal address, e-mail address, phone). Try to choose a short, catchy, informative title. Proposals sometimes have very long titles, which leave the reader dizzy without indicating clearly what the proposal is about. "The Determinants of Child Schooling in Nigeria" is a fine title.

It is also a good idea to include an Abstract in which you give a very short summary of the proposal, say in about 100 to 115 words. At present few proposals include an Abstract, but I strongly recommend it because the reader will immediately know what your proposal is about.

This section includes a non-technical problem statement and a clear motivation for investigating the particular problem and indicating why it is important. The material would include what is listed in in the previous section under "Background" that is the policy context of the proposed research.

You would, for example, state the problem as "the low investment rates of private sector manufacturing firms in country X". You would then present some evidence (e.g., results from firm surveys) to indicate that there is indeed a problem. Next you would link this to the policy context, pointing out that private investment has important implications for employment growth and poverty reduction, but there is controversy on why investment rates are so low and on what would be appropriate policies to raise them.

The controversy would for example be about whether the main reason for low investment is an imperfection in credit markets (e.g., banks discriminating against small firms) or the volatility of macroeconomic policies as perceived by entrepreneurs (e.g., frequent reversals in trade policy). Obviously, these two different diagnoses of the problem of low investment have very different policy implications. This is the point you would want to stress in the introduction since it provides a convincing justification for the research you propose to do.

You want to make sure that at the end of the section readers know that you are going to investigate determinants of private investment and that they understand why resolving this research issue is important for policy. Typically the length of this section is one or two pages.

Research Issue
In this section you set out the research question(s) in detail, sketch how you intend to address them and, most importantly, position yourself in the literature. This section would include what in many proposals is covered in separate sections under the headings of "Literature Review" and "Justification of the Study".

It is a good idea to formulate the research questions as testable hypotheses, something like "The main determinant of a firm's private investment is access to formal bank credit".

Writing a literature review that encompasses a long list of who did what is neither necessary nor sufficient. Rather than just listing authors and their findings you should impose an analytical structure; some questions to ask yourself would include: Are there different approaches in the literature? How do they differ? How do you evaluate these differences? Is the methodology of one group of authors better than that of others? Why?

To return to the example of investment behaviour, a useful catalogue in your review would be one that indicates whether authors used time series (macro) or cross-section (micro) evidence or not. Obviously, you cannot say that one methodology is better than the other one, but if country X had recently adopted policy reforms and these radically changed investment incentives, then a time series analysis could be misleading.

If you are interested in current investment incentives, an estimation largely based on pre-reform information is not very informative. In this case there would be a good reason to use cross-section data, assuming that a post-reform survey is available. This is the sort of point that the literature review should highlight.

You will be able to write such an analytical literature review only if you have thought carefully about the differences and similarities of the different papers. If you just string summaries together, your literature review will be useless and you would then show that you are aware of the literature, but not that you understand which parts of the literature you can build on.

You should also indicate clearly what you think your own contribution is going to be. If there are already ten studies on the determinants of private investment in country X then why do we need your study? Do not be intimidated by this question.

There are many possible answers. For example, previous studies may have been methodologically flawed, or you have a newer or better data source, or the policy environment has changed since the earlier studies. But the burden of proof is on you and you must therefore convince the reader that what you propose is not "more of the same" but something that differs from the literature in interesting and important ways.

On this score many proposals fail, thus researchers who are new to the AERC network often appear rather surprised when fellow researchers or resource persons raise critical questions about the value added of their proposal. Sometimes authors are not even aware that something very similar has already been done, often with AERC support! At a minimum you should look at completed research reports and at ongoing work to ensure that you know exactly what AERC has done in your area of study

Beyond that you should make sure that the proposed work indeed offers value added and that you explain this in a convincing way. This is one of the most difficult tasks when writing a research proposal and you should take it very seriously. A good way to proceed is to imagine yourself in the position of the reader, that is to say if you were to read this proposal, would you then find this a convincing account of value added? If not, then you should go back to the drawing board. This section might take 4-6 pages.

This is a very short section - usually only a single paragraph in which you summarize the preceding two sections, indicating what questions will be answered and how policies might change as a result of these answers. Check whether the text is self-contained and ask yourself if it would make sense to a reader who just flips thorough your proposal and who has not read the introduction and research issue sections.

In this section you describe your proposal in detail. Unfortunately, in many proposals this section is normally too brief. A vague methodology section is the prime reason why proposals get rejected. When drafting this section you should keep in mind that this is the most important part of your proposal because you will be judged to a large extent on the basis of what you write here.

From this section the readers should learn exactly what you intend to do and they should be able to see whether the proposed work will indeed answer the research questions. It is important to keep this point in mind as more often than not a proposal raises quite grandiose research questions whereas the proposed methodology could be suitable only for a much narrower set of questions. So check for consistency and if you have done all the work you describe in this section, you will then have attained the objectives set out in the previous section. If not, you should ensure consistency, by amending the objectives or adjusting the methodology, or both.

Often the proposed work will involve econometrics. In this case you should begin by presenting your model, indicating its position in the literature, discussing the various assumptions and showing how the estimating equation is derived from the model. (Make sure at this stage that you define all the symbols.) This means that you need to think carefully about specification issues and you have to be quite precise at this stage.

Hand waving (statements like "the investment decision will be related in a profit to firm characteristics such as firm size..") are not acceptable, thus you have to show the specification, discuss the variables to be included and spell out in detail how you plan to proceed.

You should then discuss your estimation strategy, indicating how you intend to deal with various econometric concerns such as endogeneity or measurement error and justifying your chosen method (e.g., why do you want to use a profit?). Finally, you should indicate how you will test your hypotheses ("under this hypothesis the sum of these three coefficients has to be positive").

For non-econometric work basically the same guidelines apply. Indicate clearly what you are going to do, how it is linked to theory and how your methodology will lead to answers to the research questions. If the last step is omitted, it would be known what you intend to do, but how you would use the results to answer the original questions would not be apparent. The methodology section will cover at least five pages.

Data Sources
Data source is not listed separately on the AERC website, but it is a good idea to discuss your data separately.

If you are going to do a survey, you should include a draft questionnaire. This is an important requirement. Survey-based research obviously depends very much on the quality of the survey instrument and your proposal will be judged in part by people asking whether the survey will generate data suitable for testing your hypotheses.

It is, therefore, not sufficient to include some vague sentence like "the survey will collect information on household composition, the crops grown and the mechanisms used by households to cope with risk". There really is no substitute for a draft questionnaire. You will find that drafting it is a very useful experience as it forces you to think very carefully about what information you need.

A good test is to ask yourself questions like, suppose I have collected all these data, then how will I use them? You may find that some questions are superfluous and, conversely, that you need additional questions to be able to construct the variables you intend to use in the analysis.

In addition you should discuss the sample (sample size, sample frame, stratification, etc.) and the organization of the survey (enumerators, data entry, logistics).

If you use existing data then you should discuss their availability carefully. For example, time series econometrics may quickly run into degrees of freedom constraints. You, therefore, need to establish that data series of sufficient length exist. You should be very specific here. Proposals with vague statements to the effect that (unspecified) secondary data will be used and that these are available at the Bureau of Statistics or at a World Bank website are not acceptable. You should be precise in your description of the data and establish whether they are indeed available. You should also reflect on their quality by, for example, posing questions like, are these data to be trusted?

Results and Dissemination
This could be a single section. Here you should indicate how you want to disseminate the results, for example, are you planning to write a journal article? Will you present the results to policy makers? If yes, in what form? The section should also indicate what impact you expect the research results to have. Avoid grandiose claims ("the study .. will be of immense benefit to the .. authorities as well as their staff") and try to be specific.

These should include all the publications you refer to in the text and only those. If there was no need to discuss a paper then there is clearly no need to list it in the bibliography. Remember that the reviewers are not normally impressed by long bibliographies. Do spend some time reviewing the references to ensure that they are complete and accurate - names of all the authors, correct date, full and accurate title, complete publishing information (city of publication, publishing company for books, full journal title, volume and number and pages for journal articles).

This should list the amounts required for major line items, such as travel, research assistance, photocopying or the honorarium of the principal researcher. There is no need to make this very detailed and usually around ten line items will suffice.

You should include explanatory notes justifying major items. For example, if you have included a large amount for travel you should explain how it was calculated and why the travel is necessary. Do not forget that the cost of literature acquisition such as a subscription to the Journal of African Economies is a legitimate budget item.

Work Program
Here you should indicate when the various components of the project (e.g., literature review, training of enumerators, pilot survey, survey, data cleaning and preliminary analysis, and econometric analysis) would be completed. This should make clear how far you expect to be after six months (i.e., at the work in progress stage if your proposal is approved) and when the project will be completed.


Capital Flight from Africa: Causes, effects and Policy Issues

This edited collection provides the most comprehensive analysis of capital flight from Africa, covering economic and institutional aspects, as..


Institutions and Service Delivery in Africa

Collected in this book are framework papers prepared for the collaborative research project on Institutions and Service  Delivery in Africa..


The Macroeconomics of Africa’s Recent Growth

This volume is drawn from final research papers developed under the auspices and support of the Thematic Research Programme of the African ..