Hard evidence, rigorous data, conclusive proof, value for money and evidence-based decision-making. Tantalising terms that promise clarity once and for all about what works and what should be funded in international development. Yet behind these terms lie a world of definitional tussles, values, priorities and world views. And the space for multiple options appears to be decreasing. Certain kinds of ways of knowing impact are considered more legitimate than others for those who hold the purse strings.
Knowing what works for whom in which contexts is crucial for all working in international aid. And this need has not gone unnoticed by those spending taxpayers’ and supporters’ money. Many are developing and using more systematic and robust approaches to assessing performance and effectiveness in support of a fairer world.
The Big Push Forward is a network of practitioners identifying and sharing strategies for encouraging funders to adopt additional, useful approaches to impact assessment and reporting of international aid programmes and projects.
But political space is needed for approaches that match whatthese development organisations are trying to achieve. Extraordinary demands are being made by some bilateral agencies, governments and foundations in terms of reporting against quantifiable achievements – what can be counted – that bear little relation to how social transformation happens. These demands are having an effect on United Nations agencies, on development research institutes and on international NGOs, all of whom pass donor government demands down to the organisations they are partnering in developing countries. Some learn to play the game, going through the formal design and reporting protocols to get the money. Some struggle to continue to facilitate change as they understand it while pretending that they are doing what the donor expects. Compliance is accompanied by secret resistance. Other less adept at such games, get pushed aside and close down. Yet others are trying hard to look for those donors who have a more holistic understanding of how development happens and who accept that change is emergent.
Results matter but who is to decide what is a result and how to achieve it? The methods demanded to make organisations more accountable are counter-productive – making organisations ever less responsible for seriously engaging with learning about transformative social change and being accountable for their actions in that respect.
So what can be done?
In September 2010, the Institute of Development Studies in the UK hosted a ‘big push back’ meeting of some seventy development practitioners and researchers to take the first steps in strategizing collectively in support of these practices . The meeting resonated with the concerns of many. Within weeks, 180 persons were on a mailing list from 15 countries including staff inside government and multilateral agencies as well as from many international NGOs, development consultants and researchers. Blogs and short articles appeared (Initially discussed as ‘The Big Pushback’ against a narrowing of what is valued and how value is measured, we are now launching The Big Push Forward. Those involved seek constructive ways to advance conceptually and methodologically for assessing the impact of development aid in support of a fairer world, beyond the narrow bureaucratically protocols that assume guaranteed predictable outcomes.
The Big Push Forward will converge around seven areas of action research prioritised in the September 2010 meeting. Organisations and individuals keen to pursue one or the other of these themes can count on or nominate someone to facilitate the work on that theme. Cathy Shutt has already volunteered to facilitate the Value for Money theme and you can read her first blog.
Making BPF work for you
Key questions for action research in organisations will be identified interactively. Each theme will rely on participating organisations and individuals to determine the pace, focus and structure of discussions. Insights will be shared with the wider BPF mailing list. Funding needs to emerge per theme, with overarching funding being sought for the central convening and documentation/dissemination roles played by us.
If you or your organisation is keen to explore and find answers to one of the themes listed below, please contact either Rosalind or Irene with your ideas. As convenors we will link people and organisations with similar interests and support the groups to make the action research a reality.
For more on how we plan to know whether these efforts are worthwhile, please link to ‘About the Big Push Forward’.