Power Dynamics Shape Whose and What Knowledge Counts
Power dynamics shape whose and what knowledge counts and which results matter in development policy and practice. The Big Push Forward is organising a conference in April 2013 for those concerned with transformative development and the political challenges of assessing what works. Our aim is making participants more conscious of how power plays out in evaluation processes; strengthen their capacity to deal with it; and gain the courage and confidence to navigate political space, maintaining or increasing options and putting pressure on the system to shift demands.
Knowing what works for whom, how, when, why and in which contexts is crucial for all working in development, be it through the older institutions of international aid or the newer forms of partnership, South-South collaboration, and business-oriented efforts. Many organisations are testing and using more systematic and robust approaches to assess performance and to learn to be more effective. Discussions and protocols focus on ‘hard’ attributable evidence, rigorous data, conclusive proof, value for money, and evidence-based decision-making. These tantalising terms are often accompanied by statements 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 worldviews. Certain ways of knowing about change have become more legitimate than others, reducing the space for multiple options thus raising concerns about how ‘fair’ assessment processes can be.
This trend is particularly problematic given that much of development aiming for sustained change has transformational dimensions – yet are measured through ways well suited for more transactional aid. Forcing narrow understandings of what constitutes proper evidence – and the correct ways to obtain this – closes the doors on relevant options to understand and assess processes of societal change. We need better ways of ‘measuring’ transformation –to assess in ways that are respectful, fair and useful about the changes being experienced and can enable the design of programmes that support positive social change.
But to do so requires drawing attention to the politics of evidence: how power is associated with the kinds of questions being asked and certain ways of knowing that are shaping evaluation approaches; and how organisational requirements and procedures may result in over-bearing, even oppressive management that puts pressure on grantees to use tools and methods inappropriate to what they are trying to achieve and that prevent learning and adaptation.
Aims and Outputs
Given the current focus on results, this conference will examine how the politics of evidence is shaping and determining the agenda, and bringing with it consequences – positive and damaging – for those engaged in transformational development. Focusing on ‘the politics of evidence’ allows conference participants to openly discuss how political processes (party politics as well as personal power struggles) influence the results agenda. From this, concrete ideas can be shared that maintain and expand the space for fair assessment methods appropriate to development’s transformative and emancipatory goals.
The overall intention of this conference, including the process leading up to it, is to generate and share useful, creative and respectful ways to work with evidence that supports transformational development.
The conference will generate four outputs:
- Conceptual clarity about ‘the politics of evidence’ and ‘political space’ within the debates and practices around development results
- Mapping of the consequences for all levels (from beneficiaries to senior management) of narrow focus on evidence and results;
- Tried and tested strategies for organisations and individuals to deal with the concepts and demands related to everyday politics surrounding results-oriented measurement;
- Conceptual clarity around narrow discourse and protocols from evidence in relation to key debates, such as value for money, including an analysis of the political processes that define room for appropriate options.
More details about the conference structure are provided on our new conference page. We will soon be providing suggestions about how to become involved in the preparatory process. Meanwhile we are keen to hear if you are interested in being involved in the conference.