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‘Politics of Evidence’ Conference: For who, why and what?

2012 May 15

Who determines what counts as sufficient or accurate evidence? What values are allowed to shape the choices that are made? What are the implications for everyday development work? The political push and pull around ‘evidence’ will be debated in our conference in April 2013 in Brighton, UK. As part of our conference planning, clarity around participation and purpose is paramount. Here are our thoughts so far.

Who is it for?

This conference provides an opportunity to sharing and strategise for people working on transformational development, be it on the ground, in head offices, in consultancies or think tanks. You, like us, are trying to reconcile your understanding of messy, unpredictable and risky pathways of societal transformation with bureaucracy driven protocols. And have struggled to make sense of the shifting sands of the results agenda – seeing the wisdom in some aspects while actively questioning its less useful, sometimes damaging, manifestations and consequences.

The conference aims to make the most of the experiences and ideas of more seasoned practitioners and thinkers.  It is not a training workshop and, therefore, is not intended for those who are new to these debates or issues. However, the outputs of the conference will be documented to have wide practical value for all those working on and supporting transformational development. 

What are the outputs?

Conference outputs will range from the visible to the personal. Some outputs will be very tangible such as analytical frameworks to understand organisational discourses around ‘results’ – and case studies that illustrate how the results agenda works in practice in diverse organisations. What’s behind a particular protocol or a reporting format in terms of how results are understood? What alternative processes might be adopted in working within organisational systems or stretching them? The conference will not be a marketplace to exchange specific evaluation methods or approaches. Rather we will focus on sharing experiences, strategies and tactics that expand the institutional spaces for those approaches that give useful and accurate insight into development as transformation.

Being engaged in an interactive conference process will give participants greater capacity to analyse power dynamics in their contexts, to understand the politics of evidence, identify manoeuvring space, and generate appropriate options. Seeing examples of how others have undertaken this will give people courage and confidence to start or continue to measure and value transformation in ways that are respectful, fair and useful. Participants will leave with specific questions answered and information shared, as well as potential strategies and tactics to try make possible evaluative practice that fitting for transformative development.

Why this is important

It’s the transformation that matters; the evidence emerging from evaluation must serve rather than constrain it. Tapping into the collective experience gives us a stronger basis for creative ways forward.

So if these are our ideas, what do you want the conference to do for you? Please let us know!

4 Responses
  1. adinda van hemelrijck permalink
    May 21, 2012

    Just a few thoughts and ideas that might be helpful:
    1. If the ostensible goals of international aid are indeed sustainable poverty reduction, greater equity and inclusion of the powerless and the poor (Fowler 2007), I would suggest creating a shared notion of “transformation” based on the current understandings of poverty and injustice, and the kind of development efforts needed to fight its root causes rather than merely its symptoms. So transformation would be all that is required –conditions, mechanisms, policies, institutions, practices, technologies, competencies, networks…—to effectively fight these root causes.
    2. It is widely recognized in the literature today that poverty is pretty complex and systemic in nature, caused by multilevel and multidimensional exclusion and marginalization. Yet as Rosalind points out the kind of transformational and systemic changes needed to fight poverty and bring about sustainable development are viewed in many different ways. At least one could argue that rapid responses and technological innovations may temporarily bring relief or solve certain problems, but without systemic considerations they will likely be unsustainable and create new problems. Yet to me it appears as if aid is increasingly focused on promoting such quick and easily measurable solutions, what Edwards calls “thin solutions” for “thick problems” (Edwards 2011). Politics increasingly demand scientifically rigorous evidence that can be used merely for making funding decisions and therefore is expected to prove greater isolated impacts unmistakably attributable to specific investments –instead of promoting more critical learning about plausible contributions to collective impacts needed for generating the desired systemic changes or “transformation”.
    3. It all depends, then, of course, on how one views or believes “systemic/transformational change” can/could possible take place –e.g. through a more “authoritative” aid machinery that is defining and measuring performance and impact from a rather technocratic viewpoint from above; or through a more market-oriented approach that believes that the greater total impact will be attained when development partners are competing for resources and showing competitive results; or through a more collaborative approach that attempts to generate greater responsibility for aid and its impacts on the poor’s lives among the responsible development actors and practitioners from the bottom-up.
    4. We could use these three models to broadly scan and classify measurement approaches and institutional arrangements that fit these three models (e.g. invite participants to help with this based on their experiences). Next a more in-depth analysis of power relationships and dependencies created through these different models could be made, looking at how these arguably affect knowledge, behaviors and competencies among the different development actors in the aid system (e.g. follow-the-rules, I’m in–you’re out, or more collective responsible behavior), and finally how these could contribute or affect the kind of transformation that is supposedly needed if development is to be fair, equitable, respectful of people’s rights to act and engage as responsible citizens, and sustainable. Based on this some possible lines for action could be drawn that people can use for reflection within their organizations and wit partners and donors.


    Edwards, Michael
    2011 Thick problems and thin solutions: How NGOs can bridge the gap. Think Piece, 1. FUTURE CALLING – THINK PIECE. The Hague: HIVOS.

    Fowler, Alan
    2007 Civic Driven Change and International Development: Exploring a Complexity Perspective. Contextuals(7). Contextuals: 61.

    • Irene Guijt permalink*
      May 21, 2012

      Hi Adinda
      Thanks for the great ideas for the conference focus. As organizers, we had already agreed to make the next blog on the notion of ‘transformational development’ so your thoughts serve as a useful entry point for that. Stay tuned!


  2. Peter Westoby permalink
    May 15, 2012

    Dear Irene

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the posts that will trigger conversations around this conference. I like the clarity of your ideas…. My only comment at this point is that, as dialogue opens up, what is meant by transformational development (one of the crucial cornerstones of the conversation/conference) might need to be clarified for people. People might be hearing different things. What would you suggest as an agreed starting point – e.g. reading – to build some agreement on this?

    Peter (The University of Queensland).

    • Rosalind Eyben permalink*
      May 16, 2012

      Hi Peter,
      Thanks so much for this suggestion. Funnily enough, the same thought occurred to me yesterday when I was participating in a conference about the future of the United Nations and one of the speakers referred to ‘transformative and systemic change’ and in the context of the rest of his presentation, it was evident to me that he and I would probably have rather different ideas about what that meant. So, yes, we need to have a collective conversation about this. My understanding of transformational development is about greater social justice and shifts in inequitable power relations.

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