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‘If they write a cheque today, they want a result tomorrow’: Big Push Forward in New York 16 October 2012

2012 October 18

New York City is the fastest place in the world. Everyone pounds the Manhattan pavements at break neck speed. Coffee shops are designed for quick caffeine fixes, view not for reflection and conversation.  That, patient on a working visit to New York, I managed to find space for such reflection and conversation was due to the hospitality of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Affairs.  At a three hour event brilliantly chaired by Joanne Sandler (UNIFEM’s former deputy Executive Director) thirty people from the international development sector met in a seminar room at the City University’s Graduate Centre. Staff from the UN, INGOs, foundations, academia and consulting organisations met to take stock of how the results agenda is helping or hindering transformative development. Here are some of the highlights of the discussion.

Local organisations have internalised the results agenda

The results agenda has helped organisations focus on why, what and how they want to support development.  At the same time international donors are demanding the results be instant – ‘if they write a cheque today, they want a result tomorrow’ said one participant.  Demands for fast and tangible results discourage locally embedded processes of social change. The bureaucratic imperative has reached down to the grassroots and local organisations have internalised the results agenda.  An INGO participant recounted how a conversation they managed to have with their donors allowed the INGO to push back on the results agenda and to support its local partners without requiring log frames or other quantifiable output-oriented mandatory procedures.  Yet, when she visited partners to invite stories of change, they provided her with lists of quantified results – what they had learnt international organisations expected from them.

Conversations about alternatives are possible but practice is stuck in the past

Unless we are careful power will work invisibly to make us concur with what we know are inappropriate methods for designing and assessing programmes with multiple pathways of change. Yet, as in the story above, sensible conversations with donors are sometimes possible are worth trying.   Furthermore, evaluators are becoming more open and aware of alternatives, enabling organisations to learn about how to support social change in complex and dynamic contexts.  The problem is that much bureaucratic practice has not yet shifted and without challenge may never shift.  The instruments of the results agenda – RCTs, systematic reviews, Logical Frameworks, Business Plans etc – are products of a certain world view that ignores power and relationships.


Demands for hard, often meaningless numbers are justified on the need for accountability. So let’s re-frame accountability, suggested a participant, to be about demonstrating an organisation’s continuous learning and adaptation while recognising that change is often an effect of collaboration between many partners and that it is rare to be able to attribute results to just one organisation. Another example of reframing that I mentioned is the work of Cathy Shutt and others in re-framing Value for Money.  A participant emphasised that such re-framing efforts are part of a bigger picture of contested understandings of  ‘development’.  It was suggested rights-based approaches are under threat as we return to instrumentalist, non-transformative agendas of the 1980’s.  Ideology and world views underpin the ‘politics of evidence’ and participants welcomed next year’s Big Push Forward conference where we will identify and share strategies to navigate and influence political space in support of transformative development.

Taking the BPF forward in the USA

The Big Push Forward is an initiative, not a programme. We throw a pebble in the pond and the ripples take on their own life.  Some of the participants at yesterday’s event are considering organising follow up events in Boston, Washington – and NYC itself.  Watch this space.


3 Responses
  1. Rosalind Eyben permalink
    November 27, 2012

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Sam. I agree with you that ‘at the heart of the debate of what counts as evidence, is a contest of different development philosophies, and sometimes, complex political economy.’

    You touch on the problem of accountability and the need for organisations to justify what they have done with money received. I agree, of course they must! Looking at what has been achieved through collaboration, as you suggest, is a good way forward, as is re-framing accountability as demonstrating adaptive learning through the collaborative process. But useful collaboration means recognising and addressing the possibility of unequal power relations among those involved and being prepared to reccognise diverse views of what is considered to be a ‘success’.

  2. Sam permalink
    November 26, 2012

    I’ve been following your website for a while now and am very interested in your discussion of the results agenda and the debate on the value of money. I really appreciate the idea that not every development project can be incorporated into the traditional evaluation framework where everything can be quantified and proven in a very timely manner to the funders and donors. It’s especially true if the development project in question is a long-term endeavor with a lot of uncertainty, or one that deals with changes in social structure, or something that simply can’t be accomplished without a lot of experiments and adaptations, in which a seeming lack of return to investment is almost inevitable.

    That said, I think it’s import to design alternative evaluation tools and confront bureaucratic predicament simultaneously. It’s only understandable that funders and donors have to see some evidence that their investment has made a difference. Civil societies need the evaluation mechanism for accountability reasons, too. If we care about learning by doing and making incremental improvement in the local context, then the evidence of change could be more systematic and descriptive analysis of the status quo. If we failed in a project to deliver the expected result, maybe we could at least gain a better understanding of what doesn’t work and hopefully why it doesn’t. If we can’t attribute the result of a project to an individual organization, a performance appraisal based on all participating organizations as a team is perhaps a reasonable option. Of course, these alternatives are easier said than done, but unless we work on them at the same time that we appeal to a departure from the instrumentalist approach to development, it’s going to be hard to present a convincing case to solicit continuous support from multiple stakeholders.

    At the heart of the debate of what counts as evidence, is a contest of different development philosophies, and sometimes, complex political economy. Things such economic growth and higher employment rate are much sought after in development work not only because they are technically easier to measure than some transformational changes, but also because they are not as subject to manipulation or narrow-mindedness. Understanding the local context and promoting sufficient empowerment in the bottom-up approach is very recommendable in this sense, as the people we are trying to help with have more legitimacy to define the goals.

  3. October 24, 2012

    I’m sorry to have not been able to attend the convening but am so happy that this conversation is happening in the US. This focus on instantaneous “proof” of impact has been the status quo in the US at least since started working in the non-profit sector 12 or so years ago. (As an example, I remember being asked by the Ford Foundation to quantify –in dollars — the social capital being created by the relationship building work my organization was doing). The conversations I hear in aid/development circles about appropriate methods for assessing complex change, of a focus on learning/reflection over judging and compliance are happening as well with social change/movement building/community organizing groups in the US (where it is still more a cry for help!), but there has been little connection between these international and US-based conversations. I hope this initiative can help catalyze/facilitate exchange and support amongst these communities. I look forward to following and supporting the much needed work of this initiative.

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