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