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Results and Culture: How our Traditions Frame the Agenda

2013 April 18

In my experience, try the results agenda is not only emotional in the sense of controversial, but also confusing to many people, NGO staff I work with in Africa, Asia and Germany have difficulties with the concept of results, and much goes wrong. Arguably a lot of the trouble stems from a strong utilitarian influence on the results agenda that does not fit well with other cultural traditions involved in development aid.

Utilitarianism is a philosophical tradition that started in Britain in the 18th century. It deals with the question of how to act morally, and what government action is morally best. Put simply, in a utilitarian view, human behaviour is the more moral, the more it creates happiness. In the words of Bentham, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. The utilitarian idea has been very influential in Britain, and more widely in the Anglo-Saxon world. The push for effectiveness builds on this tradition. “Happiness” is now made to be understood as “results”. Governments are “effective” (read: moral) if they produce lots of “results” (read: happiness). To make effectiveness measurable, results should be pre-defined. I am not sure if the architects of the results agenda are aware of their utilitarian background, but we are all heavily influenced by our traditions, and the forerunners of the results agenda (New Public Management, micro-economics and the logical framework concept) are dominated by North American thinking building on utilitarianism. People from other traditions just do not understand the underlying assumptions and are confused. Being German myself, I have observed that German development agencies found it rather difficult to introduce results frameworks. They experienced a lot of resistance from staff, and people were confused for a long time. They disliked the added bureaucracy that comes with the current results concepts. But, I believe, underlying is that the Anglo-Saxon results concept does not fit into German culture.

Different Paradigms

Many Germans, particularly in the social and cultural sciences, are brought up in very different philosophical traditions than Anglo-Saxons. Two philosophies of German origin are particularly relevant to the effectiveness debate.

1. Dialectics as developed by Hegel. The idea is that history develops in leaps and bounces because it is based on contradictions. There are always opposing forces, developments, strands in society, and over time they come to a resolution on a higher level. Nothing is predictable. There are no linear pathways in history – or, in today’s terminology, in social and political development. Power matters, and so do hidden potentials that come into force at crucial moments of development.

Anyone thinking in these terms will find it difficult to fill in a logical framework in a meaningful way. The form gives no space for the surprise that we expect. So meeting the result agenda requirements becomes a tedious or cynical exercise. The results approach intuitively feels wrong.

2. Hermeneutics. Wilhelm Dilthey introduced the idea that there are two traditions of science: the natural sciences (like physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) and the human or cultural sciences (German: Geisteswissenschaften, like history, philosophy, arts, etc.). The core of natural sciences is that they look at their object from the outside (“objectively”) and “explain” what happens. In cultural sciences, we are part of the subject that we look at. There is no “objectivity”, no natural laws. All understanding depends on us, and on context. Subjectivity is a necessary source of insight, and a limitation at the same time. Hermeneutics in cultural sciences is about understanding the meaning, and the hidden meaning, of phenomena. For someone brought up in the hermeneutic tradition, the current results agenda tries to capture development in the field of culture with an approach appropriate to natural sciences. What we identify with the results agenda (linear causal models, deified indicators and a reduction of social change to what can easily be quantified) just do not fit with the understanding of social change that many people have developed during their academic training in Germany. Dialectics and hermeneutics all play out in the fact that out of the four purposes of impact assessment that German NGOs define (see “Quality before Proof”), learning from experience comes first and empowerment of target groups comes before accountability. They also experience that it is difficult to implement such a concept under the current results framework.

Traditions and Results

I am not trying to juxtapose German and Anglo-Saxon philosophy. There is more to both of them. Anywhere, our traditions influence how we interpret the results agenda, and often in a way that defeats the agenda’s purpose.

  • Someone who has been brought up in a tradition of strictly following authority will interpret the results framework as an instrument of control
    – no wonder people cook up figures.
  • If I grew up in a society where social relations matter most because they give security and meaning, I will have difficulties to focus on material results in my plans
    – no wonder people often focus on immediate needs of those they work with.
  • In a cultural tradition that believes in circular processes, linear explanations have little meaning for the development efforts
    – no wonder people are not guided by the plans sent to donors but use them just for reporting, if at all.
  • Similarly, if I believe that everything is connected, I will find it challenging to focus on just a few results
    – no wonder that systemic thinking is so much more easily accepted by many African consultants than by Northern consultants.
  • In societies where people have learned that there is one way to do things, and tend to follow rules, they will focus on what is written
    – no wonder many people mistake indicators (that are meant to show progress for a larger goal) for objectives (that are to be achieved exactly).

If we want to enhance a positive impact of development interventions, that is: if we want to increase the impact of development efforts, we need to overcome the cultural dominance of one tradition and find culturally appropriate forms of focus on change. People from different traditions need to reflect on their beliefs and bring their views into the discussion. That has been true for a long time. The results agenda has shown that we still have a long way to go.

4 Responses
  1. Rosalind Eyben permalink
    April 20, 2013

    A good question from Benedict about whether there is something inherent in the tool that makes it prone to misuse and abuse. But also to be taken into account is the changed politico-managerial environment in which such planning and performance measurement tools have become mandatory requirements.

    Like Richard I used to be a fan of log frames and was one of its early advocates in DFID in the late 1980s. I found it useful in encouraging colleagues to ask themselves why they wanted to undertake certain activities. A log frame, I argued, requires you to state a purpose – for example, increased incomes of landless families – and then work out what you could do to achieve that purpose. British projects at the time did the opposite: an available technology or resource was identified and then a half-hearted effort was made to justify its use by trying to show how it would improve the world. I also appreciated the Log Frame’s assumptions column, which in the early days has been used to identify the dynamic social and political environment of aid projects, thus introducing uncertainty and requiring iterative planning. For example, did other routes to improving landless people’s incomes become apparent during project implementation? Has an unforeseen event occurred which requires a quite different kind of response?

    Today, tools like log-frames serve as props in support of an almost pathological desire to be in control (or to be seen as if the donor were in control) in complex and unpredictable circumstances. Consequently, they function as instruments of power that demand obedience rather than independent and above all, critical thought.

  2. Benedict Wauters permalink
    April 19, 2013

    I would like to draw attention to a chapter in a book on Results Based Management I just completed. This draws out the reasons why alternative approaches have been developed (or revived) to logframes.

    It also list all the arguments “pro” that you list but then also list the very real “cons”. A key question is whether if the reasons for logframe not function is improper use, and we have known this for decades, but still people (ab/mis)use them, then surely, we must ask whether there is anything in the tool that makes it so prone to (ab/mi)use. You can find it on . Look at p 132 -190.

  3. Richard Holloway permalink
    April 19, 2013

    I want to speak up for log frames while realising that this is a distinctly unpopular position to take amongst the readers of this blog. It seems to me that many of those who oppose log frames are not using them as they were intended – and Bernard Causemann comment towards the end of his piece – encouages me in this view. He says “no wonder many people mistake indicators (that are meant to show progress for a larger goal) for objectives (that are to be achieved exactly)”.Duh! The problem is surely that people use log frames in a much more draconian way than is useful.

    In my experience Log frames are best constructed as part of the process called GOPP (Goal Oriented Project Planning) which should actually be OOPP (Objectives Oriented project Planning) since Goals are only one of four levels of Objectives – and this is a process that leads from Stakeholder Identification and participation in the process of designing the Logframe , through problem identification, problem trees, objectives trees, choice of alternative strategies, brain storming on activities, brain storming on assumptions, and then creating indicators and means of verification – the whole to be facilitated by someone familiar with the practice

    It seems to me that Logrames are usually constructed by aid administrators who are usually not stakeholders in the field of work that the Logframe describes, and who delight in the over precise and pedantic structures that so many readers of these blogs understandably rail against.

    The usual practice of log frame creation and use ignores two important parts of the log frame system – the attention to the “Assumptions” column, which allow you to consider what others might be doing that impinges on the work that you want to do, and the importance of reviewing the log frame every six months to see whether the world has changed, and your planning needs to change as well.

    A last aspect of using log frames is that it is a guideline which illustrates your best guess at what you need to do in order to reach a result that you desire. If you find that because of other factors (which should have been thought about in the assumptions column) this is not the situation, then you think about it – you do not twist or obscure reality to fit the log frame. But this of course requires those who are holding you accountable for results to have the same generous approach to log framing as yourself – and this seems to be rare.

    Anyone else like to defend log frames ?

    Richard Holloway

    • Bernward Causemann permalink
      April 22, 2013

      Interesting, that the discussion of this blog should be around the defence of tools. Shouldn’t we debate in what context what tool is most appropriate? I agree that logframes can be used in a meaningful way, and so can all the other artefacts of the results approach. But often there are better alternatives. The logframe can be particularly good for reporting, but often makes a very poor description of the theory of change. A generic theory of change – no prescribed format – is often much more useful those implementing. I have made good experiences with Causal Diagrams. They help people to understand what they are doing, but not in every context. No wonder GIZ (formerly GTZ, the inventors of GOOP) does not require the logframe anymore. The German Ministry for Development still requires them from GIZ (it is said that the head of GIZ was called in by the Minister to make that clear), but other German Ministries explicitly do not want logframes because they need more down-to-earth plans. We need to give implementing organisations more of a choice what tools they want to use, and create an empowering environment in which they can test and select the most suitable tools. These would be more likely to reflect the diversity of traditions and cultures. That, in my experience, increases the impact of development efforts.

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