Results and Culture: How our Traditions Frame the Agenda
In my experience, 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.
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.