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The ‘Politics of Evidence’ Conference Programme

*Conference Report Coming Soon*

Programme ‘The Politics of Evidence’ Conference

23-24 April, 2013

Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK

Given that ‘the politics of evidence’ has not been scrutinised systematically in much depth, the conference seeks to provide that platform. Central in all discussions will be the implications for transformational development.  The conference is structured around four questions for which robust insights will be generated by working through participants’ cases. Hence, the core input mainly around participants’ experiences of the pros and cons of dealing with the politics of evidence and the results agenda. Participants have been accepted based on the experiences that they would bring to discussions. The conference form will be framed by several plenary presentations that will lead into focused group discussions, during which participants’ cases will get ample space for discussion.

Focusing Questions  for the Big Push Forward Conference

  1.  What do we mean by ‘the politics of  evidence’ – factors, actors, artefacts? And why is it important?
  2.  What are the effects on transformative intentions and impacts of potentially useful approaches on evidence of and for change, such  as Theory of Change or Value for Money?
  3.  Under what conditions do these practices retain their utility rather than undermine transformational development efforts? What factors and relationships drive the less useful practices and protocols?
  4.  How are people engaging with problematic practices and protocols? What are they accepting and doing, what are they resisting and how? What alternatives have they found to create spaces for approaches more aligned with transformational development?

Collectively, participants will generate:

  1. Conceptual clarity about ‘the politics of evidence’ and the ‘political space’ for debates and practices around development results
  2. Mapping of the consequences for all levels (from people and communities that development agencies seek to benefit to senior managers and policy makers) of current focus on evidence and results
  3. Tried and tested strategies and new ideas for organisations and individuals to deal with the concepts and demands related to everyday politics surrounding results-oriented measurement
  4. Generate ideas for collaborative efforts to explore revised and alternative approaches to addressing the drivers as well as the consequences of the current ‘politics of evidence’.

Day 1. Framing and Connecting Experiences


Time Session Content
08.30 Registration
09.00 Opening Welcome   by Lawrence Haddad, IDS Director; Convenors present origins and aims of the  event; programme and participants.
09.30 Different   perspectives on ‘the politics of evidence’ Plenary   panel led by Duncan Green with Maliha Khan (Oxfam USA); Iqbal Dhaliwal (J-Pal) and Ola Abu Alghaib (Stars of Hope, Palestine)
10.45 Break
11.15 ‘Nothing as practical   as a good theory’ –   framing lecture Plenary   presentation by Rosalind Eyben: Origins of ‘the evidence discourse’,   historical perspectives, theoretical ideas, relevance for transformational   development
12.15 Explain   afternoon session
12.45 Lunch
14.00 Mapping the ‘politics   of evidence’ and its effects Breakout   sessions in which participants share their cases, focusing on questions 1 and 2: what are ‘the politics   of evidence’ in participants’ cases and what are the effects on the transformative   development we are seeking?
15.30 Break
16.00 Plenary pooling of   findings from cases Core   artefacts and main effects (positive and negative) – areas of convergence and   difference.
17.30 Close
18.00 Book   Launch & Drinks Book Launch with   Practical Action: Who Counts?: The Power of Participatory   Statistics (Jeremy   Holland).


Day 2. Everyday Practice and Creating Space for Choice


Time Session Content
09.00 Opening Programme   for the day, secret box feedback
09.15 Everyday practice –   voices from the field Plenary   presentation by Brendan Whitty: What does ‘the field’ report? Results of   crowd-sourcing survey.
10.15 Two Cases Two   short cases to introduce the group discussion focus
10.30 Break
11.00 Under what conditions   do protocols & practices retain their   utility rather than undermine transformational development efforts? Group   breakout session 2, with cases discussed in relation to question 3. Conducive conditions for a useful & hindering   practice.  Particularly good examples   and ideas will be highlighted.
12.45 Lunch
14.00 Dealing with the   consequences – tactics and strategies Groups   reconvene, focusing on question 4.   What works for whom and at what level, in relation to which protocols and   practices?
15.15 Break
15.45 Tactics and strategies   that (could) work Synthesising   plenary session – Live streamed
17.15 Conference   closes


18 Responses leave one →
  1. Ghulam Mustafa permalink
    March 29, 2013

    That is the need of the hour.

  2. Gillian Fletcher permalink
    February 14, 2013

    ‘The mechanics of knowledge’. What an interesting metaphor.

  3. February 13, 2013

    To refuse to listen to a viewpoint on an issue under discussion is an evidence of bias even where someone takes the position that “… the idea that evidence-based education is a form of colonialism grounded on some kind of authoritarianism of western canons”.If you dismiss it as being unworthy of discussing, you may likely missed out in enriching your understanding of systems outside your familiar terrains or some innovative way of looking at the issue from a different historical experience.

    • February 13, 2013

      Thank you for the moment of wisdom and for the slight tone of moral condemnation. To suggest that evidence has an alternative view point is not to understand its systemic function. I actually take expertise quite seriously and do not operate under the impression that science of philosophy are a matter of taste or opinion. Call me crazy… Questions of the manner and propriety of evidence and the framing of standards of measure and of metaexperimental questions aside.

  4. January 23, 2013

    Hello Rosalind,
    If I may: “We are critiquing ‘evidence’ as a discourse that frames what is thinkable and do-able in the political processes of development.”

    “Evidence” is not “a discourse”. Evidence is a device with a particular function in the mechanics of knowledge. The word ‘discourse’ seems to be a generic term for discursive-cultures that has been used in the aftermath of 20th century deconstructionism to mean everything and nothing according to political agendas. Part of the guilt is Derrida’s but mostly I think the man is not responsible for the misappropriation of the term. It is very similar to what is happening to ‘neuro’ nowadays. But I digress…

    Humans as cognitive beasts cannot escape operating on the bases of evidence. As a cognitive device, evidence does not stand alone, rather, evidence is always “evidence of’ something” and I take it that you are not disputing evidence but you are disputing the quality of the evidence that these “westerners” want to use. IN fact, I think that when you say: “Inequities in power and voice mean that only some approaches to knowledge are judged acceptable and are framed as ‘objective’”, you are making a couple of categorical mistakes, if I may say so: approaches to knowledge are not ‘objective or subjective’. The object of knowledge can be subject-independent (objective) or subject-dependent (subjective) And we say that when knowledge captures that subject-independent fact correctly, the knowledge is indeed correct or true and when it does not is false or its not knowledge.

    So I think that this discussion there is a confusion between evidence of “something” with that “something”. “Evidence of health’ is not health. One can misread the evidence and make the wrong inference from it. But undeniably, a fever, a soar throat, systematic sexual violence and collapsing infrastructure are “evidence” even if your question is” “evidence of what?” What you cannot escape, though, is it being “evidence of”.

    The reason why I think it is very important to keep this in mind is because once that you make claims about ‘evidence’ being discourse and patrimony of oppression, in other words, once you moralize ‘evidence’–politically or otherwise as the church did with empirical evidence–you back yourself into a corner. Sooner or later, you will come back to founders and patrons with some new and exotic piece of data that you will present as ‘evidence’. Humans cannot escape inferential thinking even when the thinking is entirely amiss.

    I think your issue ought to be framed in two parts: 1. Is there an objective measure of development? My unreserved answer is YES, THERE IS. (No-polio, no-malaria, no shooting girls, no clitoral cauterization, etc etc etc.)

    The second question is: 2. Can evidence be provided to show that polio is better than no polio? Well, my answer is, once again, YES.

    You say: “We, on the other hand, take a critical realist position to knowledge, and do not necessarily assume that we can know the world out there independently of the ways in which we understand it and act in it in our relations with others.” This is the abuse of the central point in Kant, Husserl, Heidegger and their children (should you care for the reference): Everything that is is mediated by interpretation. But NOT by a deliberative interpretation. These thinkers take it that the interpretative mechanism as so deeply rooted that they are not visible to you. So the point is that you cannot escape ‘the way you act and understand’. Indeed, you cannot escape the way you understand! In fact, you cannot escape the appeal to evidence not merely in policy but in the very act of thinking and understanding.

    Now, this does not mean–as I said above–that evidence cannot be misread and even abused but to suggest that evidence based aid is a bad idea because evidence can be misused or abused is tantamount to saying that we should end the practice of eating because they are those who binge on food. Eating can be done in many different ways. Some more desirable than others. Your question seems to be how do we define desirable and not weather we should continue the practice of eating that has brought so much misery to so many in so many countries.

    The question now becomes a question of the articulation of values and this is one in which I suspect that we will not be quite as ecumenical.
    Warm regards,

  5. Rosalind Eyben permalink*
    January 23, 2013

    Hi Kosmopolitica
    Of course literacy is better than illiteracy! We are not saying that evidence or knowledge is harmful, but are concerned about the power relations involving its generation and use in policy and practice with respect to understanding the social world. We are critiquing ‘evidence’ as a discourse that frames what is thinkable and do-able in the political processes of development. Inequities in power and voice mean that only some approaches to knowledge are judged acceptable and are framed as ‘objective’. We, on the other hand, take a critical realist position to knowledge, and do not necessarily assume that we can know the world out there independently of the ways in which we understand it and act in it in our relations with others.

  6. January 22, 2013

    The notion that evidence is proof shows how poorly trained in scientific discourse and method, people having this discussion in development happen to be. And then for anyone to take serious the idea that evidence-based education is a form of colonialism grounded on some kind of authoritarianism of western canons is hardly worth discussing. Literacy is better than illiteracy and no-polio is better than polio or is this something of which academics are not entirely sure?
    To wit, evidence operates–as in empirical sciences–with an hypothesis as its ground and an heuristic principle as its aim. The predictions is based on statistical regularity and NOT on proof. Proof is a term for mathematicians and logicians. The function of replication in empirical sciences is to asses the possibility of deviation, which makes for better predictions. The fact that evidence can lead to bad inferences–as you see in these conversations–does not mean that evidence can be set aside to play relativist games in science. To suggest that some cultures should be respected in their assertion that the moon is made of cheese seems both disingenuous and condescending.

  7. Gillian Fletcher permalink
    January 16, 2013

    For me, the single greatest artefact of interest is that of knowledge (and epistemology). Value for Money etc. are mere artifices of this.

    The form of knowledge that dominate in the rhetoric of development can best be described as phronesis, or knowledge in use/practical knowledge, which includes emotional, contextual, relational and factual knowledge… such knowledge requitres an epistemology in which uncertainty, creativity and productivity hold sway.

    The form of knowledge that dominates in development practice is what I would term episteme; technical, factual knowledge that basks in the aura of ‘truth’ (based on an epistemology of certainty). There is a problem, and we know the answer to it.

    (I must declare a great personal interest here: my PhD examined these issues within HIV prevention in Burma/Myanmar.)

  8. June 28, 2012

    The dominant approach to evaluation of aid investments relies on scientific methods founded on the principle of replication. Repeated experimentation and publication is the standard way of establish the validity of results, of proving the ‘truth’ about something. In his critical article entitled “The Truth Wears Off”, in the New Yorker of December 13, 2010, Jonah Lehrer expresses this principle thus: “Replicability is how the [scientific] community enforces itself.” And this principle underlies the Newtonian approach to evaluating and assessing aid effectiveness. But what if the results of replicability fade away? What if, even under the most controlled conditions possible, the same scientist cannot replicate his own findings? What Lehrer’s article explores is The Decline Effect – a decrease in the certainty and proof a ‘fact’ over time – which challenges a scientific method that is treated as sacrosanct and inviolable. I would encourage others to read and consider what this article contributes to ongoing debates about how best to evaluate aided change. For, as the article concludes: “Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean that it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it is true. When experiments are done, we still have to choose what we believe.” And this is where the politics of evidence creeps in!

    • November 12, 2012

      This looks like an interesting conference and I look forward to hearing about the discussions however I would warn against getting too influenced by “The Decline Effect”. Somebody quoted this article in response to a blog I wrote – I had not heard of this article myself but another responder posted the following (which, having now read the article, reflects my response as well):

      “I was very interested to read [this person's]comment on Dr Newman’s blog post and his reference to Jonah Lehrer’s widely contested article “The truth wears off”. I think we have to be very careful when talking about “belief in ideas” in the context of scientific CONSENSUS in medical research and other disciplines of the empirical sciences.

      In his article, Lehrer dissects a number of examples of pseudo-scientific practices that can at best be described as of marginal relevance to our understanding of scientific validity, and at worst as a gross and misguided generalisation based on a few anecdotes. In my view, pooh-poohing in such a manner the methodological rigour currently employed by medical researchers who provide the scientific evidence base that underlies the delivery of appropriate health care is unethical and demonstrates what the Germans would call “gefaehrliches Halbwissen” (dangerous semi-knowledge).

      It is interesting to note that Lehrer himself, in his blog “The Frontal Cortex” and in a follow-up article in the New Yorker (“More thoughts on the decline effect”), responds to a plethora of critical comments on his original article by declaring his full support for the modern scientific method.”

      Another discussion of “The Decline Effect” can be read here:
      The summary of that article are the following paragraphs:
      “My main complaint is that Lehrer makes science as a whole sound much “truthier” than it really is. His article was first pointed out to me by my friend Valerie, who believes in homeopathy and tarot cards. The article confirmed her suspicions that mainstream science and medicine may not be based on evidence any more solid than her supposedly (and IMHO, actually—sorry, Valerie) pseudoscientific beliefs. Lehrer’s broad-brush critique will no doubt also cheer global-warming deniers, creationists, postmodernists and other pesky challengers of scientific orthodoxy.

      Lehrer himself seems to have realized that he went too far. On his blog The Frontal Cortex, he dismisses the notion that “The Truth Wears Off” implicitly undermines the status of the theory of evolution by natural selection and global warming, which are “two of the most robust and widely tested theories of modern science.” He also denies that he is “some sort of Derridean postmodernist, trying to turn publication bias into an excuse to not believe in anything.”"

    • Kirsty permalink
      January 4, 2013

      Further to my reply here I have written a blog post about the decline effect which may be of interest:

  9. May 6, 2012

    This so timely but not just for the developmental sector, but particularly for education. We here in the states are undergoing, I believe, a massive shift away from local determination of schooling practices to one that is determined by corporate and federal forces. Alternatives to evaluating school and program effects are virtually nonexistent.

    This is the trend I am finding as one who is working in evaluation for a metropolitan school system having to meet state and federal mandates under “Race To The Top” reform. My last two blog posts address this:

    The latest was triggered by the Twitter feed from Irene Guijt.

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