What should projects accomplish… and for whom?
An unnamed international non-profit client contacted me to evaluate their resilience project mid-stream, to gauge prospects for sustainable handover. EUREKA, I thought! After email discussions with them I drafted an evaluation process that included learning from a variety of stakeholders, ranging from Ministries, local government and the national University who were to take over the programming work about what they thought would be most sustainable once the project ended and how in the next two years the project could best foster self-sustainability by country-nationals. I projected several weeks for in-depth participatory discussions with local youth groups and sentinel communities directly affected by the food security/ climate change onslaught and who benefited from resilience activities to learn what had worked, what didn’t and who would take what self-responsibility locally going forward.
Pleased with myself, I sent off a detailed proposal. The non-profit soon answered that I hadn’t fully understood my task. In their view the main task at hand was to determine what the country needed the non-profit to keep doing, so the donor could be convinced to extend their (U.S.-based) funding. The question at hand became how could I change my evaluation to feed them back this key information for the next proposal design?
Maybe it was me, maybe it was the autumn winds, maybe it was my inability to sufficiently subsume long-term sustainability questions under shorter-term non-profit financing interests that led me to drop this. Maybe the elephant in the living room that is often unspoken is the need for some non-profits to prioritize their own organizational sustainability to ‘do good’ via donor funding rather than working for community self-sustainability.
Maybe donor/funders should share this blame, needing to push funding out, proving success at any cost to get more funding and so the cycle goes on. As a Feedback Lab feature on a Effective Philanthropy report recently stated: “Only rarely do funders ask, ‘What do the people you are trying to help actually think about what you are doing?’ Participants in the CEP study say that funders rarely provide the resources to find the answer. Nor do funders seem to care whether or not grantees are changing behavior and programs in response to how the ultimate beneficiaries respond” .
And how much responsibility do communities themselves hold for not balking? Why are they so often ‘price-takers’ (in economic terms) rather than ‘price-makers’? As wise Judi Aubel asked in a recent evaluation list-serve discussion “When will communities rise up to demand that the “development” resources designed to support/strengthen them be spent on programs/strategies which correspond to their concerns/priorities??”
We can help them do just that by creating good conditions for them to be heard. We can push advocates to work to ensure the incoming Sustainable Development Goals (post-MDGs) listen to what recipient nations feel are sustainable, more than funders. We can help their voices be heard via systems that enable donor/ implementers to learn from citizen feedback, such as Keystone has via their Constituent Voice practice (in January 2015 it is launching an online feedback data sharing platform called the Feedback Commons) or GlobalGiving’s new Effectiveness Dashboard (see Feedback Labs).
We can do it locally in our work in the field, shifting the focus from our expertise to theirs, from our powerfulness to theirs. In field evaluations can use Empowerment Evaluation. We can fund feedback loops pre-RFP (requests for proposals), during project design, implementation and beyond, with the right incentives tools for learning from community and local and national-level input so that country-led development begins to be actual not just a nice platitude. We can fund ValuingVoices’ self-sustainability research on what lasts after projects end. We can conserve project content and data in Open Data formats for long-term learning from country-nationals.
Most of all, we can honour our participants as experts, which is what I strive to do in my work. I’ll leave you with a story from Mali. in 1991 I was doing famine-prevention research in Koulikoro Mali where average rainfall is 100mm a year (4 inches). I accompanied women I was interviewing to a deep well which was 100m deep (300 feet). They used plastic pliable buckets and the first five drew up 90% of the bucket full. When I asked to try, they seriously gave me a bucket. I laughed, as did they when we saw that only 20% of my bucket was full. I had splashed the other 80% out on the way up. Who’s the expert?
How are we helping them get more of what they need, rather than what we are willing to give? How are we prioritizing their needs over our organizational income? How are we #ValuingVoices?
 The Center for Effective Philanthropy. (2014, October 27). Closing the Citizen Feedback Loop. Retrieved December 2014, from https://web.archive.org/web/20141031130101/https://feedbacklabs.org/closing-the-citizen-feedback-loop/
 Better Evaluation. (n.d.). Empowerment Evaluation. Retrieved December 2014, from https://www.betterevaluation.org/plan/approach/empowerment_evaluation
 Sonjara. (2016). Content and Data: Intangible Assets Part V. Retrieved from http://www.sonjara.com/blog?article_id=135
Times are a Changin' in those who Fund Listening… then Doing
So you've been helped by an organization. You think it has a good mission and have actively participated in its activities yet one day (somewhat arbitrarily in your view), it takes you off its list, shuts its doors and moves to another state. What would you feel? Angry? Perplexed? Disappointed?
So a year or two goes by and you get a knock on your door from a similar organization, wanting you to participate with them, that their mission is great, that you will benefit a lot. While you may really want their help, you are understandably wary and wonder if the same will happen. Heck, the last ones didn't tell you why they left, even with unfinished work, nor came back to see how you were faring…
Maybe that won’t happen anymore. Until recently many of our international development participants (some call them beneficiaries) could feel the same way. Our projects came (and went) with set goals, on fixed funding cycles, with little ongoing input from them to influence how projects accomplishes good things, much less learned what happened after projects ended. Rarely have we put into place participant monitoring systems with feedback loops much less listen to participants on how to design for self-sustainability.…
But times are a changin'; there is much to celebrate among funders and implementers, programming and policy makers.
1) There is a happy blizzard of interest in listening to our participants. From Feedback Labs "committed to making governments, NGOs and donors more responsive to the needs of their constituents" and Rita Allen Foundation funding for the Center for Effective Philanthropy's "Hearing from those we seek to Help" to now the Rockefeller and Hewlett Foundation's Effective Philanthropy's beginning a joint Fund for Shared Insight which "provides grants to nonprofit organizations to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results…".
Independent voices abound that are advocating for participants' voices to be heard in design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation: "While we may have a glut of information and even the best of intentions, our initiatives will continue to fall short until we recognize that our ‘beneficiaries’ are really the people who have the solutions that both they and we need." And others call for even more than recognition – participation of the funders in discussions with participants: A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy heard from recipient NGOs that the "funders who best understand our beneficiaries’ needs are the ones who visit us during our programs, meet [those[ served by our organization, spend time talking to them and being with them.”
2) Information and Communication Technologies for Development) has created options of listening to our project participants, learning from them/ with them through mobiles, tablets and other mechanisms (e.g. Catholic Relief Services' ICT4D 6th annual conference with presentations from donors and government as well, Ushahidi which we've celebrated before); IATI, the International Aid Transparency Initiative has spent 6 years fostering sustainable and foreign aid transparent development, now reaching 24 signatory countries, and 290 organizations. A data revolution is taking shape to join donor data, national government statistical data and civil society socio-economic data. There is a brand new initiative at IDS named Doing Development Differently. Listening and learning indeed!
3) And even more importantly, an understanding that development is not a one-size fits all endeavour, is arising. I blogged about Rwanda's success in nutritional impact from allowing communities to address their specific needs and this week New Republic published an excellent article by Michael Hobbes which says "The repeated “success, scale, fail” experience of the last 20 years of development practice suggests something super boring: Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied. It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another." Hobbes goes on to add that what we need is a revision in our expectations of international aid. "The rise of formerly destitute countries into the sweaters-and-smartphones bracket is less a refutation of the impact of development aid than a reality-check of its scale. In 2013, development aid from all the rich countries combined was $134.8 billion, or about $112 per year for each of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Did we really expect an extra hundred bucks a year to pull anyone, much less a billion of them, out of poverty?… Even the most wildly successful projects decrease maternal mortality by a few percent here, add an extra year or two of life expectancy there. This isn’t a criticism of the projects themselves. This is how social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers."
4) What does change the game in the view of Valuing Voices is who we listen to and what we do, for how long. Often, project participants have been the implementers of our solutions rather than the drivers of their own ideas of development; much is lost in translation. As Linda Raftree reports from one Finnish Slush attendee, "“When you think ‘since people are poor, they have nothing, they will really want this thing I’m going to give them,’ you will fail:…“People everywhere already have values, knowledge, relationships, things that they themselves value. This all impacts on what they want and what they are willing to receive. The biggest mistake is assuming that you know what is best, and thinking ‘these people would think like me if I were them.’ That is never the case.” Hallelujah.
Let's listen before we implement our best answers, adapt to specific communities, think of how to foster self-sustainability rather than just successful impact, ask what that is in their terms. Let’s return to listen to participants’ views on sustained impact, on unexpected results… let’s fund this and do development differently!
So how are you listening to participants today?
Data for whose good?
Many of us work in international development because we are driven to serve, to make corners of the world better by improving the lives of those that live there. Many of us are driven by compassion to help directly through working ‘in the field’ with ‘beneficiary’/ participants, some of us manifest our desire to help through staying in our home countries, advocating to powers that be for more funding, while others create new technologies to help improve the lives of others all over the world. Some of us what to use Western funds and report back to our taxpayers that funds were well-spent, others want to create future markets via increasing globally-thriving economies. We use data all the time to prove our case.
USAID has spent millions on USAID Forward and monitoring and evaluation systems. Organizations such as 3ie rigorously document projected impact of projects while they are being implemented. Japan’s JICA and the OECD are two of the rarest kinds of organizations – returning post-project to look at the continued impact (as USAID did 30 years ago and stopped). Sadly the World Bank and USAID have only done one post-project evaluation each in the last 20 years that drew on communities’ opinions. While a handful of non-profits have used private funds to do recent ex-post evaluations, the esteemed American Evaluation Association has (shockingly) not one resource.
Do we not care about sustained impact? Or are we just not looking in the right places with the right perspective? Linda Raftree has a blog on Big Data and Resilience. She says, “instead of large organizations thinking about how they can use data from afar to ‘rescue’ or ‘help’ the poor, organizations should be working together with communities in crisis (or supporting local or nationally based intermediaries to facilitate this process) so that communities can discuss and pull meaning from the data, contextualize it and use it to help themselves….” Respect for communities’ self-determination seems to be a key missing ingredient.
As an article from the Center for Global Development cites the empowerment that data gives citizens and our own international donors knowledge by which to steer: Citizens. When statistical information is released to the public through a vigorous open government mechanism it can help citizens directly. Citizens need data both to hold their government accountable and to improve their private decision-making. (On the CGD website, see discussions of the value of public disclosure for climate policy here and for AIDS foreign assistance here.)
In my experience, most communities have information but are not perceived to have data unless they collect it using 'Western' methods. Having data to support and back information, opinions and demands can serve communities in negotiations with entities that wield more power. (See the book “Who Counts, the power of participatory statistics” on how to work with communities to create ‘data’ from participatory approaches). Even if we codify qualitative (interview) data and quantify it via surveys, this is not enough if there is no political will to make change to respond to the data and to demands being made based on the data. This is due in some part to a lack of foundational respect that communities’ views count.
Occasionally, excellent thinkers at World Bank 'get' this: "In 2000, a study by the World Bank, conducted in fifty developing countries, stated that “there are 2.8 billion poverty experts: the poor themselves. Yet the development discourse about poverty has been dominated by the perspectives and expertise of those who are not poor … The bottom poor, in all their diversity, are excluded, impotent, ignored and neglected; the bottom poor are a blind spot in development." (This came from a session description for the 2014 World Bank Spring Meetings Civil Society Forum meetings, where I presented for Valuing Voices this spring, see photo below).
And as Anju Sharma’s great blog on community empowerment says, “Why do we continue to talk merely of community “participation” in development? Why not community-driven development, or community-driven adaptation, where communities don’t just participate in activities meant to benefit them, but actually lead them?” Valuing Voices would like to add that we need participatory self-sustainability feedback data from communities documenting Global Aid Effectiveness, ‘walking’ Busan’s talk. Rather than our evaluating their effectiveness in carrying out our development objectives, goals, activities and proposed outcomes, let’s shift to manifest theirs!
Our centuries-old love affair with data is hard to break. Fine, data has to inform our actions, so let’s make it as grassroots, community-driven as possible, based on respect for the knowledge of those most affected by projects, where the rubber hits the road. While that may make massive development projects targeted at hundreds of thousands uniformly… messy… but at least projects many be more efficacious, sustainable and theirs. What do you think?