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?