The Big Push Back was convened last week by the Participation and Social Change team at IDS. With over 70 attendees, the theme of the day was to reflect on and develop strategies for ‘pushing back’ against the increasingly dominant bureacratisation of the development agenda.
As the meeting background note put it:
Development NGOs and researchers are currently hard at work identifying and sharing approaches for monitoring programme process and for assessing impact. They are interested in robust alternatives, more grounded in the reality of practice, than the ‘results’ methods now being imposed upon them by government donors and private foundations. There is ever-increasing pressure to design projects/programmes and report on performance in a manner that assumes all problems are bounded/simple. The argument runs that the taxpaying public want to know how their money has been spent in terms of kilometres of roads built, teachers trained, or children immunized.
The introductory note was incisive about the new directions that are being promoted / pushed in aid accountability:
Power, relations, the partiality of knowledge and complexity are ignored as are surprises and positive and negative unplanned consequences. Theoretical and contested concepts such as civil society, capacity or policy become reified and then numbers assigned to the reification e.g. ‘state the number of policies influenced’. Answers are required to absurd value for money questions in which institutions are considered as if they were motor cars e.g. “What evidence exists of the relative cost, effectiveness, efficiency, impact and quality demonstrated by civil society organisations, in comparison to the UN or profit-making organisations?” [see footnote for a possible answer*]
At the heart of this challenge is differing interpretations of change, and the related implications for control and power:
There are different views on how change happens: linear cause-effect or emergent. With linear change it is easier to imagine oneself in control and therefore claim attribution, whereas with emergent change the most we can claim is a contribution to a complex, only partially controllable process in which local actors may have conflicting views on what is happening, why, and what can be done about it. Whose voice and whose knowledge counts risk being ignored when organisations report on their achievements with indicators of number of farmers contacted or hectares irrigated. Thus ‘value for money’ becomes equated with aggregated numbers rather than with effectiveness in supporting social transformation. Symptoms are treated as goals and turned into indicators of success. A participant mentioned an encounter with a high-level official who said, ‘I want a simple problem with a simple solution so that I can measure value for money.’
The challenge is clear and profound:
We find ourselves subject to – and perforce are subjecting others with whom we work – to a diffuse tyranny in which everyone says they do not want to behave in this way and yet all feel pressurised to do so. In reaction to these absurdities people either mock or vent their anger before cynically complying – trying to do the least possible in order to secure the funding, often with a nod and a wink from a sympathetic bureaucrat who is equally despairing of what is now being asked and worried about a possible slowdown in disbursement. But compliance and resistance consume energy and enthusiasm. The methods demanded of us to be more accountable are actually having the effect of our becoming ever less responsible for seriously enquiring of ourselves how we can most usefully contribute to transformative social change and be held accountable for our commitment in that respect.
The emphasis of the day was moving from analysis of these problems towards collective strategies for change. These included the following:
- Build counter-narratives of development and change that stress complexity and history, which challenge the primacy of numbers and which emphasize accountability to those people international aid supposedly serves
- Communicate in more innovative ways the complex nature of development to the general public
- Develop different methods of reporting, so that the requirement for aggregated number at Northern policy level does not influence the character of programming in complex development contexts
- Collaborate with people inside donor agencies who are equally dissatisfied with the prevailing ‘audit culture’ and are seeking to promote sustainable change.
- Re-claim ‘value for money’ by communicating with donors and the public that some aspects of development work are valuable while irreducible to numbers
- Enhance organisational learning and reflective practice, using professional training and education to nurture out-of-the-box thinking and approaches.
Read the full meeting paper here.
*Footnote: The – perhaps only partly – tongue-in-cheek possible answer to this question was as follows:
Civil society: gives you a bumpy ride but cheap and takes you to places other vehicles can’t reach. United Nations: steering pretty ropey and has problems finding its way but the seats are very cushy and everyone wants to get on board. Private Sector: very smooth ride but you’ll get a nasty surprise how much it costs you and it might take you off in the wrong direction…