Our Control of Development Variables Inhibits our Ability to Learn

There’s been a lot of feedback on the last two articles on ‘breathing space’ in development programming. One particular question focussed on why the development system is so keen to avoid such ‘space’ and how we can rationalize not undertaking impact studies a few years after a project has been completed. The first thing that comes to mind is that we could argue that paying for a study is impossible since we can’t hold donor funding from the project for three or five years after completion. But that’s kind of a cop-out – if we budgeted differently organizationally, we wouldn’t need to worry about using donor project funds for impact studies. But I digress.

I think the biggest rationalization for not taking a break between project phases and not doing impact studies long after a project has completed is because we are too afraid of what the results will be.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we undertake reviews and evaluations in environments where project staff and organizations have some control of the variables. We can and do mold the environment and contexts to fit our needs to get a positive evaluation result, although at times certain gaps or failures are apparent and recorded. But it is rare to receive an evaluation report which claims full project failure. More often than not, we get nice little snapshots that say output results have been achieved or mostly achieved and that a project goal is mostly achieved – that ‘mostly’ part being integral to the justification of extending the intervention.

But if we wait 12 to 18 months to do that final evaluation, some results may not be so visible as we lose control of context and variables and so the result of the evaluation would be less favourable to our need for ‘success,’ although it would be far more useful for learning purposes. Same doing for impact evaluations five years down the road. It’s much safer to do an evaluation immediately after a project is completed when the variables for positive impact and sustainability are more or less within our control and in our favour. It allows the evaluators to make assumptions about the positive impact of our work and overall success of the project.

It all boils down to our need for unqualified success, avoidance of failure (at least on paper) and our penchant for ‘learning’ for the purposes of resource mobilization rather than to know more and do better.

In theory, this seems like a quick fix, does it not?

But in practice, we would need an overhaul of the entire development planning system and global aid infrastructure. I don’t think we’ll see it in my lifetime because these practices have been ingrained for so long.

So the question becomes, in the absence of a desire for change, how can we effect change?



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