Theory’s fine, but what about practice? Oxfam’s MEL chief on the evidence agenda

February 6, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Two Oxfam responses to the evidence debate. First Jennie Richmond, (right) our results czarina (aka Head of Programme PerformanceJennieRichmond and Accountability) wonders what it all means in for the daily grind of NGO MEL (monitoring, evaluation and learning). Tomorrow I attempt to wrap up.

The results wonkwar of last week was compelling intellectual ping-pong. The bloggers were heavy-hitters and the quality of the comments provided lots of food for thought. However, I was left wondering what it all meant for those of us who work in NGOs, trying to generate and learn from ‘evidence’ on a daily basis. I found myself unable to simply vote, so instead I blog….

The results and evidence agendas have brought some real benefits to NGOs in my view. First and foremost, it is important and right that those of us who claim to work in the interests of the poorest people in the world and are stewards of other people’s money, should set ourselves high standards for our own impact. In its simplest form the results agenda asks us to justify the trust others have placed in us, by demonstrating whether we are actually bringing about positive change. In Oxfam GB, accountability has long been held as a core organisational value. It is not the results and agenda that has got us thinking about how to capture and communicate our effectiveness, but it has provided a helpful additional push.

A further positive is that space has been created both within our own organisations and in the wider sector, to stop, listen and learn. MEL-istas (as Duncan calls us) 5 years ago struggled to get the ear of senior managers (let alone Ministers). But the results agenda has increased the stakes around MEL – encouraging organisations not only to increase investment, but also to listen to the findings coming from our own data gathering and analysis.

However, it has also increased the demand and the expectation, which are not easily met by all NGOs. In Oxfam GB the investment in MEL has increased over the last couple of years, undoubtedly, but still it is a real stretch to deliver the ever-more ambitious demands from donors, to develop tools to tell the story of our broader organisational impact, and to ensure that we are developing innovative ways of measuring cutting-edge programming areas, such as resilience, enterprise development and influencing.

And we are one of the largest international development NGOs in the UK. How much more difficult for the smaller and niche NGOs, or those who lack the flexible financing that permits investment in MEL and innovation? We are conscious in Oxfam that we and other large NGOs need to guard against distorting the NGO market place by pushing the boundaries on MEL and impact too far, and thereby creating expectations that cannot be met by everyone. Somehow we all need to keep our sights on a proportionate approach.

cartoon-evaluation_cultureIt is not just important to generate evidence, but also to use it properly. There is increased demand for serious, evidence-based conversations about what works.  None of us can get away with decisions made purely on gut instinct, force of habit or ideological leaning. We are challenged by the ‘evidence’ question to collate and distil from the broad knowledge base we have at our disposal. And this has in some cases led to surprises. Rigorous studies, whether based on qualitative or quantitative methods, can challenge our preconceptions – showing us impact where we were not optimistic, or the opposite. The test, of course, comes when new programmes are designed. Will the body of evidence be applied – will we be able to find it for starters (in our often not-so-state-of-the-art knowledge management systems), and will it be politically acceptable in our own organisations to apply it to practice?

So, how can we use the results and evidence agendas and make them useful to us as NGOs?  We need to do this in a way that a) is true to the actual work we do (which in the case of Oxfam includes a great deal of work that drives for political change and influencing) and b) does not distort decision-making away from the right decisions (i.e. what most suits the specific needs and opportunities of each context) in our efforts to be able to measure and communicate what we are doing.

One of the concerns raised in last week’s blog was that in some institutions, evidence becomes synonymous with impact evaluations, and even specifically with Randomised Control Trials. As all the bloggers agreed, the default use of one research method for interventions of all types is simply nonsensical. You only have to look at the enormous variety of the things we do in international development (from campaigning for policy change to delivery of bed-nets, from building of bridges to raising awareness of the rights of citizens) to realise that one approach is just not going to cut it.

Another challenge is that so much of what we do in international development is extremely hard to measure. How can we trace the input through to impact chain and clearly demonstrate the ‘on the ground’ changes we have brought about in people’s lives when the investment is in budget support or core funding?  How can we reduce the process of a community standing up against acts of violence against women to a Value for Money calculation? The ethical dilemmas and practical difficulties wrapped up in measuring and ‘evidencing’ many of the processes we are involved in are huge. And, as Eyben and Roche point out, much of what we engage with in international development is messy and political. We need to make sure that the tools we have at our disposal for evidence generation are sophisticated and nuanced enough to acknowledge this messy political reality, and that we are sharing ideas on how to do this in a practical and affordable way.

The push for evidence should go hand in hand with a more entrepreneurial approach to development, opening up space for honest

MEL that - US military mindmap of Afghanistan

MEL that - US military mindmap of Afghanistan

reflection on both success and failure. That is the theory. But, of course, there are obstacles to this becoming a reality. Our systems in large institutions, including NGOs, are designed to demonstrate success. We all have our logframes and our KPIs, and we want to be able to put a tick in the box. No-one wants their project to be the one famous for not achieving what it set out to do, even if the real story is that it helped enormously to generate learning for future projects. Complexity thinking is having some influence right now, which helps to raise the right questions about process and incentives. However, we have a long way to go before even in the most reflexive learners in NGOs and other development institutions want their project to be hailed as the great failure.

So, we proceed with caution – welcoming the increased space the Results Agenda provides to consider ‘what seems to work’, and the profile it gives to the need to take a thorough and transparent look at the information coming out of our programmes. But, wary of the dangers of distorting what we do in order to make it measurable; of placing the MEL ‘bar’ for NGOs too high to reach; of the over-emphasis of certain methodologies; and of the danger of ignoring political realities in the work that we do. It is certainly helpful to keep reflecting and questioning, however, from all sides of the debate – so the wonkwar of last week was welcome.

February 6, 2013
Duncan Green