What’s the added value of bringing together projects on the same issue in lots of countries?

November 12, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I’m always on the look out for particularly interesting and innovative Oxfam projects, and usually big them up on this blog (think Tanzania, Tajikistan,Khalida Somroo_Malka Khan We Can). After a few years of doing this, one of the striking (and depressing, at least for me) things is how seldom these pioneering projects have (so far, anyway) been picked up and adapted/replicated elsewhere.

So I was excited by the potential of a completely different approach: global programmes. Instead of ‘Potemkin Projects’ in one country, a global programme hoovers up a whole bunch of roughly similar national and regional work in different countries, and promotes mutual exchanges and learning. Does such an approach have better prospects than fanfares about ‘islands of excellence’?

Yesterday’s summary of the work of Raising Her Voice, a 19 project global programme to enhance women’s voice in decision-making, spanning 4 continents, suggests that it might.

RHV builds on Oxfam’s long-standing focus on women’s empowerment. It arose in response to the funding opportunity provided by a 2008 DFID call for proposals to explore issues arising from the UK Government’s White Paper on Governance and Transparency. An email duly whizzed round, inviting OGB country programmes to submit proposals based on their own, and their partners’, capacity and focus.

We got the money, took on a central coordinator, and started work. What is interesting is what happened next. Over time, in addition to beavering away in their separate locations (and getting some great results, as the evaluation spells out), the 19 separate projects have shown increasing signs of cohering, with exchanges of ideas and personnel. A key moment came a couple of years in, when a mid-term evaluation identified a ‘theory of change’ that seemed to be emerging from the overall RHV exercise.

The theory (see diag) identifies three broad spheres – personal, political and social – which influence women’s opportunities to participate in governance, and which need to be included in order to strengthen women’s voice:

The political spaces need to be more open, inclusive and representative of women. This includes public and customary laws, policies, structures and decision making processes, the mechanisms by which women can claim and uphold their rights and interests.

For a woman to create, access and take-up opportunities for participation and influence, she needs personal capacity, self-esteem and confidence. The RHV theory of change highlights the need to work on this sphere, to redress the situation whereby the political and social spheres have strong influence over a marginalised woman’s ability to participate, influence and secure her rights, but she has little opportunity to influence them back.

RHV ToC2The social sphere supports and embeds changes in attitudes, relationships and behaviours. It includes norms promoted or upheld by cultural and religious institutions and the media, as well as the strength and capacity of the women’s movement and civil society to support women with a platform to raise their voices.

Subsequent discussions added an economic sphere, in recognition of the central importance both of the care economy and economic (in)dependence in shaping the opportunities for women to exercise voice.

The theory of change proved useful in several ways:

  • It provided guiding principles for RHV, capturing the arenas in which change in women’s voice occurs
  • It ‘kept it simple’ – very important for hard pressed staff and partners
  • By being very top line, it allowed a variety of RHV programmes to recognize their work within it, while also pointing to new ideas and possibilities
  • At a global level, RHV staff were required by DFID to revise each country logframe and indicators in line with the ToC
  • Quite independently of any suggestions from Oxfam House, several national RHVs used the theory of change to help design ‘course corrections’ to improve their work, either in response to improved understanding, or to events and changes in the context.

For me  though, the 3 sphere model falls short of being a full theory of change. It omits a number of important aspects, which could have helped build more imaginative and effective strategies. These include how women’s lives and the norms that govern their role are changing (increasing literacy, entry into paid jobs, spread of political quotas etc); the importance of critical junctures many shifts in women’s voice occur linked to wars, elections, or other shocks – and the need for an analysis of the wider drivers and blockers for expansion in women’s rights (state officials or elected representatives, private sector, faith organizations etc).

In practice, these gaps were often addressed at the national level, as partners developed their own theories of change, into which this uber-narrative later fed, but I see no reason why the overall ToC shouldn’t have included them.

Overall, there are several potential benefits from the Global Programme Approach: These include

  • Fund raising: donors need to disburse funds in large (by NGO standards) volumes and at high speed. But over-large grants and short timescales can impose severe strains on small civil society organizations. A global programme approach can square the circle.
  • The chance to pilot research in one country, then adapt and try again in another. The best cross-fertilization is often not planned – RHV in Honduras picked up a 2011 study from RHV Nepal, translated it into Spanish, and used it to develop its thinking on working in the personal sphere.
  • Country programmes are motivated by being part of a global change process

And the lessons on how to run global programmes?

  • Keep it as open as possible at the beginning and allow it to gell and evolve. That means not being too prescriptive about what national offers are included in the initial proposal.
  • At least when addressing complex and deep-rooted issues such as women’s (dis)empowerment, they should also be as long as possible. RHV was a five year programme. Much of the most innovative work was carried out in years 4 & 5, as staff and partners learned and adapted their strategies, becoming more assertive for example in shifting from a less ‘political’ focus on service provision to more explicitly challenging inequality and household power relations.
  • The programme can be encouraged to evolve a coherent theory of change that will guide its future work by building in a 6-12 month inception period for consultation and design at national level.

Especially in light of last week’s focus on complexity and emergent change, it seems that this global programme cat-herding approach might have some real promise. It could even serve as the basis for a ‘do tank’ exercise I discussed a couple of weeks ago, in which we combine the global programme approach with a research component that generates hypotheses to test on the ground.

What do you think? Any other good examples out there?

November 12, 2013
Duncan Green