26 April 2013

The Politics of Evidence: A Big Step Forward

Earlier this week, IDS hosted a Big Push Forward conference on the Politics of Evidence.

The Big Push Forward is an informal international network of practitioners who aim to:

"create the space for discussion, debate and the exploration of appropriate approaches for assessing transformative development processes. Hard evidence, rigorous data, conclusive proof, value for money, evidence-based policy are tantalising terms promising clarity about what works and what should be funded in international development. Yet behind these terms lie definitional tussles, vested interests and contested world views. For those who hold the purse strings certain ways of knowing and assessing impact are considered more legitimate than others. Yet increasingly people are recognising the need for multiple and mixed methods and approaches to better understand complex change and that, compared to imposed standards, are more likely to lead to fair assessments helping us learn how to support a fairer world."

We know that evidence is power, but we also know that power shapes evidence.  We all do it. This blog does it. The key is to be self aware and open about it and to share assumptions and biases. This is hard.

But it is important.  When it comes to evidence of what works, why and how, the stakes are even higher.  We have an even greater moral obligation than usual to be balanced and comprehensive, to triangulate and to consider alternative ways of seeing and knowing things. 

I could only stay for the first morning of the 2-day conference, but I heard 3 presentations -- from an NGO that agreed, bit by bit, to relinquish control to a funder via a results framework discussion; from a large INGO that agreed, bit by bit to relinquish control to a funder and the impact evaluation researchers (!); and a very successful US based network of professors who undertake impact evaluations and capacity building who decline 95% of the requests made to them to evaluate interventions (because they feel the interventions do not need evaluating).  Power pervaded all of these stories (no doubt selected as such by the organisers).

I read the background paper, by Professor Rosalind Eyben at IDS, which I recommend.  I don't agree with everything in it, but I do, like Rosalind, get a sense that the tension between supporting sustainable country led development processes and the important obligation to demonstrate impacts is no longer a creative tension. 

The pressure from taxpayers and the media to see results from ODA is now so intense, and so confrontational, it has put bilaterals in a very difficult position, with lots of accompanying fallout for their partners.  Relationships are fraying all over the place.  Certain types of evidence are privileged over others, not because they are intrinsically superior, but because they are easier to quantify and therefore use in defence.  Creativity is being put into getting around systems rather than improving them. 

That is why I welcome the Big Push Forward's transformation from the Big Push Back.  It is easy to push back at something but much harder to find a better way.  This conference was one big step towards changing measurement so that is measures change. 

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