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…

Join the conversation! 8 Comments

  1. The paper notes that one participant in the meeting “commented that too many of us are ‘averse to accounting for what we do. If we were more rigorous with our own accountability, we would not be such sitting ducks when the scary technocrats come marching in’.

    Whatever process is used to frame reporting questions, collect data and report on results, the process of identifying results we hope to achieve, and later what did change, even if, or particularly if it is not we hoped for, is in everybody’s interest.

  2. Dear Greg, I couldn’t agree more.

    However, when technocrats come in asking for the unit cost of capacity building work or the number of policies that have changed, that creates an environment where the donor and implementing agency create a mutually reinforcing narrative that actually has nothing to do with the reality of change on the ground.

    If agencies were more disciplined in asking the questions you suggest and being honest and humble about the kinds of answers they expect to get, then this would serve at least two important purposes – it would raise the credibility of aid agencies, and it would also act as a means to avoid being co-opted by changing donor preferences and fashions.

    But it may also lead to less money for aid agencies. Which donor wants to fund a programme which promises ‘your £5 will enable us to do our best to contribute to positive change, given all the mitigating circumstances’ as opposed one which shouts out ‘your £5 will save a child’s life’?

    With honesty of reporting results, both intended and unintended, we will also need leadership that states that fiscal conservatism is better than growth at all costs.

    Sadly, I see very few examples of the latter in the aid system at the moment.

  3. […] also discussed recently by Rick Davies, Ramaswami Balasubramaniam, Lawrence Haddad, Dennis Whittle, Ben Ramalingam, and Alanna Shaikh, just to name a few. Caroline Preston also reports on “the data dash” of […]

  4. Interesting. I would like to subscribe.

  5. It is easy to appreciate lack of order, structure, pressure and control… But why should anyone, individual, INGO, SCO, UN or ODA-institution for a longer period run and/or finance a project if the results cannot be well reported? What kind of person can ask for money for such activities? Wouldn’t that lead to increased corruption and slow down the improvement for millions of the most vulnerable and extend their suffering?

    Some of the issues met during many years in the international development area and that can be improved:

    • the transparency among all kinds of actors: local SCOs, INGOs, UN and ODAs; For example, very few annual plans, evaluations and reports (on the output, outcomes and impact) are found at their web sites)

    • the participatory project planning, execution, monitoring and learning and to decrease too much unnecessary institutional hierarchy

    • the simple but good monitoring training to the executive organizations and the involved target groups

    • the routine of doing monitoring (which is not a rocket science), based on a short and clear mentioning of monitoring requirements in the agreements between the partners (“donors” and“ receivers”)

    • the practice of the most simple, but logic monitoring chain by answering basic questions like: How many women and men have benefited how much and in what way by the financed project activities; How useful was this activity to the participants i, have their skills and behavior improved; How have the participants new skills and behavior effected relatives, and other people in their surroundings? How has that improved relevant surrounding institutions’? ; There are exceptions among the millions of ongoing projects, when more advanced monitoring is needed.

    • the good, but simple, reporting of the monitored activities and their results

    • the understanding of that shortcoming results can be used as lessons learned, which requires a great deal of transparency in the organizations and an very open dialogue between all concerned actors

    • the structured institutional learning, where failures are a good ground for sustainable institutional improvements and should be taken to the organizations heart and shared with society and repeated when new staff is recruited

    • the courage to stand up and say: we failed, but we have learnt (this and that) how to do next time

    To improve those issues the situation for the most needed would improve quicker. Off course some weaknesses are acceptable during an initial project period, but to continuously, year by year, neglect the most obvious malfunctions in these simple issues is a terrible misuse of resources and worse than the corrupt ion and is severely ignoring the needs of an efficient development towards the MDGs. How much is vested interest behind this negligence or laissez-faire on reporting of results? Who benefits most from the resistance toward transparent and participatory planning, monitoring and reporting of results?

    So far, the projects met that are too complicated to monitor and report the results from have been extremely few, the vast majority of projects are fairly easy to report on.

  6. […] about the challenges we face in improving development and humanitarian efforts, focused on the complex dynamics of how knowledge gets used in policy and practice. This will frequently be uncomfortable – and […]

  7. […] about the challenges we face in improving development and humanitarian efforts, focused on the complex dynamics of how knowledge gets used in policy and practice. This will frequently be uncomfortable – […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Accountability, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Meetings, Organisations, Public Policy, Strategy