Debating the results agenda

Duncan Green is kindly hosting a debate on the results agenda in UK aid, between Ros Eyben from IDS and Claire Melamed from ODI. After having led the ‘big push back’ against a mindless results agenda, in this post, Ros explains further and makes a strike against the bounded-problem approach

…I am in charge of redecorating our bathroom while my partner is away. The paint is peeling and there is mildew on the ceiling above the shower. To demonstrate I got value for our money I will get two quotations for the redecoration. Many donor governments are treating the complex problems of poverty like my bathroom…

Eventual outcomes are often very different from what the logical framework required. Stuff happens. Power, history and culture shape the multiplicity of relationships and actors influencing any aid intervention… 

In her piece, Ros cites SPARC, an Indian NGO and laments the decline of the ‘sense of trust’ that bonded donors and implementers in the past. She thinks instruments such as the logframe just reveal the lack of trust in the system

The origins of the results agenda lies in a mistrust that eats like a cancer into aid agencies’ capacity to make a difference. I am not convinced the emphasis on results will solve the problem of trust

In Claire’s response, she points to the potential benefits of valuing results

…A results agenda, as long as the right results are being pursued, can help to rebalance inequalities of power and make the actions and decisions of the powerful more transparent. It helps people to know what the objectives of decision makers are – and so to argue that they should be different, if that’s the case; and also to hold people to account for their success or failure to meet those objectives. Without measurement, there can be no accountability. 

The real question is what results we are looking for, and how to measure them. Of course if donors want to do the wrong things, and measure the wrong things, they won’t get good results…. 

This is little to disagree with in either piece, really. Where one upholds the importance of trust in building relationships and engaging with systems, the other calls for a focus on identifying that right results and the right measures. Claire’s response is built on the assumption that pursuing the results agenda will yield a better understanding of what the poor actually want and their feedback to projects that attempt to improve their quality of life. 

From what I understand, Ros is not dismissing the importance of results either. She is opposed to the manifestation of the so-called results agenda. The manifestation, according to her is that complex problems risk being ignored, donors/implementers will tend to focus on projects, rather than systems and a general break-down of trust between the different actors. The response to this cannot be an argument highlighting the importance of results. It should be by demonstrating ways in which the results agenda can positively influence development work and focusing on the mechanisms by which the multiple actors in development can come together in making this happen. Importantly, this would have to start with better education of donors and other policymakers in development  on how to handle the results agenda, as Claire seems to suggest in her piece as well. Is that possible? I don’t know!  

Such debates mirror what development itself is usually about. We can’t always win by proving someone right and the other wrong. Confrontation is easy, cooperation is not. The answer definitely lies somewhere in between and demands that the two sides work together to figure out the way ahead. Just as we sometimes build social capital in communities by accommodating opposing view-points and evolving a consensus, so too in this world of opinions.


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