Introducing the Research, Evaluation & Learning Unit (RELU) in Somalia

This post reflects my personal views: a slightly different version appeared in the Guardian partner zone managed by Adam Smith International

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In 2013, £1.6 bn of international aid was pledged to Somalia: more than double the country’s gross domestic product. In the capital, Mogadishu, some high-profile investments—such as the upgrading of the airport and port facilities—show this money at work. But elsewhere, the impact of such spending is less visible and therefore faces tough questions from both Somalis as well as the international community. The linkages between meeting immediate needs – water, roads, clinics – and longer term goals of improving lives and securing peace and stability are complex. Harder still, is establishing long-term impact.

(PS: ODA, while important to Somalia, continues to be dwarfed by the size of remittances to the country, which according to various estimates ranges between $1.3 bn to $2 bn annually)

Two familiar (and inter-related) problems have plagued Somalia. One, most aid projects are perceived to have achieved little on the ground (even after discounting for the widespread insecurity) and two, there are hardly any rigorous impact evaluations of aid projects whose results have been made public (this ODI-UNICEF evaluation of cash and voucher transfers may be an exception). Putting these two together, it is safe to say that while many projects have failed, the lessons learnt have been fairly limited and the aid community (international and local actors) are probably condemned to repeating the same mistakes over and over again. As different parts of Somalia make steady, though unevenly paced progress towards stability, it has become more important than before that the impact of aid-funded development projects are rigorously evaluated.

The lack of impact evaluations out of Somalia does not mean that there isn’t any field research being conducted in the country. However, there are issues with most of the ongoing research work in Somalia that any attempt at changing the status quo of research and evaluations in Somalia must address. First, a bulk of the research is commissioned by donors or implementers that do not then make their findings public; second, the typical operating model has a ‘northern institution’ partnering with a local agency where the role of the latter is limited to data collection on the ground. While recognising that local groups are not immune to bias or vested interests, their skills could be better utilised. They have access to communities and existing networks which can provide feedback and insights which outsiders may easily miss.

The Somalia Stability Fund is a multi-donor fund designed to support peace and stability in Somalia, predominately through Somali partners in government, non-governmental organisations and the private sector. So where does one begin? How can a fund ensure meaningful investment, with maximum impact? How can it be accountable not just to donors, but to Somalis on the ground? Comprehensive evidence, research, monitoring and dissemination are essential to avoid the pitfalls of the past and to share positive lessons learned. Developing local evaluation skills is a key part of this.

Both recipients and donors of aid have a duty to ensure it is well spent. Only through rigorous evaluation can impact be accurately assessed. That way when someone asks what impact the money has achieved, they will be able to get an answer they can believe.

Spending wisely, spending well

Late last year, the Fund appointed the Heritage Institute of Policy Studies (HIPS), the first Somali-owned and managed think tank, to set up a Research, Evaluation and Learning Unit (RELU). Its task: to study a sample of funded projects and, simultaneously, contribute to an assessment of the entire portfolio. The RELU will also be a conduit for researchers interested in conducting impact evaluations in Somalia to explore a variety of research questions cutting across sectors and experiment with multiple methods of collecting and analysing field data. The Stability Fund is committed to release the results of all the evaluations, irrespective of whether they are good or bad.

The RELU has hit the ground running, but I look forward to any feedback!

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