Living with the ‘results agenda’, redux

Craig Valters’ Devex post, based on yet another newsworthy ICAI report, seems to have somewhat revived the debate over the ‘results agenda. The criticism is sharper, castigating DFID for the “unintended effect of focusing attention on quantity of results over their quality” – but also one that clearly implies that the ‘results agenda’ is not well-understood or widely shared within donors like DFID. Focusing on ‘results’ cannot mean a divorce from long-term outcomes. What ICAI describes sounds more like an outputs agenda that is transactional (what your money can buy) rather than transformative (the good change).

The consequence of this bean-counting is that complex problems risk being ignored: donors and the partners they fund will tend to focus on projects, rather than systems. Also, genuine accountability along the aid-chain takes a hit due to a general break-down of trust between the different actors. So what can we do about this?

Invest in staff: The response to the criticism of the ‘results agenda’ cannot just be an argument highlighting the importance of results. The response needs to demonstrate 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. Donors that adopt the ‘results agenda’ (or the value for money agenda, for that matter) need to invest time and resources to ensure their staff fully understand the implications of this agenda, the mechanisms through which it is to be implemented, and most importantly, its limitations. It is possibly redundant to state that ‘context matters’, but it really does. As donors continue to trim down staff, it places greater emphasis on their ability to manage projects and contracts with implementers in ways that are accountable, and yet retain the flexibility necessary for development work. 

Use your existing toolkits better: Have logframes become the blunt hammer in our pursuit of results? Probably. I personally don’t mind logframes as a concept, but detest the way they are usually used. Ideally, a logframe development exercise should reveal the level of complexity of a project design. Those working on it realise during the process that the outcomes that really matter are often misfits in a logframe, because there aren’t clear baselines, nor are there objective and accurate measurement techniques. If a project logframe is then drawn up primarily to satisfy a contractual obligation, it usually sacrifices this complexity and settles for outputs and outcomes that can be easily counted. Donors must resist the temptation to do this.

Fight for political space: Bilaterals are under particular pressure to ‘perform’ in the eyes of their domestic constituencies. Multilaterals are under less pressure, but that distinction may soon blur as donor country citizens start demanding more from their respective contributions to pooled funds. This therefore calls for greater savvy to fight for greater political space. Smart communication is one way. Being honest about the distinction between ‘outputs’ and ‘outcomes’ is probably too much nuance for a domestic audience, but remains important nevertheless. International aid assistance, whether channeled through the Foreign Office or through a dedicated department should be able to resist being pushed around by a tabloid press. Ok, not entirely clear how this will be achieved, but clearly, one must try fight it as much as possible.

Create room within: Be it the UN, World Bank, DFID or a sub-national government, have always held that there are some fantastically creative bureaucrats that thrive within these systems who either possess (or are backed by) powers that can create space for Doing Development Differently (DDD). In the DDD workshop at Cambridge, Joel Hellman, from the World Bank talked about the classical “project” and while he agreed that it is at the root of many problems, he encouraged participants to come up with ways in which one can find space to manoeuvre within the system – such as custom-made financing facilities such as Payment by Results for instance. We need a concerted push towards creating room for flexible approaches within the classical aid bureaucracies.

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