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The Higher ED Blog: Why our obsession with impact in international development delivers the worst results

Jennifer Cleary / May 16, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: Why our obsession with impact in international development delivers the worst results

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It is the eternal question: Is money earmarked to eradicate poverty making a difference?  Two decades ago the public, disillusioned over a lack of tangible results, demanded an answer. Faced with aid fatigue and declining aid budgets, the international aid industry required a solution. At the time, governments in the Global North were shifting to a results-oriented, customer-focused approach, encouraging competition between service providers. The emphasis on results leaked into the development world, propelling a widespread fixation on how best to measure and assesses international aid to make it more effective. Enter results-based management (RBM) –a management framework that applies an impact-oriented focus on each activity of a given intervention, with the promise of improving performance and achieving better results.

Today government funding models have RBM at the heart of the operations, shaping the way the NGOs operate.  Most NGOs rely on government funding to stay afloat, writing countless proposals according to donor demands (and interests) using the RBM management principles and its corresponding tools. RBM greatly influences the way international interventions are designed, delivered, monitored, evaluated and reported on.

In theory, reporting on results makes good sense.  Its systematic approach is attractive because it enables for the planning and management of an intervention, especially when multiple stakeholders are working together in different countries on the same project. It provides accurate, precise and detailed information on a project for a specified length of time, giving the public what it wants: concrete numbers.

But, in practice, its overly bureaucratic and hierarchical approach makes it incompatible with the changing, largely messy, context of developing countries and the needs of people living in poverty. The RBM framework favours solutions that are more ‘practical’ in the context of the project. As a consequence, NGOs tend to deliver interventions which do not address the systemic issues that bring about poverty; rather the focus is on achieving the pre-determined results. For example, RBM forces NGOs to focus on a particular need in a community, rather than tackling the root of the problem.  This can contribute to weaker development solutions by distorting project realities to fit within previously agreed upon terms, ultimately neglecting, as well as stifling innovative, grassroots and flexible solutions.

In my research paper for my graduate work in local economic development at the University of Waterloo, I explored this problem in closer detail. Through interviews with staff from six NGOs of varying sizes at their Canadian headquarters, and with counterparts overseas, I came up with potential ways to strengthen the practice of RBM to achieve more sustainable international development outcomes.  

Recommended approaches to strengthen RBM

Counter cause and effect: Foster flexibility and experimentation

The foundation of RBM thinking is that results are defined as a change of state, based on the idea that x will lead to y, and will then y will result in z. This linear logic assumes that change is predictable and does not take into account the changes that fall outside the boundaries of the logic. Once these links and assumptions are made in designing a project, there is no mechanism for them to be questioned. But in the complex world of instability faced in developing countries, change should be expected. NGOs, worried about losing the funds that keep their doors open, are often reluctant to communicate a change in project direction due to fears of revealing a weakness in the project design or management of it. Donors need to promote RBM as a living document and encourage modifications to the design. This means taking risks, trial and error, and progress reports that communicate the real challenges.

Measure long-term impacts: Go back to mine for data

Research has shown that measuring short-term and easy-to-quantify change does not help us understand why or how change happens. Yet RBM tends to focus on indictors that are easily and precisely measured to track interventions. It undervalues long-term assessments that are revealed over time, such as increases in social cohesion, confidence, participation, and reductions in conflicts and power imbalances. These meaningful metrics should be part of analyzing the effect of a development project. A system that measures if the ultimate outcome (i.e. a goal) of a project or program was in fact realized would reveal learning far beyond what RBM can attain. Allocating funds to return to a project location five, ten, or 20 years after its completion would inform new project design and help with decision making.

Cross-train the RBM approach to all stakeholders to share ownership

The confusing and over-sophisticated terminology of RBM is perceived by the many players in international development very differently. While NGOs in Canada are offered RBM training from government donors, their overseas counterparts are not given the same opportunities. Adequate training and time is needed for all staff to understand its use and to shape it in a way that is useful to them. This includes creating a language that is consistent with the goals and mandate of an organization and agreed on by consensus across offices. Field staff need to be able to influence the language and the RBM methods. Going further, given that the ultimate goal of NGOs is to pass on the development intervention to the local people, they need to understand it and have a say about whether a project is successful or not.

Provide appropriate time and resources to build effective partnerships

Donors typically give NGO’s one month to design, write, and submit a proposal for a program, resulting in hastily written, unsustainable interventions.   Because of the lack of time, NGOs often seek external consultants to develop the proposal. This leads to programs or projects based on assumptions, instead of with input from the targeted community.  NGOs with limited time and resources are unwilling or unable to invest in the costs required to design a comprehensive and appropriate intervention.  They need enough funding to dedicate time and resources for all parties to develop a shared understanding of the program design and expected results. This would allow for misunderstandings or disagreements to come to light that would otherwise get in the way of good development practice. Also, just as NGOs are accountable to the donor, NGOs must be accountable and transparent to the community they are targeting, working together and making their participation more than a symbolic gesture.

Value diverse worldviews: Invest in research

The priorities of donors heavily impact the kind of interventions that are delivered in the developing world by setting results and indicators that are in-line with the ideals of Western societies. Yet the priorities of aid recipients are not always comparable. It is thus imperative to invest in and gain an in-depth understanding of the values, cultural norms, beliefs, social rules, and capacity of a community prior to developing any intervention. To do this, development practitioners must participate in the daily lives of their project recipients over an extended period of time. It is also important to ensure that success is measured by what the local population deems is important – based on their socially and culturally embedded perceptions of what constitutes good or bad. Understanding the complex and context-specific ways change occurs is at the heart of what is important in development work and should not be secondary to the priorities of donors.

Conclusion: A new way to see results

The Results-Based Management toolbox offers a variety of methods to develop contingency plans with predetermined strategies to troubleshoot potential problems and factors which may influence the intended results.  Yet, in times of uncertainty, these standard operating plans and procedures may not sufficiently respond to the complexities of human nature and volatility of instability.

RBM contributes to a system which allots points to donors, including the Canadian government, for achieving concrete results and providing effective development according to their standards, which, at times, is at the peril or disadvantage of developing nations and their populations. If the Canadian government continues to look inward when seeking development solutions for the global poor, it will serve only its own needs and never take a genuine effort to break the cycle of poverty.


About the author

Jennifer Cleary is a program officer with Humber College’s International Development Institute.  Over the past eight years she has worked in and studied the field of international and community development. Jennifer holds a master’s degree in Local Economic Development from the University of Waterloo and a post-graduate diploma in International Project Management from Humber College. She has first-hand experience applying RBM in international development programs and has an understanding of the challenges that can be faced when working to implement the framework in the real-world context.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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