If the global development community were to put together a list of the most overused—and perhaps misused—terminology of 2013, I would advocate for the inclusion of “evidence” and “impact.” Bureaucratic groupthink has narrowed the definitions of these two words so that only certain types of evidence and impacts can be labeled as such. Me explico. International organizations and donors have become so focused on demonstrating what works that they’ve lost sight of understanding why it works and under what circumstances. I can’t help but feel that the development industrial complex has come down with a case of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” My impact evaluation is more rigorous than yours. My evidence is more conclusive than yours. It’s a race to the top (or bottom?) to see who can drum up the most definitive answers to questions that might be asking us to “check all that apply” instead of “choose the most correct response.” We’re struggling to design multiple-choice answers for questions that might merit a narrative response.
I can’t help but question the motives behind such a movement. Sure, we’re all struggling to stay relevant in an ever-changing world. The global development community has responded to long-time critiques of development that is done to or for communities by launching programs and policies that emphasize development with and by local communities. This is a step in the right direction. While the international development community might claim to be transferring responsibility for technical program knowledge to local consultants and contractors, it has carefully written itself a new role: M&E (emphasis on the E). “Evidence” and “impact” narrowly defined are linked to contracts and consultancies that are linked to big money. It feels like a desperate attempt to keep expertise in the hands of a few, attempting to rally support to scale up select policies and programs that have been rigorously evaluated for impact by some of the major players in the field. Let’s not forget that impact evaluation—if we maintain the narrow definition that’s usually offered—can come with a hefty price tag. There are certainly times when impact evaluations such as RCTs are the best methodological choice and the costs of conducting that evaluation would be relative to the benefits. But we must be very careful about conflating evaluation type/purpose with methodology. And even more careful about when, where, and why we are implementing impact evaluations (again, narrowly defined).
I just finished reading a great piece by Justin Sandefur at the Center for Global Development: The Parable of the Visiting Impact Evaluation Expert. Sandefur does an excellent job of painting an all too familiar picture: the development consultant who (perhaps quite innocently) has been misled to believe that conclusive findings derived in one context can be used to implement programs in completely different contexts. At the individual level, these experts might be simply misguided. The global conversation on impact and evidence leads us to believe that “rigor” matters and that programs or policies rigorously tested can be proven to work. However, as Sandefur reminds us, “there is just no substitute for local knowledge.” What works in Country A might not work in Country B, and what might not work in Country B probably will not work in Country C. It is unwise—and dangerous—to make blind assumptions about the circumstances under which impact evaluations were able to establish significant results.
I would urge anyone interested in reclaiming the conversation on evidence to check out the Big Push Forward, which held a Politics of Evidence Conference in April with more than one hundred development professionals in attendance. The conference report has just been released on their website and is full of great takeaways.
Are you pushing back on the narrow definitions of evidence and impact? How so?