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Assessing Impact: some current and key issues

a discussion paper

Alana Albee is a founding member of the Caledonia Centre for Social Development. She has been an international consultant on participation, micro-finance and community development for many years and takes up the post of Social Development Advisor for DFID in Tanzania in May 1999. Alana is married with one daughter and runs her consultancy business from Inverness in the UK.

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In this paper she suggests that the present focus on PIA is drawing attention away from the need for a  whole-system view of monitoring and evaluation in which there is systematic reflection on the methods of intervention  as well as on their impact.

Email comments - albee@caledonia.org.uk

Assessing Impact:

some current and key issues

A.Albee, April 1999

Impact Assessments
The Issue
Social Audit: a potential role
Concluding remarks
Further information
References
Acknowledgements

Are we in danger of disproportionately emphasising primary stakeholders' views to the exclusion of organisational and other factors that influence impact?

Participatory Impact Assessments (PIAs) are being undertaken by many organisations working in development, but is the current emphasis on primary stakeholders' views overshadowing organisational factors which also influence impact?

This article highlights the need to place PIAs within the wider context of participatory monitoring and evaluation, as an integral component rather than a parallel stream of information. It highlights the need to assess other factors such as efficiency, effectiveness, replicability and sustainability, and briefly introduces the potential role and limits of social auditing.

Impact Assessments:

Impact assessments are most often viewed as a means of judging performance by understanding changes (intended or otherwise) experienced by primary stakeholders as a result of development interventions. They can help distinguish whether a project intervention is in fact achieving its objectives, whether or not these objectives remain relevant over time, and whether or not the best action strategies have been pursued (Estrella and Gaventa, 1997).

Although it may be at least partially the case that the current emphasis on impact assessments is rooted in donor concerns about poor project performance and pressure to provide evidence of the quality work with the poor (Goyder, 1996), for some organisations impact assessments are also considered an important step along the complex path of shifting ownership and control of interventions to primary stakeholders.

To be considered participatory, impact assessments frequently use tools originating from other forms of participatory enquiry, such as PRA and PLA. These are incorporated in an effort to involve local communities, groups and individuals in data gathering, analysis and archiving (Nopenen, 1997). In most PIAs, participatory tools are coupled with the use of indicators, and increasingly 'beneficiary-identified' indicators are being used (Goyder, 1996). Questions are emerging about the underlying assumption that participation in a PIA is in itself empowering (S.Siddiqi in Action Aid 1998; Albee, 1999), and about the limits of participatory methods in terms of time and unrealisable expectations (D.Kuppuswami, S.Sanjiri and C.Owusu in ActionAid 1998; RYT Omar, 1998). The importance of these deliberations should not be underestimated, yet the question remains as to whether the current focus on the how to aspects of PIA have overshadowed the more strategic why issues which relate to PIA within the broader context of participatory monitoring and evaluation (PM&E).

During the 1980s, impact assessment was most frequently undertaken as part of broader participatory evaluation approaches. In general terms these assessed change and its significance in relation to effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, impact and sustainability. It was argued that any single evaluation may not be able to examine each of these factors comprehensively, but that each should be taken into consideration (Feuerstein, 1986; Guba and Lincoln, 1989). This integration of factors (including, but not exclusively impact) has been eroded during the 1990s by the trend to develop ever increasing numbers of participatory forms of enquiry. This has partially been in response to organisations finding it too difficult and time consuming to undertake full participatory monitoring and evaluation processes. Some organisations have, in essence, sliced-off PIA from broader PM&E. Is it adequate to focus exclusively on the primary stakeholder's views when determining impact?

The Issue:

PIAs put a key focus on enabling the poor to voice their views about impact. The importance of this is not in doubt. Local people can and often do assess the impact of development interventions in an organic way and by using a variety of their own (often informal) indicators. Many organisations need to improve their capacity to facilitate, listen and learn from this. The reality of most development efforts in the 1990s is that there is limited local control and influence over the setting of the agenda of interventions, the methodologies used or their subsequent management and implementation. The intention of many organisations is to improve on this. Nonetheless, assessment of donor experiences reveals that only a few cases actively involve primary stakeholders in shaping development decisions (Rudgvist, 1996). Several overviews suggest that participation varies during the project cycle, with less involvement of all stakeholders at early stages (design and planning) and later stages (analysis and dissemination).

If indeed primary stakeholders have not been involved throughout the project or programme cycle, are we expecting too much from impact assessments? Can we realistically expect primary stakeholders who have not been involved throughout the project conceptualisation and management to address factors such as an organisation's core values & objectives, efficiency, mode of delivery and sustainability?

While the impact of an intervention may be partially determined through an assessment involving primary stakeholders, organisational factors also need to be assessed. PIAs can only partially do this, and therefore should be placed within the broader context of PM&E. A study of key literature (Estella and Gaventa, 1997) placed impact assessment amongst the five general functions of PM&E. These included:

  1. project management and planning
  2. organisational strengthening or institutional learning
  3. understanding and negotiating stakeholder perspectives
  4. public accountability and
  5. impact assessment

Recognition that this now needs to be revisited is emerging in some organisations. The need to revisit PM&E is beginning to emerge. In the recent ActionAid Impact Seminar (Dec 1998), for example, issues raised by participants reflected this and included:

bulletWhat, at the end of the day does this research (PIA) lead to?…The issue is not just about the methodologies; at the end of the day the system has to be operationalised." (AA Bangladesh)
bulletIndicators are usually discussed in relation to work carried out on the ground. When are we going to measure performance in (Northern) organisations? (un-named participant)
bulletThe process needs to link back into the institution's frameworks and strategies…" (C.Roche, OXFAM)
bulletOverall, this work points out the need to assess the quality of the PM&E system itself rather than the specific impact of the development initiative. (I.Guijt, IA Exchange, April 1999)

Social Audit: a potential role?

Hope for improvements in approaches to monitoring and evaluation, and by extension PIAs, are increasingly pinned on social auditing. Some organisations are interested in social auditing as a means of underpinning and strengthening new institutional forms and processes (DFID, Kirk, 1997) while others see its usefulness in filling the gaps between assessing work carried out by an organisation and changes taking place within an organisation (Roche, OXFAM, 1998). Can social auditing fill the need for organisational assessment? How well has it worked for development organisations to date?

In brief, the social auditing process enables an organisation (or business) to assess and demonstrate its social, community and/or environmental benefits and limitations. The emphases generally are on the organisation rather than projects or programmes within it, and the desire to establish a systematic and accountable approach which recognises all stakeholders (NICDA, 1997). When well embedded into an organisation, a social audit can provide an annual overview about how well an organisation has addressed its objectives and core values, as well as its effectiveness, efficiency and equity. Thus it is more than an assessment of the mechanics of an organisation. It sets the scene for what has been expressed as the assumptions, norms, values and theory of business which can be powerful filters affecting what each person sees (Drucker, 1994).

The greatest concentration of social audits by development organisations began in 1996 in Northern Ireland. Seventeen organisations have supported their staff to establish social auditing systems and to complete accredited (NVQ level 4) training. The training has involved learning both the concepts and practice of social auditing by establishing systems within their own, or partner organisations. External verification has been established through the Open College Network, and a panel of verifiers provides an independent assessment of each audit. This reduces the common risk known as 'managerialism' (Guba and Lincoln, 1989) or the rather too cosy relationship between the managers who commission the work and the auditor. The course and support systems are orchestrated by NICDA: The Social Economy Organisation together with technical consultants who have developed and annually refined the social auditing methodology.

From this experience, it is clear that social auditing is no panacea. It faces many of the typical dilemmas of other forms of monitoring and evaluation. A key issue has been how to balance the need to be realistic about the amount of information which can be manageably assessed, with the need to ensure adequate coverage of what an organisation is doing. Within many organisations it may be impossible to find the resources to undertake a full annual audit of all values and activities. To make it more realistic some organisations have developed strategies in which a slice of the organisation is audited each year. Yet, to ensure it is adequately comprehensive two factors have been identified as important (Albee, NICDA, 1999):

bulletpolicy commitment and planning by the organisation towards covering all sections of the organisation through a sequence of audits (e.g. the Tradecraft approach), and
bulletannual assessment of core values of the organisation, regardless of the section of the organisation which is focused on in any particular year.

Challenges currently being faced by the social auditors in Northern Ireland may reveal lessons for others considering the process. The most fundamental include (ibid):

  1. Time: the process often faces difficulties when it is added-on to an existing busy schedule. It requires time to think through the particular system and its elements as well as to actually do the audit.
  2. Embedding: shifting away from social audit being considered as a particular person's responsibility within an organisation, to a broader sense of ownership. Northern Ireland experience shows that in most instances older organisations face more internal difficulties adapting and embedding social audit than younger organisations.
  3. Documentation: determining how best to present the information and the extent to which all information is made available to all stakeholders are also common challenges.

Concluding Remarks:

The validity of conventional (and mainly non-participatory) methods of monitoring and evaluation came under much scrutiny in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Recognition of the inability of social cost-benefit analysis and social impact assessment to accurately and adequately reflect the dynamics of change resulted in calls for involvement of those most aware of, and better able to explain, qualitative developments: i.e. the so-called project beneficiaries (Marsden et al 1994). The extent of this 'participation' and how it is utilised is at the heart of PIA. Yet, we are in danger of excluding organisational factors which influence impact such as the organisation's own objectives and core values, as well as their intervention's effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability.

Organisational analysis, through the use of tools such as social auditing, may go some way towards addressing this, but they need to be done as a part of a holistic approaches to monitoring and evaluation, as an integral part rather than a parallel stream (Cole, 1997). This may be agreed in principle by many organisations, but one of the most frequently cited constraints on M&E is time. This has been a major reason cited for shifting away from broad based participatory evaluation of the 1980s and early 1990s, and, despite the narrower focus of PIA and social audit it is also often cited as their key limitation. Addressing this requires a paradigm shift in thinking, from one in which monitoring and evaluation are considered add-on tasks to one in which they are given central importance (Fernandes and Tandon, 1981). There are illustrations of how this has been effectively done in large-scale urban interventions in Bolivia and Sri Lanka (UNCHS/DANIDA, Community Participation Training Programme, 1988-1995). These have highlighted the key role of local national consultants as researchers and evaluators throughout the life of interventions. There is much to be learned from such experiences!

Further Information:

bulletOne-page briefs on managerialism and other key aspects of evaluation in Guba and Lincoln's classic text on Fourth Generation Evaluation (Sage, London, 1989), see http://www.srds.ndirect.co.uk/4th.htm
bulletNational consultants as researchers and evaluators, see The Final Report by Prof. Tilakaratna, UNCHS/DANIDA, community Participation Training Programme, Colombo, Jan 1990.
bulletSocial Audit Training Pack, NICDA, e-mail address NICDA_Derry@compuserve.com
bulletUK initiatives in the Social Audit field

References:

bulletAction Aid, Impact Assessment Seminar (report), Dec, 1998. Web Site
bulletAlbee, A., Participation Matters: an analysis of the use and impact of participatory methods in Egypt, CDS and DFID, 1999.
bulletAlbee, A., External Verification Report:Social Auditing, NICDA, Jan 1999.
bulletCenter for Development Services, A Study of the Views of Community Members about PRA Methodologies, Cairo, 1998 (unpublished).
bulletCole,A., P.Evans and C,Heath, Impact Assessment, Process Projects and OPRs, DFID, 1997.
bulletDrucker, PF, The New Realities, Mandarin, 1991.
bulletFernandes, W. and R.Tandon, Participatory Research and Evaluation: Experiments in Research as a Process of Liberation, India Social Institute, Delhi, 1981.
bulletEstrella,M., and J.Gaventa, Who Counts Reality?, IDS, 1997.
bulletFernandes,W. and R. Tandon, Participatory Research and Evaluation: Experiments in Research as a Process of Liberation, India Social Institute, Delhi, 1981.
bulletFeuerstein, M-T, Partners in Evaluation, MacMillan, 1986.
bulletGoyder,H.(et al), Participatory Impact Assessment, Action Aid, 1997
bulletGuba and Lincoln Fourth Generation Evaluation, Sage 1989 Summary
bulletKirk,C. Notes on Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation in DFID: challenges and potential, DFID, 1997
bulletMarsden,D. (et al), Measuring the Process: Guidelines for Evaluating Social Development, INTRAC, 1994.
bulletNICDA, Social Audit Training Manual, Derry, 1997  NICDA_Derry@compuserve.com
bulletNopenen, H. Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation: A Prototype Internal Learning System for Livelihood and Micro-Credit Programs, in Community Dev.Journal, vol 32,no.1,1997.
bulletRudqvist, A. and P. Woodford-Berger, Evaluation and Participation, some lessons, SIDA, 1996.

Acknowledgement

The assistance of George Clark and Graham Boyd of the Caledonia Centre for Social Development was greatly appreciated in the preparation of this paper. It is available on http://www.caledonia.org.uk where hyperlinks to support materials are also available.

Email comments - albee@caledonia.org.uk

 

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