In the West our current technical approach to development brings with it the idea that all the consequences of social development can be predicted in advance. This is the conceptual basis of the log frame, which, if cleverly constructed, can set out all our assumptions and foresee most difficulties. Using the log frame we are always correcting our ‘mistakes’ if we deviate from what we thought we would achieve. Revising the log frame is about putting in alternative predictions and correcting to those instead. The premise is that we can identify optimal working in advance, and achieve it if we try hard enough. ‘Learning’ then becomes an account of the series of corrections we have made in order to fit the predictions we started out with, which is supposed to then be a description of optimal working. I think this process is called ‘deficit modelling’ and produces its own vocabulary such as ‘filling the gaps’, ‘learning from mistakes’, so that we can identify the optimal and then ‘scale up’. This is somehow supposed to be of use to others starting out trying to do similar things. Someone I once worked with in an NGO described ‘learnings’ as being like a formula in a spreadsheet. Once you identify the formula you can just cut and paste it into all the other cells. This is the idea behind ‘scaling up’ – what we’re doing here, just more of it.Of course others might be attempting similar things as us and but they won’t be exactly the same; whatever their intentions their social context will always be different, and so will be what constrains and enables them. Our experience will of course be useful, but it will also be of limited use. Other projects would be mad not to take account of what we have done, but equally mad to try and take it up exactly as we have done it. So, in social development I am arguing that there is no such thing as ‘best practice’, only ‘what worked for us’. I think the challenge in documenting the ‘learnings’ of a project is finding a way of recording what happened when we acted with intention in a way that other people can draw analogies from the experience, rather than taking it up exactly the same way. For me there will never be ‘optimal’ – constraints, conflicts, misunderstandings will always be endemic, particularly if you are engaged in a social project which is about changing power relations, because these never change easily. Armed with your log frame you will be acting with intention, but you will be acting with intention into a web of other people’s intentions and they might well be more powerful than you. You will achieve some of what you want, some of what you don’t expect and some things you definitely don’t want to happen. This is all data. We should not just be interested in whether we have achieved what we set out to do or not, but the other two aspects as well.
I think this has consequences for thinking about the role that project managers have when they visit the field. In effect they are playing a double game. On the one hand they have to give donors what they want and prepare the partners for relating to donor staff and use a vocabulary that they will recognise. This will involve being able to identify ‘mistakes’, correct to what we previously thought would be optimal. In other words, donors really only interested in hearing about whether you have achieved what you set out to do or not. Depending on the donor staff member you are dealing with they might also be interested in the other two data areas, but the institution has no real way of valuing this. On the other hand, in order to really help the partner come to terms with what they are doing, you could support them to take an interest in everything that is happening as a consequence of their acting. As I said previously, some of this is what they thought would happen and a lot will be unexpected. It is all data and all equally valuable. Because you are an outsider you can help them continue to make meaning of all that is happening by questioning, clarifying and probing, not with a view to finding them out, but in a genuine spirit of curiosity. If there is no ‘optimal’ position, only a journey towards the optimal then we are just as interested in the journey as in the notional end point. In monitoring and evaluation terms this means thinking about whether we have achieved what we thought we would achieve, but also taking an interest is what else is happening as a consequence of the project working. How will we know what’s happening and what sense can we make of it? The support that project managers can bring to partners is principally in the line of questioning that is trying to elicit what all of you think is going on in and around the project. What do we think we mean by what we are doing?
I think there are also ethical issues in how we choose to work. We could take the view that the best we can do is to help the partners get on and do the work in the way that the donors understand it. So the reduced version of a field visit would be to help them answer to donors whilst accepting that this is a very reductive understanding of development and try wherever possible to keep donors off their backs. Or we could try and do the former whilst also trying more comprehensively to make sense of their experiences. This runs the risk of confusing them, since donors will never ask them for it. However, it does also help push back against the dominant, and oppressive way of understanding development, as some kind of technical exercise which can be achieved in three years and the ‘learnings’ disseminated.