Predicting the unpredictable – the struggle over control

A couple of years ago I was contracted to support a programme where peace workers were engaged in action to try and prevent human rights abuses towards a vulnerable population, and I have just been reengaged for reasons I will explore below. Every day in this particular country is different, since in times of military emergency there is no predicting quite how things are going to kick off. The peace workers do plan and undertake certain activities on a more or less regular basis, however.

Two years ago, their funders were dissatisfied with the quality of reporting on these activities and wanted to know what impact the peace workers were having. This is a reasonable question – why spend the money if we couldn’t decide whether it was making a difference or not? Of course, there was already plenty of anecdotal evidence that it was making a difference to the local population, who understood the peace workers’ efforts to be a kind of solidarity with their suffering, and they relayed their thanks in lots of different ways to the peace workers. But were they making any material difference, and was this difference worth the money being spent?

The managers of the project thought it would be a good idea to shape it using the logical framework approach (LFA) which is a planning tool widely used by donors to disaggregate projects into causally derived objectives. So, every project has an overall objective, which in this case was construed as being ‘to bring about peace’ in this particular country. Thereafter, the sub-objectives were logically derived from this overarching objective, and the necessary tasks and activities are supposed to tip out from these. If X, then Y. In each placement the peace workers were encouraged to report against these objectives.

So construed the planning and reporting were causing quite widespread frustration, and no better reporting. From the perspective of the peace workers, the objectives they were obliged to report against were often not the things that they ended up by doing because of the exigencies of the war that they found themselves caught up in. They were obliged to respond to whatever was happening, which might even prevent them from leaving home if there was a curfew. Moreover, the overall objective was absurd, given this particular programme’s tiny size. The programme was a contribution to bringing about peace, but not in any causally identifiable way. The nature of the LFA also implies progress towards a specified end point: we are here in a situation of war, and through our activities we will bring about a situation of peace, or fewer human rights abuses, or fewer attacks on vulnerable communities, at a certain point in the future. There will be improvement which we can demonstrate to having had a large hand in bringing about.

Seasoned observers of this particular conflict would probably say that the situation has got worse rather than better over the last 10-15 years. At most, and in the few locations where they operate, the peace workers might have contributed to preventing things deteriorating.

Together we decided to abandon the log frame, and the 10 objectives and to construe them much more broadly and simply. We developed methods of reflecting on what peace workers were actually doing in their placements, and, using narrative and systematic questioning of beneficiaries, we developed a more systematic way of reporting on the impact of their work and the attitudes of the beneficiaries. Wherever possible, we also counted things, such as how many people were helped through a particular checkpoint, for example. The intention was to get better at describing what peace workers were doing, rather than what they could or should be doing. We also put forward a proposal that at some point in the future the programme would employ some local researchers to question local people about what they thought of the peace workers, and how effective they were being.

And, two years later, the report from the local research organisation was the occasion of my being brought back into the project. One of the recommendations of the evaluation report by the local organisation was that the project should set much clearer medium to long term objectives, and use project cycle management techniques. These techniques, like the log frame, imply setting a goal for the programme to achieve, in say, three years, and then working back in logical steps from there. Perhaps we might even find ourselves being invited to set the overarching objective of bringing about peace in this particular country.

I was struck by how resilient and persistent these ways of understanding the work have become across all development agencies, irrespective of the context, and the type of work being undertaken. Not to use a log frame to plan the project becomes a badge of lack of professionalism, as though the managers in the programme had not realised the inadequacy of their approaches.

Project management, log frames, project cycle management arose out of the desire of funders to control progress, cost and effectiveness at a distance. Originally they were used for logistical projects, such as bridge building, but now they are applied in every aspect of human endeavour, as though social development can also be reduced to goals and milestones. Donors have a legitimate right to scrutinise the spending of their money, but in situations as complex as countries at war, and/or extreme hardship and poverty, how can any of us know what input will lead to what outcome. The effectiveness of logical if-then thinking in situations of extreme complexity breaks down. Rather than encouraging peace workers to respond creatively to the situations they find themselves in oriented by the broad purpose of the organisation sending them, they could instead be trying to fulfil and unfulfillable plan that meets donors’ needs more that it meets the needs of vulnerable populations.


2 thoughts on “Predicting the unpredictable – the struggle over control

  1. Sue Massey

    You know, I have to tell you, I really enjoy this blog and the insight from everyone who participates. I find it to be refreshing and very informative. I wish there were more blogs like it. Anyway, I felt it was about time I posted, Ive spent most of my time here just lurking and reading, but today for some reason I just felt compelled to say this.

  2. reflexivepractice Post author

    Thanks for your kind comments, Sue. Sorry for not replying before, but your comment got swept up as spam.


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