Development agencies are struggling to rise to the challenge of accurately measuring the impact of their activities. To me, the problem seems to be that interventions in complex systems tend to have some undesired side effects, which means that often even the intended results are not achieved. How do evaluators deal with this problem?
Your question already seems problematic to me. It is shaped by the thinking that is typical of managers of industrial companies. In business management, it makes sense to ask: What kind of action triggers what kind of event? What must I consider in order to achieve a certain result? You can organise a bicycle production using that sort of considerations, but you cannot bring about any impact relevant to development in a poor society. We often forget that, in development cooperation, we are dealing with living systems, and that what we need to do is to awaken and increase their natural ability to learn.
But development policymakers have always relied on training and further education.
Sure, but obviously not with entirely convincing success to date. In the past, at least, thinking along school lines prevailed, which is the way we are taught in Europe. The dominant idea is that trainers teach trainees, and the newly qualified then do what they have been taught. This may work in bicycle production. But this mindset will not get you very far if your objective is to get a local water utility in an African town to function. It is like hitting screws with a hammer, and wondering why the things won’t go into the wood. If you use the wrong tool, you won’t achieve the results you want.
To stick to the metaphor: what would be the screwdriver to advance learning at the water utility?
In order to select the right tool, first of all, you need a clear idea of what it is you want to achieve. So if a living system is supposed to become able to learn, then you need an understanding of how living systems actually learn. They do not do so thanks to theory input, but rather by means of practical activity. Living systems act and observe their environment. If they notice that their action changes something in their environment, that can teach them a lesson. If you succeed in getting people who are working for a water utility to observe and understand the consequences of their action, this organisation will learn – in a rather efficient and sustainable way. But we will hardly ever get there if we pre-define all the learning goals from the outset. Intelligent living systems process their experiences into knowledge for themselves.
So are you saying that development cooperation is always, at least in part, about exploring something?
Absolutely, yes. The idea that professionals always know exactly what they are doing suits assembly lines, where operations can be organised in a linear, rational and hierarchical way. In development cooperation, however, things are different. This is not like human-resources development on behalf of a major corporation. International aid workers always deal with individuals from completely different cultures, with communities, political organisations and systems, world views and traditions. In very fundamental terms, they are operating in uncharted terrain, and it couldn’t be any different. After all, if societies in the developing countries were not foreign but functioned like the home countries of aid workers, there wouldn’t be any aid workers at all. Development policy would never have been invented in the first place. It plainly does not make sense to transfer an understanding of professionalism from commerce and industry to development cooperation.
So how should professionalism be understood in this context?
It is essential to understand that professionalism in development cooperation is not about showing off what we know and what we can do. Rather, it is about supporting others in their perception; getting them to observe for themselves which action has which effect. If, on top of that, you manage to define common goals with the people you want to reach, sustainable results are achieved fast.
How do you assess InWEnt in this respect?
I am impressed by the way that InWEnt – like several other development institutions and initiatives too – is rising to the challenge. This company has understood that it has to be a learning organisation itself if it wants to be serious about effectiveness. Accordingly, it has to abandon and overcome relatively static, cumbersome structures. I think that InWEnt is on the right track, and the international debate on aid effectiveness certainly contributed to this development.