Saturday, April 02, 2005

Identifying the impact of evaluations: Follow the money?

Some years ago I was involved in helping the staff of a large south Asian NGO to plan a three-yearly impact assessment study. It was almost wholly survey based. This time around myself and a colleague managed to persuade the unit responsible for the impact assessment study to take a hypothesis-led approach, rather than simply trawl for evidence of impact by asking as many questions as possible about everything that might be relevant. The latter is often the default approach to impact assessment and usually results in very large reports being produced well after their deadlines.

With some encouragement the unit managed to generate a number of hypotheses in the form of if X Input is provided by our NGO and Y Conditions prevail then Z Outcomes will occur (aka Independent variable + Mediating variable = Dependent variable). Ostensibly they were constructed after consultations with line management staff, to get their interest and ownership in what was being researched. The quality of the hypotheses that were generated was not that great, but things went ahead. Questions were designed that would gather data about X, Y and Z, and cross-tabulation tables were constructed that would enable analysis of the results, showing with/without comparisons. The survey went ahead, the data was collected and analysed, and the report written up. The analytic content of the report was pretty slim, and not very well embedded in past research done by the NGO. But it was completed and submitted to management, and to donors. My inputs had ended during the drafting stage. The study then seemed to sink without trace, as so often happens.

A year or so later a report was produced on the M&E capacity building consultancy that I had been part of when all this had happened. In that report was a reference, amongst other things, to the impact assessment study. It said “The study also produced some controversial findings in relation to training, as it suggested that training was a less important variable in determining the performance of groups than had previously been thought. This finding was disputed at the time, but when [the NGO] had to make severe budget cuts in 2002-3 following the blocking of donor funds by the [government], training was severely cut. There is though still an urgent need for [the NGO] to undertake a specific study to review the relative effectiveness of different types of training.”

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