In Praise of Results

There’s much anxiety in development-land these days.  New, frightening beasts like ‘results’ and ‘value for money’ are stalking the defenceless and helpless herds of ‘empowerment’ and ‘rights’.  With their new slashing, tearing, efficiency-driven ways, the fear is these interlopers will exterminate the shyer folk and irretrievably warp the development process. 

Actually, scrap the analogy.  Firstly, it’s possibly a bit overwrought, and secondly, it’s just not true.  It is absolutely wrong and quite dangerous to equate a concern for results with the view that development is just about handing out food parcels. 

If you think results don’t matter, then consider the alternative. Without measuring results, we would never know if aid money made any difference.  We would have no way of reporting back to communities about what governments were doing.  We would have no way of judging between different claims on scarce development budgets, other than the whims of aid administrators and the vagaries of development fashion.  And we would never, ever, know if things were getting better or worse.

It seems extraordinary to me that anyone could object to having more information about whether a policy change or a development project has an impact.  More information can only help the people who really should be driving development – poor people themselves – to make choices and take control of what is done in their name. 

This is not to say that what is counted doesn’t matter.  A concern for results shouldn’t mean that we just reach for the nearest indicator and call it development.  Quite rightly, there are many voices out there pointing out that development is a complex social and political process, involving power, rights and justice – all concepts that are difficult to capture on a spreadsheet.  And, yes, there is a danger that pursuit of ‘results’, narrowly defined, could steer development projects and policies towards what is best counted, not what is best.

Now that is the argument worth having.  What should we count?  Those who are concerned with empowerment, rights and other such slippery but absolutely essential ideas should be rushing to the statisticians, and calling out for better ways of measuring if what they are doing in the name of empowerment and rights is actually working.  Yes, as the saying goes, ‘not everything that can be counted, counts’, but ‘not everything that counts can be counted’ just isn’t good enough.  We just ask people to take it on trust that things are working because the professionals say so?  I think not.

Don’t get mad, get counting. The results agenda is completely compatible with a view that people are the agents of development and that it is their experiences and relationships that define progress.  There are ways of measuring how people feel about things – in the UK, for example, we have things like the British Social Attitudes survey which asks people what they think and then reports it, and measures changes in things like attitudes to inequality, feelings about old age or views about the effectiveness of education policy over time.  And we know that there are many ways of involving poor people in defining indicators and collecting numbers.

It could be so exciting.  Let’s ask poor people what they call results, and what they consider the best value for money?  Surely, surely you want to know?