messing up the count

Wednesday should have been an exciting day.  A few “outsiders” had been invited to visit a Cameroonian organization’s projects around the city.  This organization supports community members (and citizen groups) influence local government planning and develop their own sustainable economic activities through microfinance services.

Wednesday should have been an opportunity to learn more about some great work being done by a local NGO.  Thanks to one of the other “outsiders”, however, it turned into a day full of shaking my head and wanting to smack someone.

Smack one person in particular.  The unlucky target of my seething but silent ire?  A mission representative sent by a western government to evaluate what had been achieved.

The Western mission rep clearly had no clue about how development projects work.

She could have asked about how city councilors have responded to the input from their citizens. She could have asked whether community members felt government spending better responded to their needs. Or, avoiding the complicated power dynamics of community-government relations, she could have asked whether recipients of the small-business loans felt better able to provide for their families.  All of these questions probe into how situations underlying poverty and social exclusion have changed as a result of projects.

Alas she asked none of these.  Too bad since international development is supposed to be in the change business.

Instead she asked this… How many trainings have you run for community associations?  How many loans have you given out? How many lives have directly been made better by your projects?

While it is important to track how money is spent, shouldn’t we care more about whether the programmes we fund actually lead to the change we want to see?  Shouldn’t we care more whether the attitudes and behaviours underlying poverty are being dealt with?

I think so.

Should we always count how our money was spent? What if the “results” of our work can’t be counted?

Here’s an example… Yesterday we visited a school where the local organization had installed pit latrines.  The school – funded by another foreign government aid agency – was beautifully laid out, brightly painted and full of clusters of children giggling at the gaggle of foreign visitors.  There were even separate Western-style bathrooms for girls and boys. Why then had the local organization built pit latrines?

Because the school was not connected to water!

There are many possible ways this could have happened… Maybe the aid agency that paid for the project did not follow up to make sure the school’s facilities were working.  Maybe the pipes broke.  Maybe local authorities had promised, but not delivered, to run supply pipes to the area.

Wherever the breakdown happened, asking questions like “how many toilets were built?” or  “how many of these had separate boys and girls toilets?” doesn’t help clarify matters.  These questions just capture answers that – while potentially impressive – miss the point.  What matters is whether or not the bathrooms are in use.  What matters is whether having these bathrooms makes girls more comfortable attending school.  This, after all, is one of the main reasons development agencies push for separate toilets in schools here.

So, while the completed project added to the count, it did not deliver the change everyone wanted to see.

What the local NGO understood – and the Western government representative did not – was that “development” requires more than just building buildings.  Development requires changes in attitude and changes in behaviour.  When assessing these developments, we need to remember Einstein’s sage words:

Not everything that counts is countable and not everything that is countable counts.

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~ by Greg Spira on October 15, 2010.

4 Responses to “messing up the count”

  1. Great post! I’m getting quite frustrated at the moment going through a long and painful job search, looking at the way different organizations measure their success, seeing the types of questions they ask in an interview, and the types of answers they appreciate (more in line with what you heard from your mission representative, rather than what you would have liked to have shared).

    A lot of emphasis, regardless of methodology, seems to go into quantifying the outputs and (selected) outcomes into hard numbers, while casually talking very generally about the actual impact of the work, which to me, is the most important. I think I lost a job opportunity this week for stressing just how significant the impact and sustainability of development work should be during my interview. Maybe I should get a job first before I speak up, or maybe I’ll be lucky and find one of the seemingly scarce organizations who’ve got the priorities untangled..

    • Brian, you have every right to interview them too! It’s a two-way street. If they are skittish about impact and sustainability, is this really the right place for you? As one amazing coach I know said to me once “look for people that are like-minded AND like-hearted”. Then it’s sure to be a good fit – and you’ll know they don’t just count toilets. 😉
      Many many positive vibes going your way.

  2. I like your blog and the story about the latrines;i do agree with u ;my daughter Louise is in the ext.north

    • Hello Louise’s mum! Thanks for lending us your daughter for a while into our VSO family. Looking forward to seeing her again very soon!

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