Sticky notes, sweaty advisors and rigging the log frame: just who is accountable for delivering aid outcomes?

We’re all been there. Endless hours of writing in big black pens on butcher’s paper. Plastering colourful sticky notes to windows. Eating too many unhealthy local snacks (always in individual wrapping). And drinking excessive cups of 3 in 1[1].  What am I talking about? The simultaneously dreaded and revered theory of change workshop.

Figure 1: when the theory of change gets a bit too much for the sticky notes to handle, you know you are in trouble.

Source: Benny J Johnson /Rex/Shutterstock

Hours upon hours of time are dedicated (admirably so) in theory of change workshops to coming up with the ‘perfect’ description of how change happens in a particular location – and what aid programs are going to do about it. Heated debates ensue about the wording of outcomes (“should it be inclusive health care or improved healthcare?”) and sweaty advisors argue over the supremacy of their particular area of expertise.

But what rarely gets sorted out – or gets relegated to the “other orders of business” section at the end of these workshops, is the critical question of just who is accountable for delivering aid outcomes? Where, on the colourful wall of sticky notes, does a program’s influence end? Who is accountable for when programs “fail”? And what about all those things we’ve put in our risk column over to the side, that we are all too scared to admit that we have no idea what to do about? (almost always “national elections”, “political will” and something about “gender norms will change”)

The case of PATHWAYS

These are the very questions the Australian-funded PATHWAYS program (full disclosure, I am part of the program’s Strategic Monitoring Team) is currently grappling with.

PATHWAYS sees itself as both an education and a peace-building program.  And rightly so, given that it is working with and alongside the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. This is reflected in the (laudable, but also ambitious) program goal: to promote more inclusive education outcomes that lead to peace and prosperity in the BARMM.

Herein lies the challenge for programs like PATHWAYS. How much can a relatively modest donor-funded program hope to influence the trajectory and nature of peace and prosperity in the BARMM? Part of the answer lies in being clear on where our influence begins and ends and what other forces are in play, such as government policy, community action, local politics, the impact of ‘Rido’ and jihadists.

And this has important implications when it comes to thinking about one of the holiest of holies in development – the program logic. Specifically, the differences between attribution, contribution and the line of sight.

Getting clear on attribution vs contribution

The way I see it:

  • Attribution = this is where you can be sure that you (your program activities) were the main reason why a change happened. Attribution is almost always at input / output level (e.g. teachers are trained, and they receive a level 1 in a particular competency) as any higher than that, too many other variables in play.
  • Contribution = where a program can claim a plausible contribution, even if small, to a particular outcome or statement. Contribution means acknowledging there are also lots of other things outside your control which are influencing the change too. Contribution is almost always what happens at an outcome, and sometimes the goal level.
  • ‘Line of sight ‘= this is the justification for what you do (how you work, activities you choose etc). ‘Line of sight’ is generally to some higher order, lofty goal (e.g. peace and prosperity), to which programs do not necessarily need to prove contribution to after the fact. But they must show how what they did aligned to this overall vision for a program.

Want a good example? Training teachers. See right.

Here, the higher up the program logic you go, the more things happen outside your control that will influence – if not determine – change. E.g. whether teachers have the resources to teach, whether kids can turn up to school (and if not, then why they don’t).

Letting go of control, but not ignoring change completely…

One final point. Does contribution mean we need to stop caring about stuff “outside our control”? While tempting in a Covid context, absolutely not. It’s the things outside a program’s direct control that generally has the most influence on change – politics, power, institutions, culture and agency. The stuff that usually gets put in the “too hard basket”. More accurately it gets dumped in the assumptions column of the log frame and then quietly forgotten until the mid-term review, which notes that the assumptions were the cause of project failure. Donors then breathe a collective sigh of relief saying “see – not my fault….” For these bigger, harder to shift issues – programs must at minimum invest in trying to understand and respond to them. How is the context changing? How is it likely to influence what we are doing (activities, outputs etc)? And ask what could we possibly do about it? Either to stop making things worse, or to find an opportunity to make our program more effective.

[1] Thanks to the PATHWAYS MERL Advisor for the vivid imagery.

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