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Commentary

Back to the basics

/ 11:02 PM November 09, 2012

IN VARIOUS climes and on countless occasions, I interacted with poor men and women who had never left the villages where they were born, and with peripatetic development practitioners and experts. Both talked about the same development problems, but the former proposed immediate solutions, and the latter, long-term solutions. Obviously, the longer the problems exist, and the longer the solutions take effect, the better for development practitioners and experts.

The development process is a catch-22 scenario. If the development approach involves identification and validation of community issues at the planning stage, it is seen as negativistic. An appreciative inquiry is then recommended in which the entry point is the resources and capabilities available in poor communities. Once appreciative inquiry is applied, it is argued that it is inappropriate because communities have nothing much to offer in terms of resources and capabilities.

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Not to be outdone, the rights-based approach, which is a complete turnaround from the approach based on contemporary needs, is gaining ground in the development world. These two approaches will soon dichotomize development work, further compounding the situation.

In another millennium, development players ganged up on the dole as fostering dependency, but the subsequent approaches have yet to make their mark as well. It can never be discounted that money was a factor for the feverish shift to the participatory approach. A hefty amount that international nongovernment organizations (INGOs) could have played around with had been earmarked for the families/communities without any strings attached.

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Asia’s tiger economies (Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, etc.) rose from underdevelopment primarily on the strength of good performance by their own governments. They did so without a long history of successful collaboration with INGOs.

As planned, the inevitable phaseout of the INGO in a community takes place, at which time the community is far from ready, and in fact requests the extension of INGO operations. This simply means the arduous preparations for the eventual phaseout are for naught, and the much hyped sustainability mechanism is actually farfetched.

Nevertheless, the community is profuse in thanks for the numerous projects completed over the years. Alas, a million thanks is not an impact indicator.

The imminent demise of a development approach alerts seasoned INGO key staff to get ready for the ritualistic vault to the new one. They then make sure they know how to speak the jargon of the new approach in informal conversations and meetings. They also begin to lay the blame for the shortcomings of the INGO on the approach that is on the way out. With this survival skill, they are able to retain their posts and/or maintain their stature come hell or high water.

In INGOs’ annual reports, research and evaluation final reports, brochures, etc., it is good to read about immediate results (activities and outputs) because these mean they are delivering. But it will be better to read about intermediate results (outcomes), and it will be best to read about long-term results (impacts), which are the best signal that INGOs are on the right track, and are clear about their directions. Although with high-tech presentations and high-level discussions, the publication of reports mainly on activities and outputs is good for showcasing (read: marketing), but not for programming.

After more than 50 years in the development scene, INGOs continue to report mainly activities and outputs (“operational results”). This is incontrovertible proof of “business as usual” through the years. To show that INGOs have climbed out of this rut, their reports and documents should revolve around outcome and impact (“development results”), or the progress toward them. Outcome and impact constitute the bottom line of development work, which is the improvement of the lives of target populations. Ironically, this is where INGOs expect themselves, or are expected, to carve out the effectiveness of their programs, projects and policies. And for which they are accountable to the communities and donors.

There is the hidden struggle in formulating specific, measurable, attainable/achievable, realistic and time-bound program objectives with quantitative or qualitative indicators regardless of the development approach. This is extremely critical, but is unknown to or brushed aside by INGO decision-makers, to the detriment of the programs and projects, in particular, and the country strategic plan, in general.

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The plain truth is that there has been no reckoning with the necessary massive data collection and processing activities, and automated database of the progress toward or achievement of program objectives. This is primarily due to the fact that the measurability of program objectives is extremely doubtful. Thus, it is not surprising that there has been no active collaboration among INGOs along this line. Otherwise, the general public will find out INGOs know where to go and how to get there, but do not know whether they are already there or out of the way. Put another way, any program or project without robust objectives is not worth carrying out at all.

INGOs have their respective definitions of the hierarchy of objectives (e.g., “goal” and “objective” are either distinct or interchangeable, etc.) or results chain. Generically, the statement of objective consists of the indicator (percentage of children 0-6 years old fully immunized), the target population (percentage of children 0-6 years old), the target situation or desired result (percentage of fully immunized children 0-6 years old increased), the timeframe (within five years), and the geographic area (village A, etc.). The methodology should not be included in the objective statement. It is irritating to read a development program or project objective with the methodology embedded in it. Of course, organizational, performance, and development (program/project) objectives are different animals.

Given the never-ending struggle of INGOs in fulfilling their missions, a viable option is to go back to the basics with a new twist. This is the introduction of one community plan and project (OCPP), which streamlines the discrete projects into a cohesive whole. OCPP has a situation analysis, strategies, goal, sectoral objectives and activities, budget allocations, target populations, and timeframe. OCPP will enable the community to focus on one large multiyear “sectoralized” project with built-in M&E (monitoring and evaluation) framework. The planning, implementation, and M&E of the OCPP, which will be the sole requirement for funding, will rest with the community.

Nono Felix worked in various capacities for an INGO for more than 25 years before retiring in 2011. From 1997 to 2010, he was the corporate planning and M&E manager covering 13 countries in Asia (Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam). He lives with his family in San Felipe, Naga City.

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TAGS: column, development process, international nongovernment organizations, nono felix
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