In many locally driven social change processes, sooner or later an intermediary is inserted or invited to support the process. This factor and this actor can lead to compromises on the commitment to social change values, caught by constraining circumstances and demands related to the assessment process. Can those in an external support role maintain the integrity of their input into social change?
The position of the intermediary will vary; is it a parachuting assessment/learning role or are they embedded within the social change process? The first is not necessarily antithetical to supporting social change. But it means being particularly realistic about what can be contributed. An external assessor is probably wise to have modest expectations, not asserting that they are advancing social change while aware of the power they wield through recommendations etc that they make. Ashish Shah cautions: “Don’t use your hierarchy to give advice as it will be taken whether it’s useful or not because of your power. This is the ideal and what we are trying to work on increasingly; really it depends a lot on building participatory and facilitative skills of each other.” Box 20 provides further ideas for working within partners and CSOs.
Build assessment of social change into the social change work itself. Do not make it separate activity. This will also form the basis for any outsider engagement, which can build on what exists.
Approach the social change work with the notion of it being ‘participatory action research’, rather than a linear implementation plan. By viewing it as an adaptive process, question asking and information seeking/analysis can be fuelled.
Be patient; it takes time. In some relationships where equality is ‘new’, you may need several years before you get frank, on-equal-terms feedback and discussion, such as in the case of AAI after initiating its participatory review and reflection processes.
Facilitate, don’t dictate, the identification of assessment needs. Rather than telling them what (type of) assessment should take place, invest in eliciting such needs from them and work with those ideas in facilitating the design of the process. Focus on building local group capacities on evaluative thinking for social change.
If assessment work is happening ‘at a distance’, then an effective strategy is to be clear about the contribution of conceptual clarity.
Foster a questioning approach, rather than recommending and advising – see the AAI framework being developed in which questioning is central.
Balance a locally driven assessment process with the fresh perspective of an outsider’s insights.
Accept the inevitability of some compromise on quality/depth/time – this is the reality of tight funding conditions.
Seek to create safe space for honest reflection and assessment to avoid hearing what others they we want to hear. This may entail starting by being self-critical which creates a sense of being able to challenge/critique without repercussions
Seek to stay connected with the real agents of change and rights holders.
Working on social change and assessing it in ways that maintain the values requires attitudes and principles, knowledge and skills. Credibility and trust are essential to effective assessment processes and can be seen as a by-product of the core competencies and qualities (see Table 3). These start at the personal level but are ideally reflected in convergence within the organisation around core, non-negotiable values and practices for both social change and assessing social change. Such convergence will be easier to achieve in a small organisation than in the large diversity of an Oxfam or ActionAid International network.
Table 3. Core competencies and qualities (personal and organisational)