Funded by the Governance and Civil Society Program, Ford Foundation (usa) 1Table of Contents


Risks Both Ways … and the Intermediary in the Middle



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Risks Both Ways … and the Intermediary in the Middle

Whether one’s challenge of interconnectedness lies in scaling down or scaling up, there are risks for both pathways of jumping between levels or scales. When scaling up, a risk exists of becoming overly externally-oriented and losing feelers on the ground. It can lead to insufficient time spent on relationships and processes that matter locally and that drive learning and assessment. The main risks with scaling down concern making inaccurate assumptions about the realities on the ground or the implications of implementing a ‘one size fit all’ approach when translating general policies and strategies into local initiatives, projects, programmes and M&E procedures.

For many international development organisations, it is hard to find a good balance between investing in internal processes and global objectives, and keeping an ear to the ground and investing there. An example of this is the promotion of the ‘rights based approach’ to development. On the one hand, this seeks to relate to international and national debates on the relevance of the international human rights framework and the implications for enforcing political conditionalities to aid. On the other hand, it is concerned with organisational policies and jargon which aims at ensuring mere compliance with rights-based jargon. What can get lost is the experience and the discourse of ‘grassroots’ organisations that have been working for years with people’s rights and entitlements at the local level (Samba 2007, Mwasuru 2007).

In the process of ‘jumping across scales’, the so-called intermediary organisations are often in a particularly tricky position. They can be accused by those at the local level as being out of touch and not knowing the real issues. But the other level down, such as national governments, can question their legitimacy and accountability so as to cast doubts about whether they are worthwhile players in the change process. They are being asked to input at the national level – so to contribute to scaling up, and yet are being drawn down to the local level. Furthermore, to scale up work, they often need to make alliances that do not fit the logic of donors or the established development discourse. Patel confirms this for the case of SPARC. In discussions with financial backers of their innovative construction process led by women slum dwellers, they hear “So now you’re an entrepreneur?”, seeming to throw doubts on SPARC’s commitment to the poor. Yet dealing with donors and other sceptics, inevitably raises the question of why this isn’t happening on a larger scale, which requires a more entrepreneurial approach. Partners and mechanisms that do not fit the prevailing logic are distrusted by the development system, making it difficult not only to get funding but also presents difficulties in assessing precedent-setting, sometimes opportunistic innovations.

Considerations for Assessment and Learning


A focus on ‘assessing social change’ as advocated in this paper can be helpful to bridge the disconnection between levels that lead to confusion and mismatches across scales. It can help challenge assumptions about how local communities operate and how development can be replicated or expanded. A different perspective on assessment when dealing with complex processes of development – such as across scales – can help break the stalemate in development thinking that leads to more of the same with small adjustments. This means that assessment should, above all, be viewed as an action learning process that can systematically and critically evaluate different development strategies.

An ‘ASC’ perspective can also help in the debates about accountability, an ongoing critical challenge for international and national NGOs. It can provide an interesting window of opportunity to bridge the chasm between what is often global strategising and upward accountability structures versus local implementation and learning processes. The first debates on NGO accountability in the mid 1990s focused on the need for NGOs to demonstrate effective performance and accountability for their actions (Edwards and Hulme 1995). While this need remains undiminished, an ASC perspective on accountability can also be an avenue to improve the work, not just to prove or disprove effectiveness.

Emerging practices such as ‘downward accountability’ can be the basis for a dialogue between national or global level strategising and local level needs that can reduce the current disconnect between scales. This requires great clarity about questions as seemingly basic as who is accountable, to whom, for what, how and with what outcomes in mind (Jordan and van Tuijl 2006). In practice, this call for greater transparency requires enormous effort and organisational courage (see Box 24). It also requires honesty about the impact of asking local people to comment on issues and concerns raised at other scales. As Patel warns: “For some local people, the intellectual challenge inherent in this process could be intimidating and might end up diminishing people. SPARC does this by having Jockin [slumdwellers leader] ‘on their shoulders’. Even if that person from the local level is not physically there, the question is whether your relationship with them is good enough for you to invoke them mentally in your transactions outside”.


Box 24. The value of downward accountability for greater relevance (Shah, pers.comm.)

In 2007, ActionAid International’s HIV Aids team will have to account back to the local level about how money has been spent. Nervousness has set in due to the amount of money that has been wasted. The objective of this assessment exercise is to encourage people to think differently about relationships and to challenge assumptions. Local level people to come and evaluate the people at higher levels. This process should provoke AAI out of any sense of complacency on the HIV/AIDS work. This is how accountability can work downward.



Accountability and transparency in the assessment and learning process itself is also crucial. When embarking on assessment around issues of scale, the importance of accountability and transparency becomes very apparent. In every assessment exercise, you can only look at some of what is going on. But there is a need to say who is making these decisions; a need for clarity on the key actors that have to be reached and impressed, the unspoken agenda of influencing that affects what information is sought, who is involved and how. This relates directly to the discussion of elitisms in section 3.2.4.

Assessment and learning will only ever show part of the picture, and thus should not be burdened with unrealistic expectations. Losing sight of the simplification and limitations of any assessment process can lead to lack of clarity about what the gathered information can actually tell. This risk can be reduced by building transparency into the systems. Natalia Ortiz suggests that this means clarifying whose information needs and interests are represented in the system designed, who defined the information gathering methods and who participates in information analysis. She also says it means “clarifying what is to be assessed and the scope of the information gathered, therefore enabling a clearer understanding and better use of the information we obtain”. It can also be the basis for checking if the appropriate people and issues are involved at appropriate levels (see Box 25).


Box 25. The influence of scale in structuring assessments: the case of SUCAM, Kenya (Shah, pers.comm.)

In Kenya, AAI has been working with sugar cane farmers in what is known as SUCAM. Problem with scale emerged when the international level asked that the concerns of sugar cane farmers be taken to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). However, national level Nairobi-based staff assumed that the government would be the focus and building capacity there to negotiate with WTO. Meanwhile, at local level, the farmers and AA Kenya staff just wanted to focus on support in carrying out national campaigns. Yet it was usually people in the outer-lying rings who came to assess local level action. This meant that local level actors had to have robust arguments and be confident in their analysis about where efforts should occur to keep the critique of external reviewers at bay. Furthermore, it asks that AAI at the global level be open-minded about rethinking assumptions about how and where the locus of development efforts are needed. For assessment and learning processes, the challenge lies in keeping or placing power in hands of local people to be able to help raise such fundamental questions.


Organisations working at larger scales have an opportunity to merge diagnosis and critical reflection to create a change process in which assessment and learning is embedded. This notion lies at the heart of SPARC’s participatory census surveys (Patel 2007, see also 3.3.3). Another example comes from Rwanda, where social mapping and a survey of social conditions informed a social policy and became a model for an entire country (Joseph 2005). This type of assessment concerns taking stock of needs, as well as reflecting critically on a (policy) process. Identifying basic needs becomes a way of assessing government performance. This is an evolutionary model of gathering information as part of a change process. It generates case studies on individual journeys, with the assessing done by citizens, and becomes a benchmark for looking at change.


One unresolved issue is how to argue for the intangibles as one progresses along the development chain, up and away from the local level. While surveys serve the need for quantitative surveys well, other ways are needed to understand the process and qualitative aspects of social change. For example, SPARC’s annual reports contain much quantitative data and photographs of smiling women. But the power of the deeper change being sought, the personal transformations that are central to sustained change of power inequities, is not necessarily conveyed through those two means. Each one by itself is insufficient. In assessment, how can intangibles be articulated – the assumptions, values, personal shifts at local levels – in ways that complement the often dominant preoccupation with tangibles at aggregate levels, in the form of strategies, decisions, policies, and results? How do we communicate the full picture of social change in terms of numbers as well as the quality of the process, as stories of change travel up and down the development chain?

In such cases, intermediaries working on social change must understand and invest in their role as mediator between scales, which requires clarity about the discourses that dominate at different levels. Sheela Patel suggests an important role: “The more knowledge you have about the operating assumptions at the top, the easier it is to change how you articulate what you’re doing. We get a lot of theoretical frameworks thrown at us. All the present knowledge base on which development occurs has a theoretical base but it’s often invisible. Many of us play bridging roles and need to produce language that plays [that] role.” Intermediaries must become adept at capturing reality on the ground in ways that are acceptable and recognisable for a donor or other actor that one is seeking to influence. Yet even then, there is no guarantee that the often risk-averse decision makers, including donors, will be responsive to new insights that could come from such forms of assessment and learning.



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