This paper outlines a substantial agenda for action for intermediaries, which can be summarised as ‘innovate, challenge and bridge’ (see section 4), which for many is a continuation of roles they already take seriously. Intermediary organisations need to challenge the decision-makers to listen and learn and reconsider fundamentals (see section 2), but also need to scrutinise themselves. They need to be the ones to offer examples of effective innovative practice in assessment and learning (see section 3) and use them internally. Intermediary organisations need to act as buffers and bridgers between local realities and discourses and that which is dominant among decision-makers (see section 5). Specific challenges will not be repeated here, instead highlighting core tasks.
One critical task lies in dialogues with donors to rethink the basis of assessment and learning processes. Reilly (2007) warns that it is not realistic to expect most donors to start operating soon from a more politicised understanding of social change assessment. This puts the onus on intermediaries to invest further in dialogues with donors about how to address the internal contradictions between wishing to fund social change and imposing systems of evaluation and assessment that disregard some of the defining features of such social change work. This includes putting on the agenda the skewed power relationships within assessment processes and “clarify the merit of transparent and open evaluation processes that help people to engage without fear in the sensitive task of assessing their own work and efforts” (ibid).
As innovators, intermediaries have to scrutinise how they contribute to perpetuating problems. They need to dare to relinquish their compliance with unrealistic and time-wasting practices and dare to suggest alternatives. As discussed in 2.2 above, many intermediary organisations romanticize and commoditize social change work, in the process creating unrealistic expectations in the minds of donors of the timeframe and strategies for goal achievement. How can intermediary organisations deal with the tensions of donor-driven frameworks and timelines for assessing social change and the need to respect the often very different realities on the ground?
Many of the considerations for donors (see 6.1) also apply to intermediaries, who often fulfil a funding role in the development chain and are part of hierarchies of power. One such consideration involves the issues that emerge in relationships with community groups, CSOs, and local partners of whatever kind. How can intermediary organisations ensure that questions about change are asked about and with those who are marginalised and not included in what passes as ‘participatory assessment’ but is often superficially consultative? This means clarity about assessment and learning that does not reinforce exclusion and discrimination by an inadvertent focus on those easiest to reach. The repoliticizing of development and its assessment means being critical about the power relationships in knowledge production, including re-thinking the criteria by which the effectiveness and value of social change initiatives are judged and the processes that engage participants.
A particular area of attention that can strengthen the bridging role concerns better understanding the issues of scale. Section 5 only hints at a discussion that merits much more time. Intermediaries need to understand the issues of scale in which they are caught – scaling up, scaling down, both – and the implications for assessment and learning. Which assumptions are made about a potentially ‘small’ change process and its potential to become ‘big’, and what is required to make this happen? How can there be meaningful local involvement in assessing and learning about the effectiveness of scaling up strategies? What can be learned about scaling up quality of social change processes? Perhaps scaling up is a serendipitous, fly-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants process that defies prior strategising. But learning en route remains critical for adjusting and sharing lessons more widely.
Methodologically, intermediaries can make several other significant contributions. More concrete approaches are needed to help with the articulation of theories of change at local levels in ways that strengthen strategic thinking and does not alienate. Effective ways to institutionalise learning need to be define with greater precision for diverse organisational configurations (alliances, large NGOs, social movements, membership organisations, formal and informal networks, etc), which is vital to sustain and consolidate innovative breakthroughs. The reflections all advocate seeking a balance between being flexible about reporting and standardizing information flows. Nobody could really disagree with this. Is it possible to be more precise about what this could look like? What becomes non-negotiable in terms of the standardization, what are the limits of flexibility?
Much has been written in this paper that can inspire those facilitating assessment and learning processes and those responsible for formal evaluations. These opportunities for being part of the ‘assessing social change’ shift that is needed will not be repeated here. Section 4.3, in particular, outlines a set of practices that facilitators and evaluators can take on and build into their practice.
The core shift that must be recognised is that infusing assessment processes with political consciousness will require new skills and capacities. Rather than seeking to fulfil the criteria and standards that currently hamper learning and do not do justice to social change in all its diversity and complexity, the task involves working alongside social change organisations and activists to “design assessment processes that respect and further the social change values that are embedded in the initiative being assessed” (Reilly 2007). She sets out an agenda for evaluators in the United States context that has universal value: “This means enabling engagement and inclusion, ensuring local relevance, respecting knowledge sources, and putting into practice the ethical requirements of participatory research. Evaluation consultants also can play a role in facilitating critical reflection, challenging simplistic conclusions, being open to new insights and introducing appropriate practical and conceptual resources as needed. Ideally, assessment processes should … offer organizers and activists a chance to relax, re-charge creative and spiritual energies, and return to their work with both a refined strategic direction and a sense of invigoration and renewal.”