Social change knows many forms. For SPARC and its allies, working with slum dwellers in dozens of cities around India, change must occur through the actions of the slum dwellers themselves. Their potential and priorities dictate the pace and focus of discussions and surveys about their pavement and railroad-side dwellings. They conceive options for action, they reflect, they evaluate (Patel 2007). On the Kenyan coast, thousands of women meet regularly to exchange experiences and strategise how best to tackle the endemic forms of domestic violence they face. By sharing stories of pain and experiences of transformation, the women involved in the growing movement dare to take on ever more taboo-challenging initiatives (Samba 2007). Nearby on the coast, small-scale miners undertake a participatory action research process to assess their struggles for control of minerals in their ancestral lands and to identify ways to enhance those struggles in a ‘new political era’ (Mwasuru 2007). Meanwhile, in Washington DC, education activists are seeking assessment methods that promote accountability to the base and build stronger movements by deepening collective understanding of what change is and how to spark it (Reilly 2007).
Social change initiatives such as these seek the structural transformation of inequality that keeps marginalised voices mute and the poor embedded in poverty traps not of their own making. They are consciously and slowly building movements among specific groups – coastal women, urban slum dwellers, small-scale miners, education activists – in pursuit of a vision of social change that redresses power inequalities by putting understandings of power at the centre. This requires intense and judicious use of information as a catalyst for change; information about the scale and nature of the change, about options, about which strategies work best and when, about visions for the future. Critical is that such information processes are in the hands of the many and do not perpetuate power inequalities.
The main question being considered in this paper what is needed for assessment and learning to enhance the social change processes in which and for which they take place.If assessment and learning processes are to strengthen the change trajectories, then they must be embedded in social transformation and be coherent with the guiding values. It is this interaction that is the focus of this paper.
This paper summarises discussions in 2005 and 2006 held by a group of development professionals on the challenges and options for assessment and learning. The voices of the ‘Assessing Social Change’ group (see Boxes 1 and 2) are reflected in the text through quotes and examples they provided. I also draw on other outputs from the ASC initiative: a literature review and four case studies by participants. Much reference is made to these case written by group members Mwambi Mwasuru, Sheela Patel, Molly Reilly and Evelyn Samba (see Box 3).
This paper is aimed at development professionals, in general, who are interested in social change processes and in issues dealing with assessment and learning. This encompasses a diverse group - those working on the ground, those within funding agencies and academia, and those in supporting and facilitating roles. All these groups are important to make the shifts outlined in this document, hence section 6 articulates an agenda for action for each one.
Four central themes guided discussions and provide the structure of the paper.
Frameworks, concepts and methods to ensure critical reflection;
Understanding and dealing with different actors in assessment and learning; and
Issues of scale and interconnectedness.
The paper ends with recommendations for three key players: social change activists and their organisations, facilitators of assessment and learning, and donors.
Box 1. Background to the ‘Assessing Social Change’ group
Between May 2005 and November 2006, a small group of development professionals discussed the opportunities and challenges for assessing and learning about social change in ways that, in turn, provide valuable insights and strengthen the change process. This group was composed of individuals whose position in relation to the topic represented important voices to be heard: activists, researchers, evaluators, facilitators, international and local NGO staff. This group called itself the ‘assessing social change’ or ASC group.
Central to the group’s discussions was a common concern with the chasm between the need for reflective social change practice and the existing understanding and repertoire of approaches for assessment and learning. The group debated and shared through a series of facilitated e-discussions, case studies and two workshops.
The ASC group was part of an initiative by the Power, Participation and Change group at the Institute of Development Studies (UK). This initiative had emerged from earlier discussions in Canada between US-based activists and evaluators and Southern development professionals around the same topic, seeking to construct exchanges that could help strengthen social change work. Both phases of the work were supported by the Ford Foundation. The North American discussions have continued in parallel as the ‘Learning Group on Organizational Learning and Organizational Development’ under the guidance of Vicki Creed, with Andy Mott and Francois Pierre-Louis.
The ASC project has led to several outputs: four case studies (Mwambi 2007, Patel 2007, Reilly 2007, Samba 2007); a literature review; and this synthesis paper (Guijt 2007). All outputs and details of the ASC initiative can be found at: http://www.ids.ac.uk/ids/Part/proj/socialchange.html.
Box 2. The ASC group participants (in alphabetical order, also see Annex 1)
Cindy Clark, Valerie Miller, Molly Reilly, Lisa VeneKlasen (in alphabetical order) – Just Associates, USA
Marta Foresti – Overseas Development Institute, United Kingdom
John Gaventa – Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom (overall guidance)
Irene Guijt – Learning by Design, the Netherlands (coordinator)
Sammy Musyoki – Institute of Development Studies, United Kingdom (joint facilitator)
Box 3. Summary of four case ASC studies Mwasuru, M. 2007. Assessing Social Change Through Participatory Action Research: The Case of Kasighau Small-Scale Miners.
This is an account of a participatory action research (PAR) in Kenya that helped a coalition of activist groups dealing with rights to mining resources look at its struggles and gain new insights that helped them restrategise and ‘empower’ themselves. The author describes the context in which PAR emerged as a strategic choice and the players involved in the process. He details the process and the impacts at different levels – individually, strategically, and organisationally. He discusses the key challenges and dilemmas faced when undertaking PAR from a resistance paradigm perspective.
Patel, S. 2007. Reflections on Innovation, Assessment and Social Change. A SPARC case study.
The author describes two decades of work by the Alliance (SPARC, NSDF and Mahila Milan) to overcome urban poverty in Mumbai. The unplanned, evolving, multi-actor activities that – with hindsight – can be summarised succinctly confound mainstream evaluation approaches by their non-linearity and unpredictability. The case study of the Mumbai Urban Transport Project emphasises how a superficial look at assessment could allow them to claim it as a success but that the truly important insights and ‘assessment’ require a look at the values, principles, processes and relationships that were built over years and made it possible to ‘grasp the moment’ and clinch ‘victory’ at a critical time. Furthermore, the total entwinement of implementation, strategising and assessment defies the standard assumption that isolates evaluation as a process and methodology. This highlights the mismatch between donor perspectives on assessment and the clash with their own approach to ‘social change’/development.
Reilly, M. 2007. An Agenda for Change n the USA: Insights from a Conversation about Assessing Social Change in Washington, DC.
This paper is a conversation with activists that throws interesting light on the need to understand the political struggles and history of a context and within that understand the role of assessment as part of a process of social change. It discusses the origins of resistance to appreciating the value of assessment as a support to organising work. In particular, the conversation focused on the disconnect between the need for such embeddedness and the technocratic paradigm underpinning imposed and dominant evaluation approaches. The author outlines an agenda for action for funders, activists, and external supporters in the USA.
Samba, E. 2007. Sauti Ya Wanawake. The Role of Reflection in Women’s Social Change Work.
This case study recounts how an emerging social (women’s) movement in Kenya evolved in its approach to learning at a range of different levels and through local processes. It discusses the slow changes from humble beginnings to tackle the deep-rooted violence against women that required action at individual, community, institutional and political levels. In parallel, the women’s capacities had to be built through a largely self-fuelled process. Particularly important were the regular sharing meetings in which personal accounts and evidence-based strategising that took place. As the movement grew, more systemic processes and structures emerged to ensure ongoing sharing and critical reflection about priorities, strategies and impacts.