‘Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads’; Jack Kerouac

As an evaluator of civil society campaigns for nearly 15 years, I have regularly observed the tendency for particular issues at particular moments in time to achieve a high level of prominence in the programmes of NGOs and funders, to the potential detriment of other, equally deserving issues. The plethora of initiatives and funding streams on plastics waste may be a current example, the succession of priorities within the health sector another. The idea that NGOs’ priorities may be skewed by the latest, but ultimately short-lived, fad is problematic because of the risk not only that resources are disproportionately directed at particular issues in ways that may not be sustainable, but also that this is done in an inefficient and duplicative way; I myself have been in the position of evaluating very similar projects or campaigns for different organisations one after the other. It is possible too that, consciously or unconsciously, funders, particularly institutional funders, may be isolating a particular part of a problem to be fixed all the while the wider / deeper issues involved are left untouched. Their support for progress on one part of a problem may amount to a false signal of political will to tackle the underlying issues at stake.

In some cases, it may be that an NGO or group of NGOs has succeeded in planting an issue up the political, media and funder agenda and this is to their credit. (It does raise the question for evaluators and strategists as to what the factors are that put an issue up the public and policy agenda and how they can be replicated). In other cases, it may be that funders are setting the tone, and shaping NGO priorities through their own funding choices, something which raises issues of legitimacy and independence. There are responsibilities too for evaluators. At a certain level, evaluators may be obliged to ‘follow the money’ to earn a living. There may well be a benefit to clients from evaluators having accumulated deeper knowledge of an issue or set of issues through involvement in multiple assessments of a similar scope. At the same time, there may come a point when evaluators need to try to resist fads and assert a more balanced allocation of energies across a wider spectrum of issues.

Evaluators are also well-placed to perceive the effects of a different sort of fad: the ‘faddism of methodologies’, that is, the tendency for NGOs to treat the inclusion of certain ‘in vogue’ methodologies as a marker of professional competence and the legitimacy of an evaluation’s findings. In the design of campaigns and advocacy too, different approaches appear to be employed by rote – the obligation to devise theories of change being one example,  just as the need to set SMART objectives was a few years earlier – sometimes without it being obvious what the value is that these approaches are bringing.

Whether you judge something to be a fad – a certain approach to planning or evaluating campaigns or a particular issue or set of issues in themselves – depends on your perspective. If it is ‘your’ issue that has achieved high prominence, then the chances are, it will be seen as a victory to be celebrated, but if it is not, then it is a fad to moan about. And evaluators who are the ‘victims’ of clients prescribing particular methodologies may identify these as their fads of greatest concern. It should be possible, however, to see beyond one’s own immediate situation and reflect on what is to the benefit of progressive causes in a wider, more holistic sense. In this, evaluators have the responsibility to question the importance of a campaign in its wider context through investigation of its relevance. Assessing the importance of the achievement of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, for example, demands weighing this against other interventions to mitigate climate change. That cutting hydrofluorocarbons came out top in a ranking of solutions to control climate change suggests that it is an issue that is deserving of being made of a fad. In some cases though, it may be difficult for evaluators to gauge the relative importance of the solutions promoted by the work that they are assessing. This may suggest a need to involve content experts better placed to make these sorts of reasoned judgements of relevance.

There may also be value in evaluators and funders maintaining some form of dialogue to discuss trends in the sector, including the potential emergence of fads. While evaluators may have no special claim to be able to understand and weigh the relative legitimacy of particular issues, they do tend to be involved in work with multiple organisations across multiple issues and so have an important insight into sectoral trends and distortions. Ultimately too, it may become incumbent on evaluators to engage funders almost as advocacy targets in their own right, as the logical corollary to funders’ own, more interventionist strategies.

 

Jeremy Smith

 

Blog posts represent individual author’s views

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