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When evaluation reinforces the status quo

I see a lot of similarities between behaviour change interventions for sustainability and international development assistance. Both fields seek to intervene to change participants’ behaviours, and generally this is done through a linear model of cause and effect, where the intervention is evaluated as the sole agent of change. In a recent post on complexity and development, Ben Ramalingam highlights a recent publication by Olivier Serrat, Head of Knowledge Management at the Asian Development Bank:

Development is a complex, adaptive process but—with exceptions—development work has not been conducted as such… development assistance often follows a linear approach to achieving outputs and outcomes……Any planning process is based on assumptions—some will be predictable, others wishful. If the assumptions are based on invalid theories of change (including cause-and-effect relationships) and on inappropriate tools, methods, and approaches derived from those, development agencies jeopardize the impacts they seek to realize.

In terms of evaluation, the risk is not solely that we jeopardise the impacts, but that we choose evaluation methods that will seek out what we want to show, whether this has actually occurred or not. If we are intent on showing a particular change, it is quite easy to (inadvertently or not) seek out what we (want to) believe actually happened, and by doing this we reinforce the perpetuation of behaviour change interventions that may not be all that successful. And in doing this we reinforce the status quo, rather than move towards better practices that account for complexity.

Here’s a nice quote from Aaron Levenstein to keep in mind:
Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.

| April 9th, 2010 | Posted in Behaviour Change, complexity, Evaluation |

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