Watermelons, development projects and square boxes

Square watermelons from Japan. If only people grew in square boxes too.

Here’s a great story that shows why people are not like watermelons (see picture): they won’t grow in square boxes.

It’s a perfect example of the pitfalls of logframes. In this case, the logframe created the wrong incentives for field managers. They didn’t pay enough attention to what other people were doing. So although the team completed all their activities, they didn’t achieve their goals.

Roberto Borlini originally posted the story to the lively and sometimes excellent Outcome Mapping community. I’m looking forward to more from him on his blog, monitoring_aid.

Roberto attached this summary logframe to a “very ambitious” food security project he’d been involved in, and wrote:

“The logical framework (logframe) is pretty good: the logic is clear and coherent and the indicators are very specific. There is no confusion in my mind when I analyze the cause-effect relationships: with more and better inputs, training and infrastructure, farmers will be able to get more food for consumption and even sell some of the surplus.

The timeframe is tight though (2 years) and it takes a huge effort to achieve all the outputs indicated in the logframe: production, productivity, number of hectares, number of trainings, etc.  The project team dove headfirst in the implementation dedicating 100% of its attention to the activities.

When the mid-term monitoring mission arrived, it represented the first opportunity for the project managers to analyze the situation from an outside perspective.

What they saw wasn’t encouraging: in their frantic effort to keep up with their ambitious design, they had forgotten about the other actors working in the area and had promoted only a limited involvement of local institutions. Besides, the government had decided to buy all the corn harvest at artificially high prices, killing private markets.

The result was that the outputs had been produced, but very few people were using them, the impact of the intervention was very small and there were very slim chances of achieving sustainability. The different stakeholders hadn’t modified their behavior and the relationships between them had not changed since the inception of the project:

  • Beneficiaries’ organizations were brand new and mainly composed of illiterate farmers, living in remote areas. They had received trainings, but remained institutionally weak and had very limited technical capacity.
  • Local development organizations showed very little appropriation of the intervention. They were getting paid to perform a task. Period.
  • Local government officials were satisfied to receive reports every semester and take credit for the distribution of tools.

A combination of results- and actor-based approaches would have contributed to a more balanced intervention, where productivity is linked to a change in behavior and relationship among stakeholders.

Adopting an actors-based approach, the NGO would have set achievable goals for the groups of beneficiaries and promoted a bigger role for local institutions in order to enlist them as committed actors in the process of achieving food security in the area. The disappearance of private marketing channels would have been less of a problem because stronger institutions, coordinating between them, could have diversified production and pursued other opportunities.”

This all sounds depressingly believable and familiar to me.

As NGOs, we urgently need other approaches to planning and monitoring our work, which focus on the people involved in development and how much value we are adding to their efforts to improve their own – and other peoples’ – lives.

6 Responses

  1. Here’s a quote from William Easterly:

    “A Planner thinks he already knows the answer; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors… and hopes to find answers to individual problems by trial and error… A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.”

    • Great quote! Easterly and his arguments and counterarguments against Sachs are interesting, as well as the love-hate relationship between him and Sen. While he surely makes a valid point that a “Searchers” approach may yield better results, he does disregard some aspects from the “Planners” approach which are pivotal. as cynical as this may sound, the bottom-up approach that he advocates for assumes that the beneficiaries of the programs know what is best for themselves, their communities and their development. Sadly, this is not always the case. For example, look at some all-to-common market access programs. In regions of Northern Uganda, many communities witnessed the success of beaded jewelry being sold to some limited international markets. The result was an over-saturated market of this particular jewelry. Because of the delay of outcomes in particularly remote regions of the country which introduced these bead-making programs, there was a tremendous amount of resources wasted and communities which felt cheated by the system. This is a simple example and there are many dynamics which need to be taken into account. What I am attempting to elude to is that for us to have real success in our programs, we need to employ a mixed “Planner” and “Searcher” approach. There are incredibly worthwhile lessons which can be taught and learned between both sides.

  2. Really excellent post. I think, in fact I can almost hear, logframe afficienados saying that this is not an indictment of the logframe tool but an example of its incorrect use. (Sort of like communism; you can always defend it by saying the example being criticized really wasn’t “pure” enough…). I am more inclined to think that the problems reside in four realms: the fact that the logframe construct tends to view the actions of others as “assumptions” and not as active, peer relationships; the tool has difficulty in rexamining assumptions and changing circumstances;and it doesn’t treat the implementers as anytthing other than builders and providers, rather than facilitators, mentors, peers and active participants.
    But I think also we may be knocking the tool more than we should be knocking the mindset of those using the tool. I think it can indeed be flexible and adaptable if indeed the user values those qualities. Changing the tool without changing the mindset will be a long, probably fruitless exercise.

  3. I agree with Tony, many times it’s not the tool, but how we implement it. One very important factor is indeed to involve all possible (external) factors in the logframe analysis (or whatever type of tool you use). that way you can factor them into the program design, either by direct implementation or indirectly through strengthening local partners.

  4. I, too, agree with Tony. No effective practitioner, regardless of their field – be it a plumber or a politician – approaches any situation with a single tool to complete a task. It simply does not work. I have seen LFA provide great insight when coupled with other tools to exhibit a realistic picture of what is occurring. Understanding the limitations of LFA and all other tools is crucial to monitoring any program. For example, I have seen many people combine LFA with ongoing “impact” assessments which are contextually relative to the particular program and this combination has helped to curtail problems before they are detrimental. the combination of tools also provides a scope of trackable indicators and information to assist in amending programs to ensure they perform optimally. Add LFA to your box-o-tools with its contextual user manual and let’s enjoy the (square) fruits of our labour.

  5. The predictable, linear, rational progression of activities is what can make a sound logframe clear and elegant. But this predictable, linear, rational progression of activities is also what can render a logframe useless in the context of providing relief and fighting poverty and injustice.
    In spite of any amount of bellyaching on my or anyone’s part, the logical framework and the logical framework approach is not going away any time soon. Thus I think it’s important for aid workers to be aware of its purpose and its limitations.
    You can read more at: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/02/26/logframes-errrgh/

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