Here’s something I’ve been meaning to write about: one diagram that’s done more than anything else to stop NGOs truly measuring their performance. You’ll know it if you work in the sector. It’s the results-chain:
The example about teacher training shows why it’s so wrong. Look at it for a second and you can see it’s just not true.
An NGO can train teachers. But anywhere round the world a hundred other factors affect whether students get better education: Do schools have classrooms and textbooks? Can students go to them? Do the teachers go to them? Are teachers well managed and supported?
A thousand other factors affect whether students get better jobs: Do the jobs exist? Do students have the right skills? Do women have to stay at home and look after children? Is economic growth keeping pace with population growth?
And who knows how many factors affect average incomes: employment laws, the number of job-seekers, investment policies, European trade barriers, the international financial crisis – and many others.
Here’s the problem. The diagram shows a set of aspirations. An NGO may hope that training teachers will help improve education and employment. There may sometimes be good grounds to suggest that activities will contribute to specific results.
But when it comes to social change, involving real thinking people living their own complicated lives, it’s by no means certain.
In practice, the results-chain tends to be seen as reality, showing what will definitely happen rather than what we hope might happen. It reinforces the wrong logic, suggesting that social change is predictable, straightforward and mechanical – and that NGOs determine long term changes.
But any field experience shows that it’s not and they don’t.
From the point of view of a results-chain, local people are cogs in the wheels of our projects, expected to behave in certain pre-determined ways – rather than independent people making their own decisions.
The approach pushes NGOs to measure the wrong things, like whether pre-planned activities have all been carried out, what ‘impact’ has occurred and whether there’s an impact for every activity listed in the plan. None of this has any bearing on the quality of the teacher training or whether training teachers is still a good idea – which would probably help the NGO achieve more.
On the other hand, the results-chain has some appealing aspects that have made it popular. It’s easy to understand. It creates a framework for management and action. It sets out a ‘project logic’, apparently linking activities to long term results. It provides a useful summary of goals and intentions. It also suggests that NGOs are important: good news when you’re trying to impress donors.
Our challenge is to come up with alternative frameworks, that are as intuitive and easy to use, meeting the needs of field staff as well as managers, without doing such violence to reality.
Then we can throw off our results-chains and get on with the important business of measuring – and maximising – our performance.
Here’s a people-centred approach I use. You can see how it fits with the analysis on this website. What others are there out there?