Development professionals launch Big Push Back to counter ‘audit culture’

1 October 2010

1 October 2010Panelists at the launch of The Big Push Back held at IDS

More than 70 development professionals met at IDS to take their first steps towards resisting the new 'audit culture' of philanthropic foundations and government ministries.

Participants at the day-long event, entitled The Big Push Back, developed strategies to counter the trend which sees funding organisations increasingly supporting only those programmes designed to deliver easily measurable results.

The event was convened by IDS Fellow Rosalind Eyben who called for action, concerned that the dominance of narrow numbers-based research is ineffectual in tackling poverty.

Extraordinary reporting demands

Eyben explained: 'Funding agencies are increasingly imposing extraordinary demands in terms of reporting against indicators of achievement that bear little relation to the manner and possibilities that development activities have for supporting social transformation.

'In my invitation to The Big Pushback meeting I wrote that many development practitioners cynically comply with the performance measurement demands. But compliance and resistance consume energy and enthusiasm.

'What is more, the methods demanded of us to be more accountable are actually having the effect of our ever less enquiring of ourselves how we can contribute to poverty reduction and social justice and be held accountable for our actions in that respect.'

Development is complex

She continued: 'My note struck a strong chord. People emailed and phoned about their interest in being part of The Big Push Back. One senior official from an international development organisation phoned to say, "We negotiated for several months with [a government donor] and they themselves knew it was ridiculous what they were asking for." At last week's meeting people expressed their frustration and anger. One said, "My staff and my organisational partners are oppressed by the agreements I make with funders whose demands I pass on." '

Eyben says there are many reasons for the new funding environment which, she argues, fails to recognise the complexity of development and risks losing the voices and knowledge of local actors.

These include supporters' and taxpayers' lack of appetite for complex messages; increased pressure for quick 'wins' to demonstrate that aid works; and a belief that challenges such as high levels of maternal mortality in many developing countries are solely technical problems for which straight-forward technical solutions can be found.

Collective action

Participants at The Big Pushback included development researchers and practitioners. They welcomed the possibility of collective research and action in order to start a dialogue with donors and create more space for development that leads to social transformation.

They considered the following as ways forward:

  • Building 'counter-narratives' that emphasise accountability to those for whom international aid exists.
  • Developing innovative communication channels in order to better communicate with the public the complex nature of development.
  • Developing different methods of reporting, so that the requirement for aggregated numbers at Northern policy level captures the character of programming in complex development contexts.
  • Collaborating with people working for change inside donor agencies.
  • Re-claiming the term 'value for money'.
  • Enhancing organisational learning and reflective practice to nurture out-of-the-box thinking and approaches.
  • Scrutinising the role of big business in development aid and its impact on discourse, quality and accountability.

The Participation, Power and Social Change Team at IDS is now exploring the possibility of resources to support communications and knowledge-sharing among an informal network of practitioners and researchers pursuing these strategies.

Big Push Back participants suggested making such meetings annual and, in the meantime, networking with each other and other interested parties.

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Image credit: IDS