Hard evidence, rigorous data, tangible results, value for money – all are tantalising terms promising clarity for the international development sector. Yet, behind these terms lie definitional tussles, vested interests and contested world views that this background paper to the Politics of Evidence Conference aims to make explicit and question. The aim is to encourage development practitioners to strategize in expanding the politico-bureaucratic space to make room for flexible and creative support of locally-generated and transformative change.
Disentangling the historical threads and origins of results-based management and evidence-based policy/programming has discovered a strong ‘family resemblance’. The discourses share a common epistemology or history of ideas and concepts. Both assume that evidence pertains only to verifiable and measurable facts and that other types of knowledge have no value: both a particular understanding of causality, efficiency and accountability. How and why have these discourses influenced the development sector and who is promoting them in which contexts? What has been the effect on the sector’s priorities and practices, and particularly its capacity to support transformative development?
Arguing the importance of being critically aware of how power sustains and reinforces the development sector’s results-and-evidence discourses, the paper explains how the resulting tools and methods, such as logical framework analyses and theories of change shape our working practices. Why and under what conditions do potentially useful tools – such as Theories of Change – mutate into coercive instruments that reduce the space for choice? These tools and methods can have perverse consequences because of their hidden and invisible power to determine what knowledge counts when hierarchical ways of working block communications and dialogue.
Just as tools and methods shape practice, so context specific practice shapes the tools. Their power is neither uniform nor constant. There is room for manoeuvre to expand approaches to evidence within the sector, enabled by an analysis of the politics of accountability and the sector’s internal dynamics.
The paper concludes with the contradictions arising from the political pressures to seen to be in control in a world of uncertainty and surprises and identifies these as potential opportunities for changing how the sector deals with results and evidence.