Whether development work has a real impact and leads to strong outcomes has been a topic of discussion for quite some time, and more so in the past few years as the recent financial, food and natural crises further stress the world's poor. The question is, what explains the wide variability of development programs in achieving the targeted outcomes? Are we neglecting crucial links that can make development work more effective?
A seminar on Overlooked Links in the Results Chain (with participation of the World Bank, including the World Bank Institute, Development Economics and the Independent Evaluation Group, and the Inter-American Development Bank) highlighted the findings that organizations often fail to connect their programs directly to their beneficiaries, build on results from other sectors, develop a channel for timely feedback on achieving the stated objectives, and measure the right results. Evaluative lessons and feedback can be instrumental in overcoming these gaps.
Development projects are typically designed to work with governments, non-profit organizations and other formal networks, and often overlook working with the beneficiaries. Development agencies are also averse to working with and leveraging the influence of informal networks, such as citizens of the countries in which the projects are being implemented. One of the panelists pointed out that development agencies should be able to better reach their beneficiaries by leveraging the unique opportunities provided through modern technology and social media's outreach power. Mobile technology for example can inform how projects implemented in certain communities affect people's livelihoods.
Organizations can also gain by building on the synergies across related sectors. For example, better roads can contribute to higher school enrollment and better health outcomes. Such links can be taken advantage of either by working across boundaries within an organization or working together with other organizations. When development projects are narrowly focused, and operate in silos without complementing the work of other organizations, these gains are foregone.
Measuring immediate results instead of focusing on long-term goals is easier and more common for development projects, particularly the more complex ones. In many cases, organizations do not budget and allocate resources for measuring long-term results, which in turn de-motivates their staff from focusing on the long-term impact of the project. Then the question becomes, how do we measure results?
It is more appealing to assess composite measures as they are catchy, but they can send the wrong signals when what is being measured does not match the claim. Another risk that development projects run is looking at average levels to define successful outcomes. Averaging can be dangerous as it may inadvertently leave out targeted beneficiaries from the project's impact or worsen their situation.
It is also important to keep in mind that achieving intermediate results does not necessarily lead to achieving the desired outcome. For example, many educational programs are focused on raising school enrollments, but the substantive question should be did those who enrolled really learned what they were supposed to learn? The World Bank Group builds this consideration into its new education strategy.
In many cases, opportunities and links in development could be fostered through a feedback loop, aided by timely evaluations of the objectives and the results. The evaluation function can be a key ally to development organizations in learning from experiences, identifying missed opportunities, and adapting to changing contexts.