Musings from Buntwani 2017

When data — particularly government data —  is made relevant and available, we as “infomediaries” have an opportunity to create public value. As a community of data users, we are becoming more savvy at turning datasets into information, and information into advocacy for better public resource allocation, transparency and accountability, and good governance.  

At the global level, these themes are even more relevant as we consider the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the commitments made to eliminate poverty, disease, and hunger; combat inequality; and address climate change. But it is at the local level where the impact of these commitments will — or will not — be felt. And it is at the local level where topics of resources, accountability, and governance come to the fore — where the difference between seven and four out of ten Tanzanians with access to safe drinking water transforms from statistic to human.

There was no better event than Buntwani to have a candid conversations with leading individuals and organizations to explore whether and how the Global Goals can have an impact at the local level. From the conversations I had, a number of themes came to the fore — many important for those working at global or even national level to keep in mind when seeking to leave no one behind.

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On ‘Killing’ the Logframe: A Move Towards Reality?

Despite the development world’s passion for monitoring, evaluation and learning, at Buntwani many critiqued the project logframe for wielding so much power — particularly as this power is usually top-down and donor-led, with little room for community feedback. Why should a logframe be so important, when — as a grassroots organization — we do not have the skills to evaluate the logic model, nor the resources to hire an M&E Officer… yet know exactly what needs to be done and how to do it?

Case studies from the Open Institute and others demonstrate that local communities embrace the use of data and technology; feel more vested in development projects; and (arguably) can provide greater knowledge of “what works” when engaged from the start. So what to do about logframes — matrices that offer the potential for innovation, but too often reinforce unequal power relations? Borrowing from the case of Lanet Umoja, bringing communities into the entire monitoring and evaluation process — and building local skills and expertise — can succeed in making data collection and analysis is not so much an event, but an ongoing process for ensuring desired outcomes.

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New Approaches Call for Newfound Respect

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Underscoring a departure from the Millennium Development Goals Era, global rhetoric has emphasized the need for innovative financing, partnerships, and approaches to achieve our intended outcomes. At the subnational level, this means we must work together to strengthen the working relationships between state and non-state actors.

A key part of this strengthening must come from meeting our counterparts halfway. Civil society organizations should realize that governments must account for uneven taxpayer revenues and other financial uncertainties — so programs must be “sustainable” (cost-efficient) and “scalable” (provide a low-risk proof-of-concept). At the same time, governments must appreciate that sometimes “shiny and new” civil society programs do realize intended outcomes, including value for money. Furthermore, any success — even at the hyper-local  level — should be celebrated and learned from, as ultimately local communities are all of our intended beneficiaries.

Safeguard Data and Fortify Methodologies

The use(r)s of data can be benevolent, benign, or malicious. Protecting beneficiary data — from collection and transmission, to analysis and use — should never be ignored, particularly where the use of mobile has proliferated. Further upstream, it is also important to promote the use of sound research methodologies, so that the veracity of a program’s design and findings can withstand the tests of (internal and external) validity and reliability. This is an especially important consideration for civil society organizations and other non-state actors, who aim to eventually publish, share, and scale their work.

Be Humble, and Call on Others

Lastly, it would be naïve to think that this focus on evidence and learning for the public good is new — and that we know how to get it right. Even a good thing can become destructive if taken in excess, and data-driven evidence is no exception. In some cases, these “data excesses” manifested in an over-emphasis on technology, dashboards, and open data portals — created at great expense, without an appreciation for how time, resources, incentives, and decision-space inform policymaking much more than data ever could.

Mark Buntwani

What was evident (yes, I said it!) from the very first session at Buntwani is the need to appreciate that excesses do exist — and they shape some of the (strong) opinions we hold, especially around the Global Goals. Solving public problems will require trade-offs, and compromise, and mutual respect. Even the most well-intentioned programs can lead to unintended consequences. Through 2030 and beyond, we are seeking to achieve more rapid and more inclusive outcomes. Fostering collaboration through communities of practice, and public gathering places — “buntwani” in Kiswahili —  will help ensure our macro-aspirations become real micro-outcomes for communities.

Note: This blog post is cross-posted from Mark Irura's guest post on the Open Institute blog. The original post can be found here.