Development evaluators, make blogging part of your workstyle!



I do not know whether this is really ‘an NGO trend’, as the GUARDIAN calls it, to send bloggers to the field to write on organisation’s projects (Blogging from Bangladesh-more poverty tourism?), but Heather Armstrong’s reflections and Tom Murphy’s additional thoughts on the subject are interesting reads. But engaging with bloggers and social media more broadly should not just be seen as an exercise for fundraising and communication, but should also become part of real evaluations of the big donor and implementing organisations outside the NGO sector.
As it is often not paid, looks at bit as the blogger’s answer to some form of journalistic voluntourism. There may be benefits for NGOs, as Tom points out, but I’m more concerned about the (non-NGO) evaluation ‘industry’ and why most official evaluations are light-years away from being more transparent, participatory and accessible. Whereas the blogger can travel to the field on her own expenses, maybe in few months time an official ‘mission’ will travel to a similar project – with paid flights, daily allowances and an official mandate only to produce another of these infamous 20-30 page reports’ and a ‘presentation to staff at headquarters’. In short, why are so many parts of the development industry still so far away from using social media (not just blogging, but any format that collects, discusses and shares findings slightly differently) officially? Even as critical voices are emerging that (rightly) question the power and influence of bloggers and blogging, this is not simply a question about a tool or software, but more importantly about the prevailing mindsets. Why does it seem so ridiculous if a donor-funded project instead of spending a lot of time on quarterly reports maintains a blog instead? Why is a lengthy report with numerous attachments still regarded as the norm if a 20 minute documentary could also deliver interesting insights into the progress of a project? Yes, if a project is funded through the taxpayer’s money there needs to be a proper paper trail and development projects are only one small part of the bureaucratic machinery of government, but that is not good enough of an argument; most evaluation reports are not available in the public domain and once they went through numerous feedback loops and are polished and published they are often close to being meaningless. I do not mean that every ‘development blogger’ should automatically be treated as a professional evaluator – but, why, for example, is their not much teaming-up going on? I have written about my curiosity for qualitative data a couple of times before (e.g. with regards to the openaid debate, on new forms of postgraduate teaching and learning or on evaluation and peacebuilding) and, yes, I am an anthropological development researcher, but would it not be fascinating to compare the results of how an evaluator evaluates and how a blogger blogs about the process? Why does it seem so unimaginable that, say, the EU introduces new genres of evaluation alongside traditional reports of its ECHO-funded projects? I strongly believe that if bloggers in the field are given a purpose beyond communication and evaluators are encouraged/forced to think more ‘2.0’ we would see amazing, creative examples of how ‘results’ can be discussed, perceptions are challenged and genuinely better evaluations would be produced. If one donor or organisation would ‘upgrade’ blogging from ‘random thoughts and critique’ it would also add a new layer to the discussion about blogging and ‘impact’. ‘The diary of the xyz project evaluation’ alongside more conventional ways of sharing findings would be a fascinating exercise – bold, transparent, engaging with complexity and the sometimes murky realities in which development operates. Imagine a conventional evaluator, a development blogger and a local blogger would write and share independently their views, findings and impressions throughout the process and create a holistic experience for everybody involved. And once we have achieved this on the project level, we can then move on to the inside of organisations where bloggers could stimulate all sorts of discussions outside the realm of staff meetings, assessment missions and filing away ’20-30 page’ evaluation reports...

Comments

  1. Tobias, you might be interested in the ONE campaign's recent trip with ten "mom bloggers" (i.e. *not* development bloggers) to Kenya.

    http://www.one.org/us/actnow/moms/

    ReplyDelete
  2. [I deleted Patrick Gremillet's original comment by accident...]

    Dear Tobias,

    I fully agree with your article. It is time to rethink how we assess development results, and consider whether social media could offer potential avenues to capture concrete change affecting people.

    You may be interested in a blog article published few weeks ago on the same topic:
    What role for social media in monitoring development results?

    http://ow.ly/5zy44

    Regards

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks Dave and Patrick for sharing! Dave, I understand the rationale of the 'mom blogger' campaign, but it's not exactly the type of engagement I need to see more of - especially when we are discussing blogging/social media in the context of 'real' development; Patrick's reflections are very interesting and I agree that there is some potential for it in large orgs like the UN system.

    ReplyDelete
  4. In a nutshell, Tobias, people don't generally read blogs, especially not serious ones. The more serious they are, the less people read them. You get a few followers who rarely visit and even fewer comments.

    If you are part of an offline community (such as a university, special interest group, professional society, etc), the situation may be different. In other words, where there are other opportunities to discuss and express about an issue, blogs might be a good supplement.

    But individuals blogging in the field are not generally read much, except by their friends. And their friends are more likely to want the news and general things, not technical details.

    As a frequent blogger who writes about various matters online but also writes reports offline, that's my take!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have to admit that I lost a bit touch with YahooGroups. However, I was very impressed with the feedback I received from sharing my post on the MandE- (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/MandENEWS/) and XCeval-newslists (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/XCeval/). There really is an active and knowledgeable community 'out there' that may not be as engaged in blog/twitter debates, but surely discusses all sorts of interesting M&E-related development topics online. Do join the lists!

    JP wrote:
    'Hi Tobias,

    Perhaps it's because the median age of the development industry employee AND the evaluation industry employee is still too high to recognize the value of alternative forms of media and data collection. Additionally, most of the paradigms for evaluation content come from large government organizations; these create waste and lousy reports, as we all well know. Small, private organizations or NGOs should be more flexible, unfortunately they mimic the larger organizations because they are always in search of funding. The thirty page report is loose justification for the enormous price tag.
    May better days in evaluation and development lie ahead!'

    RA wrote:
    'Extremely interesting. And you say bloggers can review projects like evaluations officially and you actually get paid for it. I do both (evaluations and blogging) but I thought till now the twain doesn’t meet. I resort to blogging what the ToR does not permit evaluators to say. Blogging are usually issue based rarely institution focussed. Now you say that these distinctions are slowly falling apart. Awesome!'

    And LGM wrote:
    Hello!

    'We have tried to incorporate blogging into our work. Our challenge is that our clients would rather publish results than have us do so. We help them do so in a way that has integrity - acknowledges both negative and positive findings - but still allows them to describe how they are responding to any findings. We don't feel comfortable blogging about them without their permission, so are constrained unless we've been given the go-ahead.
    Have others experienced similar issues? The difference between us and the investigator out in the field is that they aren't hired to answer specific questions - they can explore whatever is interesting, and share with whomever they want.

    Curious what others think this implies about independence, use, and transparency!'

    ReplyDelete
  6. @ Simon: I agree to some extent, but World Bank and Swiss SDC for example have official blogging communities and could use them differently. I'm also not demanding every evaluation to be 'virtual', but I wish large organisations would try to be more innovative combining elements from individual blogging (why is it thought to be an outrageous idea if the development officer of an embassy for example maintains a blog with personal reflections?!) with 'classic' M&E approaches on paper, in film or on the Internet.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Tobias,
    After completing my MA at IDS (at the time you were a PhD student there, I was part of MA-DEV01) I went on to work as a consultant in 'development' so to say, for a large international consultancy firm. Although many of my colleagues would love to work from a more knowledge-based angle, there's often no time or (professional) opportunity to get up to speed with the latest books/publications, let alone blogs, apart from key reports mostly written by the donors. However much I regret this, even I find it difficult to follow a blog (although I find several massively interesting, and I do try to keep up on some study centre's publications, newsletters, seminars and events).

    I guess if social media is to become more succesful in getting integrated with the more mainstream development evaluation of, let's stick to your example, the EC, it's format needs to be adapted to easily digestable prose instead of an extensive blog. Ofcourse that'd be nowhere near the qualitative content a full blog would have, but it could be a first step (just a thought i wanted to share)

    regards,
    Lindsey

    ReplyDelete

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