First published on the Guardian's Katine website on 4 Nov 2008

A year into the Katine project, is it on course to make a significant and lasting change for the people of the area? It is impossible to answer that question without a much better knowledge of the context than is possible from reading some technical documents and the odd blog, but the debate about what progress is being made in Katine makes interesting reading and brings out, among other things, one of the main tensions in development work in 2008. For all the talk of empowerment, for all the emphasis on ownership, what are kind of impacts are we really measuring?

We live in the age of the logframe, the age of tiered objectives, expected outcomes, lead and lag indicators, measurable impacts. All well and good – when used sensibly these methodologies can lead to the kind of critical thinking so vital in this era of development. But we also know from studying the history of development that the things most easy to measure (health and education statistics, water quality, income) are not necessarily the best indicators of real change. That’s why you can’t speak to a development professional for more than thirty seconds before the word “empowerment” pops out. It is a recognition that even more important than the material benefits a development project might bestow, are the less tangible changes in capacity and confidence that make a community more resilient in the face of difficult circumstances, and more able to demand and defend its rights.

So empowerment is the buzzword, but what is actually being measured by aid givers? What do the donors want to see in their annual reports? In two years time, at the end of the project, when the evaluators return with their long lists, their clipboards, and their inappropriate clothing, what signs will they be looking for that progress has been made?

AMREF’s programme in Katine has five prongs: water, health, education, livelihoods and governance. Progress on the first four of those prongs will be relatively easy for evaluators to measure and quite rewarding for journalists to photograph. Success will look like schools newly stocked with materials, better trained and equipped health professionals therapy, and new farming techniques being employed. All these things, and others, will demonstrate change for many people, a real change in living standards, a change for the better. But will they mean a change for good?

There are urgent needs in Katine, as in the rest of Africa , which require an urgent humanitarian response. But humanitarian response is not development. Development is not just change, it is sustained change. Development is not just new books, new drugs, new wells. It is the confidence that when the outsiders have left, when the development experts are working with a different community, when the donors have refused repeat funding because of the global financial meltdown, when the journalists are covering a different story, change remains.

The last of the programme’s five prongs, governance, is the most important, and the one least given to glossy photos. It is clear that AMREF understands and emphasises the importance of governance, of empowerment, of processes. What is not yet clear is how the organisation’s philosophy of empowerment will bear up when the pressure to produce “results” kicks in. As the end of the third year approaches, there will be underspends and phone calls from the finance department: “We have targets to meet; what will the donors think?” Meanwhile, journalists and the public at large will want change that can be photographed: greener fields, clean school uniforms, healthy looking faces.

It is hard to photograph empowerment. It is hard to monitor growing confidence. But it can be done. Not by independent evaluators dropping in for week before returning to their flats in South London, but by the project workers themselves, by the AMREF staff, who have built relationships with the communities and who can monitor progress over time. Only with this labour intensive type of accompaniment can real progress be measured, progress that depends on poor and marginalized communities taking power in their own hands, through better organization, better education, and a more strategic vision for their future.

Some people think organisation and empowerment are a means to an end. That is more or less the conventional wisdom. When a community is “empowered” it can better reach its real goals which relate to material benefits: better health, better food, better education, a higher income. But to turn conventional wisdom on its head for a moment, while vital in themselves, in some ways health, education and income are only the means to the real end of development work: community strength and resilience, ready to face new challenges that come its way, long after the “development project” has moved on.

The Katine project is a bold initiative which will hopefully have a lasting impact on the target communities, and might even make a difference in Uganda as a whole. It has certainly generated a much needed debate about the role of aid and the state of development in Africa . Let’s hope the project team sticks to its guns on empowerment and shows the watching world what development really means; not shiny results after just three years, but the gradual building of capacity and confidence.

posted by Jonathan Glennie @ 04:03

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