Friday, 30 March 2012

What should the post-2015 MDG (on water and sanitation) look like, and how would we measure it?

By Elise Wach
IDS Bulletin 43.2

On World Water Day, I had the opportunity to attend the IDS STEPS Centre launch of the IDS Bulletin on Politics and Pathways in Water and Sanitation. The discussion focused strongly around the MDGs: it was recently announced that the target for water had already been met, but there are a lot of questions about what that really means and how it was determined that we have ‘halved the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water’.

The panellists all lambasted the fact that the goal says nothing about equity.  And while the word ‘sustainability’ is included the target, there are serious doubts about how that is actually measured.  Katharina Welle’s research, for example, revealed that neither the neither the method used by the Ministry of Water and Energy (based on infrastructure completed) nor the method used by the JMP (based on household use of water) accurately captures the access issues that people in rural areas are grappling with.

This resonates quite strongly with the work I’m doing with the International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC) to synthesize the learning streams for the Triple-S Initiative, which is attempting to completely transform the rural water sector.  And I have been asking myself, if we wanted another round of MDGs, and if we kept the same sector-based approach (both are big ‘if’s’ and there are more), what would we want the water sector goal to look like, and how would we measure progress towards it?

I essentially worked backwards through a simplified theory of change, starting with the end goal. Based on the principles of Triple-S, I went ahead and defined the end goal to be:

Everyone has sustainable access to safe, adequate, and reliable water.

Essentially, there are five core components here (the five words in bold).  While they are all intrinsically linked to one another, let’s attempt to look at just one aspect of this: sustainability.

How do you measure sustainability?  You could go back and see if water services are still there in ten years’ time.  That’s useful, and I think it should be done (and so does Water for People) but how do we know now if water services will continue sustainably in ten years time?   

Perhaps we’d want to think about what is needed to ensure sustainability, and try to measure that. According to Triple-S, one prerequisite for ensuring that water services last is to ensure that there is the capacity, financing, and planning for major replacements in the future (i.e. not just maintenance). And there are a variety of other direct and indirect requirements for sustainability: ownership, inclusion, accountability, transparency, government capacity, and coordination to name a few.

So a big challenge would be to agree on the requirements for sustainability.  Assuming we can overcome this (daunting) hurdle, we’d then need to assess whether these are in place.  But measuring these won’t be as straightforward as measuring the number of people who live within a certain radius of a borehole.  And there are other issues as well, such as the issue of Multiple-Use Systems, as Stef Smits discusses.

It will be, in a word, complex.   

But if the issues we’re trying to address are complex (and they are - read more about "complexity" in this ODI working paper (PDF)), then it isn’t surprising that measuring progress and achievements is complex as well. 

While the simplicity of the MDGs may have helped mobilise support for development, that simplicity comes at a cost.  As Lindsey Nelson discussed in her STEPS presentation on multi-modal discourse last week, there are consequences to basing your strategy on a bumper sticker slogan.  Something to think about as we discuss the post-2015 development agenda.

Monday, 19 March 2012

(Still) Seeking a cure for Portal Proliferation Syndrome

By Susie Page

As co-editor to a forthcoming issue of the IDS Bulletin (autumn 2012) which will be focusing on ‘research communications’ (all facets of it!), I am currently reading about some very exciting work around this.

During our Call for Submissions, Geoff Barnard, former Head of the Information Department here at IDS, and now Head of Knowledge Management at the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) sent me a link his blog on Seeking a Cure for Portal Proliferation Syndrome.

Geoff aptly captures the dilemma that anyone working in research communication and knowledge brokering will be familiar with – the temptation to solve some of the challenges around research communication and uptake in development policymaking and practice by gathering all the relevant research into a super, sophisticated website. The underlying assumption being – if only people could access the research (at the click of a button), then the rest will follow.

He obviously hit a nerve, as there was a stream of responses to his blog, including one from Catherine Fisher who also contributes to this blog, highlighting her work “Ten Portal Pitfalls” – I would urge you to read Geoff's blog and contribute to the debate. 

Can we 'scientifically' test for what works when it comes to research uptake?

Image from:
Coming from a medical background, the words “cure” and “syndrome” had immediate resonance for me: in the medical world, we are acutely aware of persistent diseases and syndromes with millions of pounds spent on testing for cures (although take it from me the health sector struggles equally with the business of research uptake! See Lomas on this, for example).

But does similar testing occur in this sector – the one that wants to get good research results out of the lab and into development policy and practice? Is it even feasible to conceive of a scientific test for something as amorphous as “knowledge” and “evidence”?

Going back to 'the cure', we should perhaps be asking whether portals are a syndrome or a symptom. If they are symptom, the problem could be that we think research is not being used in policymaking and practice because people don’t have access to it. Yet, surely the very proliferation of portals in itself highlights that this isn’t the problem – after all, how will one more portal succeed where others have failed? What do we know about the success and failures of portals? What actually do we know about the relationship between portals and research uptake?

With people still wracking their brains over measuring impact of research, there is room for some robust ‘scientific’ testing what is and isn’t effective for supporting research uptake and the place (or otherwise) of portals within this. We recently teamed up with 3ie to carry out an experiment on the effectiveness of the ubiquitous ‘policy brief’ (even more ubiquitous than portals, I would argue). The results are just beginning to come through. Watch this space for more on this – we will of course be sharing our findings with you!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Convening research excellence and beating the budget squeeze: 15 top-tips on managing expert e-discussions

Guest post: Adrian Bannister, Eldis Communities Co-ordinator, draws on experience from IDS  Knowledge Services to argue that online discussion events can successfully connect global thinkers without costing the earth

We all know that a demanding funding environment where delivering more for less can often conflict with personal and institutional commitments to the environment and to diversity agendas.

Digital technologies have provided development institutions with many opportunities for being more effective and efficient (in a broad sense). But when it comes to the efforts to substantively engage others in co-critiquing, re-constructing and advocating for research excellence, it seems that we still rely on face-to-face gatherings.

Why aren't we making more use of the Internet for debate and discussion?

As an approach for supporting policy influence to instigate real change online discussions seem to offer benefits that real-world events can't.

For starters, they enable us:
  • to instantly connect disparate individuals from around the globe
  • to enable participants to engage around their existing commitments
  • to provide a safe(r) and empowering space for private discussions
  • to instantaneously document the event for retrospective viewing
  • to avoid the substantial time, cost and environmental overheads of bringing individuals together

Unfortunately, generating online discussion is much harder than it might seem. Despite the plethora of new tools for commenting and contributing to the web, stimulating user generated content remains a real challenge.

It is worth remembering that while the 'like button' sets the standard for easy / ubiquitous interaction across the web, in October 2011 Facebook chose to quietly remove its discussion functions completely.

A quick Google search shows that genuinely great e-discussions are rare – instead the web is littered with numerous poorly received examples with few if any comments.

What factors help make for 'great' online debates? What can we learn from each other?

I’d like to share some lessons that IDS Knowledge Services and partners have learned in our recent experience convening experts' e-discussions with prominent researchers / actors / practitioners as participants.

During 2011 and into 2012 we have used the Eldis Communities platform to host several such events on a range of topics, including: climate change, food security, philanthropy, social movements and gender mainstreaming. The events have been commissioned by the likes of Irish Aid, Oxfam and The Rockefeller Foundation.

While each is unique, they all share several commonalities. They are co-produced with partners, are funded by / contribute to wider programmes of work and are held behind closed doors.

One event focusing on Gender and Food Security* really stands out in particular in teaching us how to be highly effective at stimulating participants. In that situation, which lasted just 48 hours, a group of around 30 individuals collectively generated nearly 100 substantive contributions across 3 threads.

Top-tips for successful experts' discussions:

Here are some 'top-tips' that we learnt from doing this and other discussions (PDF). They highlight the wide range of things an e-discussion project team can / should do to maximise the chances of success.

If you don't have time to read all 15 points, here are my personal top three:
  1. Plan it with the same attention to detail that you'd give real-world events – e-discussions, like all social events, can buzz with energy or descend into an awkward silence. The time-pressure during them is intense and attempts to revive a flagging situation can look clumsy. So set things up well in advance and you'll be less likely to need to 'get someone talking' during the event itself.
  2. Scrimping on the budget is a false economy. While a successful online discussion will cost a fraction of a real-world event it pays to think carefully about the particular roles required and recruit project team as appropriate. Fund them generously (in staff time / direct costs), give them plenty of lead-in time and reserve a slot after the event for reflection.
  3. Ensure your VIPs (Very Important Participants) feel special. As they are almost certainly super busy, persuade them to give up some of their precious time by making your invitations personal (not just the greetings!), mention those who recommended them, and highlight other eminent participants who will be involved.
Lastly, do what any good host does: keep calm and carry on...

** Thanks to Susanne Turrall (convenor) and Carl Jackson (facilitator) who played critical roles in this event and helped to pull together our learning from it.**