They are rare, but every once in awhile there is a moment where the thought-practice cycle becomes real. I was recently in a room, 'in the field', with representatives from ten peacebuilding organizations. These were organizations doing the hard work of peacebuilding, at the grassroots level, under very difficult circumstances. On their invitation, I was sharing my thoughts on improving peacebuilding evaluation as crystallized in the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Special Report, Improving Peacebuilding Evaluation: A Whole-of-Field Approach.

They are rare, but every once in awhile there is a moment where the thought-practice cycle becomes real
The report grew out of the Peacebuilding Evaluation Project (PEP), a year-long series of meetings between donors and implementers, co-organized by USIP and the Alliance for Peacebuilding. It begins with the premise that progress in improving peacebuilding evaluation requires work on systemic issues and that the marginal value of additional technical, methodological, or capacity-building work is decreasing. Based on this premise the report identifies four systemic problems that are undermining progress in peacebuilding evaluation. The meeting was a great opportunity for me to present the ideas from the report and see how these ideas meshed with lived experience in the field of the meeting participants.

The 'scale problem'

In the report, for instance, the “scale problem” refers to the fact that many peacebuilding projects work on a small piece of a much bigger problem. This creates all kinds of problem when it comes time to evaluate projects. One solution is to build consensus on some basic strategies within the peacebuilding field. This allows organizations to make stronger claims linking narrowly-focused projects to broader impact. Interestingly, the organizations at this meeting had arrived at the same conclusion. There was real coordination going on to establish the basic theory of change for their peacebuilding projects. This will undoubtedly contribute to improved evaluation in the future.

The 'accountability chain problem'

A second problem the report highlights is termed the “accountability chain problem.” The accountability chain for a given project normally runs from local organizations, to larger domestic organizations, through INGOs, donors, and often all the way to legislatures. The nature of this chain structures, in often harmful ways, evaluation processes up and down the chain. While this is no great insight, the discussions did confirm for me that these problems are structural.

Seeing the accountability chain through the eyes of those at the link that binds local organizations with international donors made it clear these problems will not be fixed by, for instance, donors insisting on more evaluation capacity-building among field staff or NGOs insisting that donors make their reporting requirements more friendly. These might be useful tweaks, but to make a quantum leap forward we need to create larger disruptions in the ways both money and information flow. The Special Report presents some small first steps that can contribute to bringing about these disruptions.

Joint problem-solving

Progress in peacebuilding evaluation requires joint problem-solving between donors and NGOs
Finally, the meeting confirmed for me one of the premises of the report and of the broader Peacebuilding Evaluation Project in general, that progress in peacebuilding evaluation requires joint problem-solving between donors and NGOs. Donors have more power than NGOs, but because of this power differential, there is a tendency among NGOs to overestimate the ability for donors to act autonomously to change practice. While donors have power, they also have interests and constraints.

The good news is that these concepts should be familiar to those of us with in the peacebuilding field. As with any conflict management process, the key is to understand the constellation of interests in order find creative ways to get what you want by giving the other side what they want. So no one thinks I am letting donors off the hook, I will conclude by saying that it is up to donors to create safe spaces that allow for this type of engagement. This is not something that NGOs can do on their own, or in their one-on-on interactions with donors. The PEP, which will continue in 2012, is one effort to create this kind of engagement.