Evaluating Evalpartners: some reflections

IYE 2015I participated in the webinar run last week on the findings of the first external evaluation of EvalPartners. The evaluation, done by both Nancy and Sarah, provides a broad snapshot of what EvalPartners is and does with the intention to shape decisions about what EvalPartners could be and achieve beyond 2015 (the International Year of Evaluation). The presentation highlighted the key findings around Evalpartners functions (the initiatives it has been managing), and its institutional set up. Yet most of the recommendations addressed the latter.

I see the report an eye opener for all of us within the Evalpartners network, I learned a lot and am reflecting! But it is definitely beyond that for Evalpartners’ management. By addressing the gaps, the report has highlighted key programs Evalpartners is managing, yet indirectly provoked many questions that help shape the future agenda. These seem more relevant within the context of Evalpartners’ strategic discussions. I am happy it already caught the immediate attention of Evalpartners’ management and triggered the management response.  I trust the below will be insightful too in such “big picture” discussions.

There is a clear acknowledgment that EvalPartners is a young global movement with loose boundaries within the evaluation landscape. Driven by champions, it emerged from on strong partnership between UNICEF and IOCE. It has emerged in becoming the global network and has succeeded in reaching out to a wide set of partners within the government, civil society and international organizations spheres.  I think its branding and affinity to attract such a wide array of partners stems from its intrinsic structural format. This is not a call to undermine the well -crafted governance recommendations. Yet, it is a flag to be raised when engineering its governance. A too-structured network adds to existing ones. Rigidity might create a barrier to outreach with other networks, hence triggers a competing rather than a collective spirit.  Of course more transparency in decision making and implementation processes, as elegantly suggested by the report, are fundamental to promote Evalpartners as the “network of networks”.

MillGoals01On another side, the key issues identified in the report unveil critical aspects that would ensure the network’s sustainability and added value in the international evaluation landscape. Yet from a program perspective, there has been an opportunity to highlight strategic thematic directions that promote its mandate and relevance. I am happy to hear Ziad (IOCE president) addressing this dimension in his intervention in the webinar.  Yet, I believe there is still a prospect for Evalpartners to build on the momentum created around the coincidence between the international year of evaluation and launching the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The network is capable through its web of regional and national VOPEs to drive the post 2015 development agenda’s enablers and implementation mechanisms. It would be of great value to further explore the network’s future directions in the context of the post 2015 agenda. Indeed the latter is hugely enabled by innovative evaluation capabilities, transformative policies and implementation mechanisms. Though the clock is ticking, there are a couple of months to pitch in with contributions on the data and evaluation capability among others to inform global decisions (scheduled for September 2015). Platforms will then emerge and huge efforts are needed to gear the SGDs implementation globally, regionally and
nationally in the next decade. I am confident Evalpartners is up to it. Evalpartners will smartly align its programs within the context of the post 2015 development agenda… VOPEs will follow… Everyone will follow…

Mapping civil society in Lebanon: some critical observations

11050738_853256824730560_6776181994540508042_nI received like many other practitioners and interested in civil society the report “Mapping civil society in Lebanon” recently published by the Civil Society Facility South, funded by the European Union and conducted by Beyond Reform and Development. The report is definitely another serious attempt to understand the current landscape of civil society in Lebanon. It is an eye opener, yet it prompts questions rather than provides answers. (It is worth thanking BRD for putting the report to the public. This definitely reflect a high level of professionalism and transparency, but more importantly an indirect call for comment and feedback to better serve the policy-making process in Lebanon)

Driven by my interest in research and passion about CSO role in policy development/ dialogue, I am posting a contribution that aims at the better understanding the sector and its challenges. The post intends to be critical about the findings with the intention of enriching the discussion and shedding light on dimensions worth exploring in order to promote and find leverage for civil society to influence policy-making.

  • Approach: The report seems to be too descriptive to the extent that it falls short of providing a critical analysis of the current situation of Lebanese civil society. There is a tendency in the report to present the findings without qualifying them and analyzing their relevance. In addition, the report tends to furnish a wish-list of “valid” recommendations that address serious gaps and resonate well with the CSO community and the practitioners. Yet they seem to be disconnected from the findings! The eminent question is: what are the bases of the suggested recommendations?
  • Scope: There are some conflicting messages. On one hand, the report describes its methodology as inclusive with a sample of 10% of the total registered CSOs; while acknowledging that the 10% represent the active ones (page 23). On the other hand, it concludes (page 47) that the “Civil society actors in this report are those organizations and groups contributing to civic participation and inclusive governance, as such faith-based and partisan non-governmental organizations are excluded from the study”. The report can’t claim to map the Lebanese civil society. Its findings however help to draw trends.
  • On the history of CSO in Lebanon: it would be advisable that the report adds the volunteering dimension to the evolution it describes. Findings suggest that the level of volunteering and its spirit tends to dwindle as we move into the post 2005 era. Most recently, the activism and policy influence dimension (post 2005) is paralleled with another “contracting-like” dimension! This is worth further exploration! It is observed that it is mostly triggered by the Syrian crisis and the influx of Syrians into the Lebanese territory on one hand, and induced by the shift in the international organizations attention and consequently their fund allocation. Many CSOs with no mandate or experience in relief work seized the opportunity were tempted to apply for funds, and got contracted to deliver services. This is a typical shift toward a “contractor” mindset.
  • CSOs governance and internal challenges: the report suggests many internal organizational and governance challenges, yet did not address the emerging “undemocratic” and “authoritarian” tendencies. It is observed that many CSO management board remains on board for long. It is worth addressing and analyzing such undemocratic practices that might have multiple causes mostly associated with a cultural paternalistic attitude, loose government monitoring and oversight, limited constituencies, lack of internal processes, and increasing opportunity to use a CSO as a money generating tool (with the emerging of the “contracting” mindset). Besides, among the intrinsic internal challenges are: the lack of trust, political and sectarian affiliation, inability to capture and manage knowledge, lack of professionalism, lack of transparency …
  • The external challenges: it is evident how the security situation is perceived as the most eminent external challenge affecting the work of CSOs. Yet, considering the political context a challenge needs to be further analyzed.
  • Legal framework: There is general consensus among scholars and practitioners that the Lebanese law of association is one of the most progressive laws in the region, though it is a 100 year old. The report acknowledges that, and calls for reforming the law. This needs further elaboration, as it might be a window of introducing stringent requirements by the government. It would more appropriate to call for redesigning the processes to ensure transparency among others… besides, the report refers to “unfavorable legal framework” as a challenge facing CSOs without qualifying this framework and what is unfavorable about it!.
  • Advocating for policy change: It is reported that CSOs failed to lobby and advocate for policy change because it can’t generate a general public opinion/ pressure. It is worth exploring other factors such as (1) the ambiguous policy processes, (2) the lack of coordination with media, (3) lack of trust in CSOs for political or sectarian affiliation.
  • Monitoring and Evaluation: There is a global trend to promote M&E and performance management, yet there was no reference to improve/ enhance the monitoring and evaluation functions of the CSOs, both internally at the level of the organization and its programs, and externally at the level of government’s plans and programs. This is a dimension that is worth exploring in terms of capabilities as well as a tool to influence policy. Besides, the report does not make any reference to the audit function within the organizations.
  • The recommendations: the report lays down a wish-list of recommendations that are needed to further empower CSOs in Lebanon. They seem to be valid, yet the link between these recommendations and the findings is not clear.
  • The general recommendations: they might need further attention and reconsideration:
    1. CSO involvement in policy development is primarily pending developing a CSO-policy makers partnership policy that describes the relationships, lays down the process and sets the requirements for such engagement
    2. What is the link between “result-based strategy” and the list of goals suggested? There seems to be a mismatch and lack of alignment. It is worth revisited.

I hope the above review triggers a constructive discussion to develop and promote a partnership policy that recognizes the engagement of the civil society in decision making at all levels in Lebanon.

Post 2015 Sustainable Development Process: An opportunity is looming in the MENA region…

I had the chance of participating in a couple of regional MENA/Arab consultation meetings on environment and sustainable development, and reviewed many reports issued on the subject.  The latest report on the Arab High-level forum on sustainable development discussed the regional progress toward achieving the MDGs and highlighted the regional priorities toward the post 2015 agenda among other regional considerations.

MENA mapThere is seldom a report that did not highlight peace and security, water scarcity, demographics and poverty as contextual key themes for a regional sustainable development agenda. Likewise, there is an overall affirmative tone that describes the progress achieves on the different fronts of the MDGs. In my post below, I am more interested in having a closer look at what constitutes key enablers that are fundamental for the Arab governments to address in embarking into the post 2015 development era.

Prevailing economic mindset that leads development

Evidently sustainability has not been institutionalized or mainstreamed into the development agenda in the region. Despite some key sustainability initiatives, the governments’ policies and overall agenda are still driven by economy, mostly “rentier” in nature. Institutionalizing sustainability into an inclusive economy will prompt a diversified, productive, job generating and distributive economic model, with minimal ecological footprints.

Evidence base

  • Ambiguity of the baseline

The data capability of the various countries in the region is not consistent. In the moved advanced ones, the question pf data comprehensiveness and quality is often raised. This is evident in most of the sustainable development related reports, as well in the efforts facilitated by UNESCWA to strengthen data capabilities and statistical arms in order to improve quality, consistency and strengthen data generation, analysis, use and dissemination. Ambiguity and lack of confidence around the reported national and regional MDG progress prevails! In fact, governments have recently expressed the need to conduct genuine and critical analysis of the progress achieved toward achieving the MDGs to allow them an opportunity to learn from failure and capture the knowledge to build on it.

  • Obsession with the numbers!

There is generally a common obsession among politicians and leaders toward short-term, immediate and easily measurable results. In the region, this mindset has been further reinforced by the MDG process given its intrinsic emphasis on quantitative measures. Obviously, this comes at the expenses of the quality, relevance and impacts of the outcomes. The SDG process, along with the gaps highlighted in the regional progress reports, suggests an immediate call to improving data capabilities and emphasizes strengthening M&E tools to improve knowledge management and lessons learned, enhance greater accountability and inform decisions.

Institutional framework and processes

Good governance is perceived to be a fundamental cornerstone for sustainable development. It has become its fourth dimension lately. Arab governments have recognized, in most of the MDG progress reports, that good governance, transparency and respect for people’s rights to participate are indispensable for an inclusive development agenda. This is evident both at the national and regional levels.

Though established, national sustainable development councils have not been influential in shaping the government agenda. Civil society voice is often unheard due to the absence of the engagement processes; and if in place, the processes are not transparent.

Regionally, the environmental and social dimensions are often overlooked! Sustainable development agenda is occasionally on the Arab leaders Summit agenda. It is seldom discussed in economic forums; rather it is managed at the level of the ministers of environment. Its relevance is then questionable! Besides, its stakeholders’ engagement processes are ambiguous and mostly exclusive. Nevertheless, with persistence and networking, a couple of civil society organizations have found their way, infiltrated the “black box” and still navigating through the system.

Partnership

There is a frequent popular call to enhance the regional cooperation with the aspiration to establish the long awaited “Arab Common Markets”. It is believed that the intra-regional cooperation is a strategic choice for the Arab governments to be able to face the challenges of the global economy and international trading system.

Besides, the region is not homogeneous in terms of wealth and development. There is huge opportunity for countries witnessing double digit growth to invest (in terms of ODI and development assistance) in less developed countries within the region, while benefiting from the knowledge, research and capability transfer in the different sectors.

A new regional partnership needs to establish innovative means and forms of multi and bi-lateral cooperation while engaging new stakeholders. Civil society, academia and private sectors have a lot to contribute for a successful regional partnership. Sectorally, intra-regional partnership can be extended on many fronts considered critical by the less developed and more developed countries, namely agriculture and food security, water and its scarcity, ICT and communication, industry and services, among others.

Though the region is witnessing an unprecedented turmoil, it is believed that it is time to revisit the national and regional development agenda enablers while leveraging on the SDG process that will drive the global development agenda for the next decade. It is timely for countries in transition to institutionalize these enablers while rebuilding their governance systems. It is an opportunity for other countries to redesign their decision making processes to make more inclusive, adaptable, transparent and evidence based. Yet, will it be a lost one?

Canada and the Post 2015 development agenda: some observations…

Picture1I have been following the discussions and scholarly literature on the Canadian development aid and agenda post 2015. I have collected some observations and tried to highlight key dimensions that are worth noting and further exploring. This framework is a work in progress. Any feedback and comments are appreciated.

Canada has always affirmed its commitment toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and beyond, and contributed lately in setting the principles that have been guiding the post 2015 sustainable development goals (SDGs) while serving on various forums, particularly the 30-seat Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs. Its presence in the development cooperation is getting off the radar screen recently. This might be attributed to a couple of factors:

  • Paradigm Shift in scoping development assistance: illustrated in the shift from a development oriented approach to a more commercial and economically driven one. This is clearly reflected in the emphasis on trade and commerce over poverty alleviation dimension.
  • Institutional set-up: as a direct manifestation of the conceptual shift, the conservative government has merged CIDA and the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2013 under the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). As such, development and humanitarian assistance rank low in DFATD priorities. This is clearly illustrated in DFATD mandate – as defined on its website, namely to “manage Canada’s diplomatic and consular relations, to encourage the country’s international trade and to lead Canada’s international development and humanitarian assistance”.
  • Shift in focus: This shift in paradigm in favor of the new approach is associated with:
    • Emphasis on less risky places/ countries and themes, to ensure both safe implementation and steady flow of funds.
    • Obvious focus on (1) middle income countries rather than the poor ones; (2) mostly in extractive industries and (3) over a shorter timeframe to yield results.
  • Dwindling ODA contribution: manifested through the decrease (estimated at 10%) in the government ODA took place over the last 5 years.
  • Chronic ODA management syndrome: The change in perspective has not triggered changes in the way ODA is managed so far. The latter is still managed centrally, result-focused and with a tendency to avoid risks! Ian Smillie, in his contribution to the recently launched book “Rethinking Canadian Aid” has warned from three tendencies development assistance usually falls into: (1) centralized, top-down, rigid, paper-bound, and remotely managing development programs, (2) politicians’ obsession for quantitative short term results not long-term impacts! jeopardizing knowledge capture and management, and (3) Risk avoidance characterized by hiding failures and consequently losing the opportunity to learn from failures.
  • Stakeholders Engagement: The implications of the conceptual shift are observable on the Government- CSOs consultation toward post 2015 development agenda. The process has been mostly government-led and managed. In fact, DFATD has mandated an internal team to coordinate among the concerned departments and align the national agenda with the global goals, in order to support the government negotiations at the UN end of 2015. The national consultation process however was not as inclusive as it should be. There were limited opportunities for Canadian CSOs to engage and provide input. Nevertheless it is worth noting that a lot of hope is held over the recent policy on “International Development and Humanitarian Assistance Civil Society Partnership” in which the government fully recognizes the role of CSOs in achieving sustainable development. It reiterated its commitment to support an enabling environment for civil society in developing countries, to foster multi-stakeholder approaches to development.

Is this shift in paradigm for the best interest of Canada? Will the partnership policy translate into action soon? and most importantly, what are the implications of both on the SDGs era?