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Skinny cows, complicated, complex – reflections by Sandip Pattanayak

July 23, 2010

The conference flyer was interesting and generated a lot of curiosity. I was pleasantly surprised when I received an invitation to become a case owner. However, I was astonished to see the profile of the participants and their concern for improving the quality of evaluation. Increasingly, as practitioners, we come across evaluations, which are longitudinal in nature and involve multiple stakeholders. This is what makes the six fundamentals of evaluation (relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, impact, sustainability, attribution/ contribution) complex and complicated to measure. Stakeholders’ perspectives vary; so does the expectations from evaluation. These expectations compete with each other for attention. However, often, mediation of these expectations is poor due to methodological and political reasons. Improvement in practice requires that practitioners, commissioners and donors work together on this issue. What will provide impetus to change in practice is the way evaluations are commissioned. The coming together of commissioners, donors, and practitioners, in this conference, in my view, was an encouraging first step.

Before the conference, I was under the impression that there would be a debate on an alternative to randomised design. Contrary to my impression, the conference grappled with the inherent complexity of social change processes and ways and means to measure those changes. The case clinics were helpful in providing a platform for the discussion. Being a case owner, I could not take part in other case clinics. I had to satisfy myself with the reading materials. The take-home for me was the difference between complicated and complex. This conference introduced me to complexity theory. However, the fact remains that improved understanding of what is complex is not going to make complex, simpler. Only appreciating what is complex will not help. We should be ready to push our skinny cows (read ‘arrogance of being an expert’) over the cliff. Thank you so much Mr. Bekalo [conference chair] for showing us our skinny cows. The skinny cow in the story was relatively easy to push. Pushing this one is not going to be easy. I recalled Gandhi’s talisman, which I thought reflected on the political economy of development (evaluation) and gave some tips to push the cow over the cliff.

“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

Sandip Pattanayak (Catalyst Management Services, India)

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