Friday, December 16, 2005

The "attribution problem" problem

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen people make reference to "the attribution problem" as though doing so was a magic spell that dispelled all responsibility to do anything, or to know anything, about the wider and longer term impacts of a project. Ritualistic references to the "attribution problem" are becoming a bit of a problem.

In the worst case I have seen an internationally recognised consultancy company say that "our responsibilities stop at the Output level". And while other agencies might be less explicit, this is not an uncommon position.

This notion of responsibility is very narrow, and misconceived. It sees responsibilities in very concrete terms, delivering results in the form of goods or services provided.

A wider conception of responsibility would pay attention to something that can have wider and longer term impact. That is the generation of knowledge about what works and does not work in a given context. Not only about how to better deliver specific goods or services, but about their impact on their users, and beyond. Automatically, that means identifying and analysing the significance of other sources of influence in addition to the project intervention.

Contra to some people's impressions, this does not mean having to "prove" that the project had an impact, or working out what percentage of the outcome was attributable to the project (as one project manager recently expressed concern about). Something much more modest in scale would still be of real value. Some small and positive steps forward would include: (a) identifying differences in outcomes, within the project location [NB: Not doing a with-without trial], (b) Identifying different influences on outcomes, across those locations, (c) prioritising those influences, according to best available evidence at the time, (d) doing all the above in consultations with actors who have identifiable responsibilities for outcomes in these areas, (e) making these judgements open to wider scrutiny.

This may not seem to be very rigorous, but we need to remember our Marx (G.), who when told by a friend that "Life is difficult", replied "Compared to what?" Even if project managers choose to ignore the whole question of how their interventions are affecting longer term outcomes, other people in the locations and institutions they are working with will continue to make their own assessments (formally and informally, tacitly and expliictly). And those judgements will go on to have their own influences, for good and bad, on the sustainabilty and replicability of any changes. But in the process their influences may not be very transparent or contestable. A more deliberate, systematic and open approach to the analysis of influence might therefore be an improvement.

PS: On the analysis of internal variations in outcomes within development projects, you may be interested in the Positive Deviance initiative at