Why is development impact so elusive?

Guest blog by Dr Timos Karpouzoglou, Wageningen University
March 31, 2016

ESPA Building Impact and Partnerships in South Asia workshop  which took place in New Delhi on the  9-10 March 2016 gave us a chance to discuss some of the issues posed by impact. This workshop was a good opportunity since the ESPA programme makes a strong commitment to streamlining a systematic and sustained focus on impact in the projects that it funds and this has also been facilitated by the recently launched ESPA Impact Strategy. The workshop also created a good platform for learning on impact across a variety of ESPA funded projects that are of direct relevance to development and sustainability, with a special emphasis in the South Asia and Southeast Asia regions.

The notion of impact is certainly not new in development, yet the workshop revealed that we still find ourselves confronted by the elusive nature of the term.  In understanding what it is that makes impact so elusive, I find that three issues are important. These relate to the position of scientists as impact facilitators, the politics of impact creation, and the problematic dichotomy of slow and fast impact.

Scientists as impact facilitators

For scientists working with development orientated projects, impact creation can be a tricky terrain to navigate. Scientists often work for academic institutions where academic performance is often measured by the number of scientific articles. While scientific articles can have a development impact there is a need to look for alternative ways of reaching out to different development beneficiaries. The work which is communicated by scientists in academic journals can often be dense and described in highly technical language and this can create problems of accessibility as well. As Jim Jarvie network founder for Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) said in the workshop, the problem then becomes that ‘a lot of learning in research projects is confined to PDF graveyards’. At the same time, development practitioners and government agents working under different work pressures and time cycles, cannot always have the time and resources to engage in depth with the work of scientists which means that important insights which relate to impact generation can run the risk of oversight. While this can be very counterproductive, what we have learned is that avoiding this path requires a delicate balancing act. Ratri Sutarto from ACCCRN insists that making ‘scientific information more practical, shorter and usable’ can make a big difference.  Equally, closer attention is needed on the role of collaboration and dialogue between scientists and diverse actors that may have a big role in the dissemination of scientific work, such as the media. More fundamentally however, the notion of ‘impact’ despite its prominence in development research and policy for some time now, is not necessarily better understood nor quicker assimilated and part of the more tricky balancing act may still lie with how impact is reconciled with existing scientific professional cultures, and the work priorities and institutional histories to which they are tied.  

Politics matter

Impact creation is not merely a technical objective of development projects. Instead, it can be deeply political and impact politics can involve both subversive and emancipatory practices. Yet, this is a point that as scientists and development practitioners we can easily lose sight of. Despite the broad range of tools and frameworks available for tracking the impact of research and development interventions, powerful actors are not always interested in the knowledge being generated. The experiences of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) in fact suggest that in expanding metropolises of Southeast Asia the private sector (e.g. real estate firms) despite having a big impact on urban development, in reality it is often absent from much needed discussions at the city level about urban inclusion, resilience and long term sustainability.  It is not always easy to bring to the table those that really matter for making impact, particularly when impact generation contradicts or undermines the interests of powerful actors who have much to lose and very little to gain from contributing to development impact. This is why, there is a need to connect more with both ‘formal and informal channels for leveraging impact’ says Prof Fiona Marshall who leads the ESPA project on Risk and Responses to Urban Futures project in India. It is through being attentive to the interplay of formality and informality that we can understand more deeply for example the emancipatory political practices of social movements and grassroots organisations and how these translate into direct action at the local level.


Slow vs. fast impact

Often the structure of research development projects confines us into a fast impact mode at the cost of failing to grasp the importance of slow impact. Projects can be limited by time (often 3-4 years) and resource constraints (funding budgets, workforce etc.) that naturally push project implementers to work towards short term goals with regards to impact. Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio from the Rockefeller Foundation highlights the ‘need for making room for failure and experimentation’ and allowing time and space for different types of dialogues to take place. At the same time she highlights that while ‘engaging at the political level can accelerate impact’ building the right political alliances can take time and sustained engagement with the political process. A slow approach to impact can also highlight unexpected windows of opportunity that may materialise after the duration of a project. Recognising that both slow and fast impact are important can create more flexibility since it fosters openness to not just a single strategy for impact but rather an evolving multi-directional process that is open to different ideas and plural forms of engagement.

Moving forward

To sum up, the ESPA Building Impact and Partnerships in South Asia workshop was a good moment for those of involved in research and development projects with a strong ‘impact’ component to reflect on our own work but also to learn from others. Despite the elusive nature of impact creation, we should not treat it as a ‘technical fix’ to complex development problems. Taking seriously our own positionality as impact facilitators whether as scientists or development practitioners, being aware of the politics that extend beyond the tools and frameworks which we often use to facilitate impact, and being aware of slow and fast ways of leveraging impact can help contextualise better what we mean by impact and how to achieve it.

Dr Timos Karpouzoglou

Post-Doctoral Researcher

Public Administration and Policy Group, Wageningen University, Hollandseweg 1, Wageningen 6700EW, The Netherlands

timothy.karpouzoglou [at] wur.nl

Short bio

Timos Karpouzoglou is a post-doctoral researcher based at the Public Administration and Policy group at Wageningen University, the Netherlands.  He is currently working within the ESPA project Mountain EVO "Adaptive governance of mountain ecosystem services for poverty alleviation enabled by environmental virtual observatories". Timothy’s expertise is in the field of water resources management with special focus South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. 

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