Back to basics to understand outcome and output

Development Policy29 Sep 2011Russell Lewis

“At this stage, we are getting what we measure: outputs not outcomes, GDP not wellbeing”, Russell Lewis argues.

The global international development community as a whole is not measuring the outcomes that would go towards improving human wellbeing. Rather, it is measuring the outputs—and GDP, I would argue, is the biggest output measure of them all. The real problem is that the term “outcome” is probably the most misunderstood term in the international development field. Either that or it becomes the most misused term in international development. I would prefer to think it is the former rather than the latter, because the latter would imply an intent that serves no one at all. Perhaps it is time to go back to basics in order to understand the meaning of the term “outcome”.

Mind you, the international development field is not alone when it comes to misunderstanding the term outcome. To put it simply: if you produce something, that is an output. An outcome occurs as a result of producing something, e.g. profit or improved service delivery. Now, some will contend that improved service delivery can be termed an output and that the result of improved service delivery is the real outcome—and I would agree with them—up to a point.

The conundrum is this: the fact that all the outputs are achieved does not necessarily mean that the outcome has been achieved, nor does it mean that sustainable capacity has been built. As a matter of fact, it is highly probable that there are other factors which may impact on whether or not the outcome is achieved. The interesting thing is, the extra money flowing around because of all the output generation will result in an increase in GDP, but it certainly does not mean that there has been any improvement in overall community wellbeing.

For example: it could be that the extra people receiving treatment for a health condition may not be given enough of the correct drugs, because there is insufficient supply due to mismanagement of procurement and logistics. This means that people develop a resistance to the appropriate drug and the incidence of the disease actually increases. I would suggest that this is happening all too often across all of the international development sectors. It is happening because technical training generally meets outputs, but this is not enough. Real sustainable capacity building, which has the potential to meet outcomes, requires consideration and capacity building of all of those essential underlying skills which empower people to reach their potential and which contribute to overall wellbeing. At this stage, we are getting what we measure: outputs not outcomes, GDP not wellbeing.