Complexity of MSPs has implications for evaluation

Civic Action07 Dec 2010Ailish Byrne

The in-depth exploration of diverse Multi-Stakeholder Processes (MSPs), in varied socio-cultural and professional contexts, proved stimulating. Through cases explored, the scale and depth of complexity and the challenges of long-term, multi actor change processes were brought alive. In fluid landscapes and socio-scapes of uncertain and unpredictable pathways and futures, ones constantly affected by external factors, the challenges of facilitation and evaluation are considerable.

This blog item was part of the ‘Engaging stakeholders for change’ dossier

Increasingly, multi-stakeholder processes are being used in response to ‘tough’ problems such as responding to climate change, fighting poverty, and creation of sustainable business models. Many development organisations and networks have become aware that these change processes are of an increasingly ‘emergent’ nature, and need to be facilitated. The Change Alliance is an emerging global learning network which aims to support good practice in facilitating and strategizing around multi-stakeholder cooperation for systemic change.

From 1-3 December 2010, 20 facilitators of multi-stakeholder processes from across Africa are meeting in Nairobi. Co-hosted by the Change Alliance and SNV, to exchange experiences with leaders, researchers and donors. This ‘Inspiring Change’ event aims to share and collate state-of-the-art experiences and explore ways of supporting and strengthening capacity for effective facilitation of multi-actor processes.

This blog provides an online discussion platform for speakers, participants and other experts in the field, where they can reflect on the discussions and opinions voiced at the Inspiring Change event as well as further discuss the wider topics it addresses.

As we heard descriptions of cases in small groups, diverse listener interpretations were evident in the visuals created. Assumptions came to the fore, reminding us of the significance of baggage we all carry. There was nothing remotely linear about any of the visuals or cases shared and we were vividly reminded that more tangible structures and institutions mean little in the absence of explicit and sustained attention to the relationships between key actors. We saw how apparent “weak capacity of communities”, with deeper interrogation often translates into “limited capacity on the part of senior actors to hear what key stakeholders are saying, to be open to the emergent and to remain responsive rather than cling to illusions of control.

There are major implications for evaluation, where imposed formats, systems and tools typically fail to do justice to the depth and wholeness of MSPs; they are misleadingly linear, “simple”, based on tangibles/countables and, ultimately, reductionist. The challenges posed by capturing complex and unfolding webs of relationships, between wildly diverse stakeholders and over time, leads us to network approaches to evaluation and to others informed by systemic and complexity thinking. Examples include Complex Adaptive Systems, Whole Systems Action Research, Outcome Mapping and the Most Significant Change approach.

Amassing critical MSP-related language vividly illustrated the volume and diversity of concepts used to describe, unpack and consider these approaches, highlighting their richness. They served to remind that we will always be “muddling through” such complex, unfolding scenarios, that ultimate outcomes will never be neat or predictable and that we need to remain open to what unfolds.

Notable strengths of this Change Alliance event included capitalizing on significant expertise in the room; a strong facilitation team which, true to MSPs, prompted deeper consideration of critical issues and the supportive, collegial environment nurtured, such that the process itself could be seen as a microcosm of a sound MSP for its openness, flexibility and responsiveness.

It is significant that the first official ‘Inspiring Change’ event was held in Africa, where social change processes are critical to lasting improvement and, literally, to survival. Yet in this region social change facilitators and action researchers are often isolated and collective reflection and learning opportunities remain rare. This is despite the fact that many “development” efforts remain heavily influenced by questionable donor whims and priorities, including those relating to objectives, targets and the accompanying dubious baggage of limited reporting formats and mechanisms like logframes.

There was a welcome eagerness for participants to set up a mutual support network, as we seek to catalyse and strengthen MSPs in the region and beyond. Critical questions are raised about whose capacity needs developing, how, for whom and for what. In the interest of learning, of strengthening MSPs themselves and of bringing actors across the development spectrum on board, I hope that a follow-up Inspiring Change event will focus on identifying ways of supporting and strengthening capacity for the effective evaluation of multi actor processes.