Words are easily blown by the wind and many professionals in the development, human rights and democracy and peacebuilding fields are already suffering from what is known as “dialogue fatigue”, which made us realise how crucial it was to instil the INSPIRED dialogues with a strong sense of purpose. However, striving for concrete and measurable results does not necessarily mean that these results need to be predetermined in advance, especially when aiming at a moving target – which is a central feature of any effort to influence policy.
If policy dialogue is dynamic by nature and the result of multiple stakeholders interacting with each other, pretending to define its results from the outset is not only a futile effort, but one that risks undermining the local ownership that the dialogue aims to build in the first place. Instead, it should always be up to the key domestic stakeholders to determine what their common objectives are and to frame them within the opportunities and constraints presented by the policy at stake. Moreover, such objectives, once set, should not be cast in stone, as this would significantly limit the dialogue participants’ flexibility and capacity to react to changing dynamics in the policy field.
However, avoiding preordained objectives does not mean to neglect results; on the contrary, it allows the stakeholders to focus on what the dialogue process is actually achieving, while adapting to the ever-changing circumstances in the policy and political landscapes. Instead of stubbornly concentrating on the objectives and indicators of a pre-defined log frame, the stakeholders are invited to adapt their priorities and objectives to the changing context, as well as to remain open-minded and focus their attention on the most significant outcomes – planned as well as unforeseen – of their deliberations that could be turned into windows of opportunity to push for the desired reforms.
In other words, the orientation towards results is an essential characteristic of the INSPIRED approach, but it has been nuanced to prevent dialogue organisers and facilitators from losing sight of other aspects that are equally important. In a dialogue process, results need to be collectively agreed. They do not need to be established necessarily at the beginning of a project, but rather assessed in hindsight so as to showcase the impact of the dialogue participants’ joint work and to encourage them to continue their collective endeavour. This realisation is why the evaluation method Outcome Harvesting has been integrated into the approach. It allows the participants in the dialogue process to take stock of the many unforeseen outcomes resulting from their cooperation, thus strengthening their bonds through the realisation of common achievements.
From a donor perspective, this way of understanding results is key to overcoming the logic behind Technical Assistance and the proliferation of Project or Programme Implementation Units (PIUs), i.e. “getting things done” instead of “making things happen”. This explains why almost all of these PIUs left such a dubious legacy once their donor-sponsored programmes came to an end, with the so-called results melting down so easily and without leaving much of a trace. The temptation to address long- standing critical knots and to circumvent bottlenecks by replacing inefficient government structures with newly created ones, instead of building the capacities of the former, is a perfectly understandable drive when practitioners are confronted with the dire situation of the public sectors in the countries in which they work. However, these good intentions all-too-often end up putting the oxen behind the cart, giving way to one of the most frequent unintended consequences of the Results-Oriented Approach that has become so predominant in the development sector, namely the need to “deliver” on concrete, pre-defined and thus easily measurable results whose achievement would justify the expenses to the tax-payers in donor countries.