by Simon Batchelor.
Impact can be defined as significant or lasting change as a result of a particular action or series of actions.
Talking about impact involves much more than just talking about what we have done or the tasks that have been completed (our output). For example, we might work with a community to create a new well as a public water supply. We discuss the idea with the community, make plans on how to involve it, arrange outside help and work together to dig a well. Our task is completed and a new source of water is available.
What impact has the well had on the community? We could check the quality of the water. Assuming the water is clean, then available clean water may have an impact on children’s health. People may also be able to wash more frequently and may have more free time.
It may have been our intention to create the well to improve children’s health. Though our task was to build the well, our real purpose or intention was to provide clean water to improve the health of the children. This may have been the long-term objective during project planning.
Most development workers report on the completed tasks (building the well), a few on whether they achieved their purpose (families are using the well), but virtually no-one seems to measure and report on whether the original goal or objective (has children’s health improved?) was achieved.
How do we know it was us?
How will we know if our work is the reason for any change? Perhaps the communities could have tackled those problems anyway without our support and ideas. Perhaps the government was also working in the same area with a health campaign that improved children’s health, and what we thought was the impact of the wells, was in fact a general change in the country.
Working with communities
The best way to answer this question is to compare communities and to ask the community themselves. Before we begin work in any community, we should do a baseline survey in each, in preparation for our work. At a later date we can do another survey and compare those results with those of the baseline survey in each location. We can also compare survey findings in different locations. This will give some indication of how the region as a whole is changing.
We can also ask the communities themselves. We can ask for their opinions about life before work started, and what it is like now. Of course, they may just tell us what they think we want to hear, so we need to gather information in different ways, using a variety of people. But if we ask people about the past, the present and, indeed, the future (which indicates their hopes), we can often tell if our work has had some impact on their lives.
Positive and negative
Sometimes these discussions can be very interesting and revealing. For example, during discussions with a health worker, she could state how many children had been vaccinated by her team. But when the local people were interviewed, they talked only about how she did not eat their food, and how she was rude to them. The community was frightened that if they shared their real feelings, the organisation might leave altogether and they would lose their healthcare services. In discussing this together, the community found a new solidarity and began to examine their problems. As a result, they presented positive plans for arranging their own vaccinations and working with the organisation. They decided that together they would ask the organisation to move the worker from their community.
Not all impact is planned. Sometimes there is unexpected impact – which could be either good or bad. Our lives are a complicated mix of physical concerns (such as money, food and water), our relationships with other people, and our hopes and dreams. When one part of a person’s life changes, it inevitably changes other parts too.
For example, suppose that when planning a well, this was the first time the community really came together to solve a problem. Maybe in the past decisions had always been taken by the Chief, and he then informed the community of his decision. How has that process of genuine discussion had an impact? Has it empowered people? Are there now small groups meeting together to discuss other problems and find solutions together? This could have been a very good, but unintended, impact of our process.
Suppose we held the meetings and let one person dominate and dictate. Then we might have had a negative impact on people’s decision-making. Suppose we allowed the discussion to get angry and perhaps stirred up old rivalries so that the community is now less united than when we started. Suppose the traditional water source had been a place where young people could meet and talk. Perhaps the well was put in the wrong place and people are jealous. All these could be negative and unintended impacts.
These are all social impacts that depend not so much on what we do, but how we do it. The psychological impact of our work should also be considered – do people have more hope now, or have we unintentionally taken away their hopes and dreams?
We should ask ourselves if our work is having the intended impact – but we should also be brave enough to find out what the unexpected impacts are.
Simon Batchelor is a consultant working with several organisations to support sustainable initiatives. His address is 152 Cumberland Road, Reading, RG1 3JY, UK. E-mail: email@example.com