By Jami Dixon
Over the past week I’ve been going through lots of Darwin Initiative project reports for the review that I’m leading on, which aims to identify how Darwin Initiative projects have contributed to / are contributing to biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation (read more about this here). I’ve really enjoyed reading the reports and finding out about the range of projects that have been funded, but at times I’ve also found it quite difficult to work out what the projects have actually achieved.
I found it really confusing that reports could contain lots of information, for example about what activities had been undertaken and the partners that they’ve worked with, but when it came to extracting evidence to demonstrate the impact of these activities on poverty and biodiversity, there were lots of gaps.
A lot of the evidence provided in the reports focuses on outputs, for example:
- how many workshops have been held,
- how many maps have been made,
- how many plans have been developed, and
- how many publications have resulted from Darwin projects.
All useful information, but is has left me wondering if this is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that projects are having (or likely to have) positive impacts on biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation?
Talking about what, if anything, has changed potentially requires going beyond reporting numbers of plans, maps, workshops and publications. But is this possible given that projects tend to last around 3 years? Is it realistic to expect changes in biodiversity and/or poverty in this time? If not, does that meant that Darwin Initiative projects are having limited impacts on biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation?
The good news is that when I discussed these questions with others in the Darwin Initiative team, it became apparent that projects are creating change and do have evidence, but they don’t always include it in their reports. This had me puzzled – why wouldn’t you demonstrate your achievements, i.e. provide evidence, in the reports? I am now interested in exploring the idea that projects have evidence, but that isn’t always documented or reported on. This interest has inspired me to think (and read) about it, and I keep coming back to the same question – what is evidence and what kind of evidence could Darwin Initiative projects provide?
What is evidence?
According to dictionary definitions, information refers to
Evidence is basically information that proves something, i.e. it contains facts, reasons, proof, confirmation, or verification to demonstrate that something holds true. But how do you decide what information qualifies as evidence?
The first thought that springs to mind is that evidence requires numbers, statistics and/or graphs. These may not always be appropriate for Darwin Initiative projects. Raymond et al., (2010) demonstrate that evidence can be generated in different ways, including formal science (from experiments etc.) to informal locally-held knowledge (from talking to people). It can be produced by looking at a variety of sources, for example from secondary data in peer reviewed journal articles and grey literature, or through collecting primary data using observations and research tools, or a combination thereof. Evidence can be collected and analysed using a range of both quantitative methods (i.e. objective measurements and their statistical, mathematical, or numerical analysis), such as meta-analysis, economic data, and experiments, and qualitative methods (i.e. methods that tend to generate words as data for analysis to provide an in-depth understanding into a social situation) including interviews, focus group discussions, and observations.
The point that I’m trying to highlight is that there are different types of evidence and lots of ways that evidence can be produced. There is generally little agreement on what is the ‘best approach’ in terms of demonstrating a project’s impact on biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. More often than not, the approach and the suitability of evidence will depend on the purpose or why it’s being collected/presented and what’s appropriate to the context.
An important first step in selecting an approach is to be aware that there are different approaches each with their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, in the context of poverty alleviation, some changes cannot be easily counted or quantified making it difficult to produce graphs, tables and statistics (Sandbrook, 2013). In this context pictures, videos, and quotes can also provide useful evidence.
I think it would be good to see Darwin Initiative projects make use of these different options available. Providing more guidance to projects on what constitutes evidence and how it can be used effectively may enable projects to better communicate their achievements (and challenges) and demonstrate their impacts on poverty and biodiversity.
What do you think? Could the guidance be stronger on how to produce evidence of your progress and/or impact in terms of poverty and biodiversity? What form could that guidance take – workshops, webinars, YouTube videos, guidance booklets?
References for further reading
Raymond, C. M., Fazey, I., Reed, M. S., Stringer, L. C., Robinson, G. M., & Evely, A. C. (2010). Integrating local and scientific knowledge for environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management, 91(8), 1766–77. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2010.03.023
Sandbrook, C. (2013). Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation : What constitutes good evidence ?, (10), 14.