The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/the-darwin-initiative

Poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation: how can we use evidence to demonstrate impact?

4 Comments

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.

Collecting evidence during fieldwork in Uganda, 2013. Photo credit: M Wieland

Collecting evidence during fieldwork in Uganda, 2013. Photo credit: M. Wieland

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?

Demonstrating the result of training farmers in Fiji, 2012.  Photo credit: Birdlife Fiji.

Demonstrating the result of training farmers in Fiji, 2012. Photo credit: Birdlife Fiji

What is evidence?

According to dictionary definitions, information refers to

knowledge or facts about someone or something[1], whereas evidence is “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid”[2]

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.

Communities participating in a focus group in Uganda, 2015. Photo credit: L King.

Communities participating in a focus group in Uganda, 2015. Photo credit: L. King

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?

Reaching a wide audience - talking on TV in Myanmar, 2012. Photo Credit: P Bates

Reaching a wide audience – talking on TV in Myanmar, 2012. Photo credit: P. Bates

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.

[1] http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/information#information__1

[2] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/evidence

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Author: Jami Dixon

An interdisciplinary researcher interested in using problem-oriented approaches to understanding and addressing current sustainability challenges. Currently working as a Research Associate with LTS International leading a review into links between #biodiversity and #poverty for Darwin Iniative. Follow me on Twitter @LTSI_Jami

4 thoughts on “Poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation: how can we use evidence to demonstrate impact?

  1. Hi Jami,

    Thanks for an interesting read. This challenge of how to document and evaluate impact is one that I know a lot of people (including myself) have been struggling with. I think more definitely could be done on explaining impact to researchers and practitioners, and should cover things like definitions, challenges and approaches, and ways to record it.

    I’ll be interested to see how our understanding of impact, and how to write about it, develops following on from the Research Excellence Framework 2014 (http://www.ref.ac.uk/). In case you don’t know, this was the UK’s national assessment of research at universities, which turned up some 6975 impact case studies. Unfortunately there isn’t much evidence on the methodologies used to capture that impact, but I know RAND Europe are doing a study into how universities went through the impact submission process (http://www.rand.org/randeurope/research/projects/hefce-ref2014-impact.html), so hopefully that might turn up some useful information.

    For your ‘evaluation’ side of things I would recommend having a read of our guidelines on evaluating the impact of development research (http://www.ukcds.org.uk/resources/evaluating-the-impact-of-research-programmes), especially the Methods and Approaches paper. It lists motivations, challenges and a number of various approaches you could take in trying to draw out indicators of impact.

    Alex

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for your comment and the links to those resources – very useful! I agree more needs to be done about impact, especially given the REF. Although there is an increasing need for academic institutions to demonstrate impact, I’m not sure to what extent academics are on board with this. recent experiences suggest that there is a bit of reluctance to engage with log frames, theories of change etc. I think it’s interesting, given that academia is about generating evidence (just not necessarily evidence of impact). I wonder if we need to do more on the “why impact evaluations are important” side of things too.

    I have also stumbled across some articles published by Institute for Development Studies:

    http://www.ids.ac.uk/publication/rethinking-impact-evaluation-for-development

    http://www.ids.ac.uk/publication/towards-systemic-approaches-to-evaluation-and-impact

    Do you have any relevant upcoming events that may be relevant to attend?

    Jami

    Like

    • Hi Jami,

      Maybe it is an image problem for “measuring impact” within the academic world. There is of course the well-worn argument about basic research not being amenable to impact evaluations, but I would have thought that the Darwin Initiative researchers would want to demonstrate their work having an effect, whether on conservation or the communities.

      We don’t have any events on the immediate horizon, mainly because we’re currently taking on a big project around research impact. I can’t say much more but I’m sure we’ll have an event to discuss the findings so watch this space over the next couple of months.

      Alex

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for your comment. I think it’s an interesting point about the image of measuring impact. I agree Darwin Initiative projects want to have impacts, but may need more convincing on why measuring the impact is important (I realise that this is of course a sweeping generalisation). I’ll definitely keep my eyes peeled for related events over the next couple of months.

    Jami

    Like

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