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Composing a symphony or causing a racket? Intentional design for evaluation and learning among subgroups in multi-site, multi-organisation development initiatives

Working papers

Written by Anne Buffardi

Hero image description: An image showing the strings section of an orchestra from above, with musicians seated and playing on violins. Image credit:Unsplash/Samuel Sianipar Image license:CC-BY

Large initiatives implemented by multiple organisations, operating across multiple sites, and aiming to effect change at multiple levels through multi-component interventions are becoming increasingly common. Many donors, including those in the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden and Canada, use consortium and multi-project initiatives to channel their development assistance. This approach may be driven by several factors: recognition of the interconnections across subnational, national and supranational levels and potential contributions of different types of organisations; an attempt to reduce the siloed nature of individual projects working in parallel; and the desire for efficiency, through smaller numbers of staff overseeing larger budgets. International non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society networks have also expanded their structures to increase their reach, representativeness and potential influence.

In an ideal scenario, multi-actor efforts can be imagined as a symphony: an elaborate instrumental composition in multiple movements, written for a large ensemble which mixes instruments from different families (an orchestra). However, with so many components and actors there is also a risk of creating a cacophony: a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds. In this paper, we use music as a metaphor to examine different approaches to learning and evaluation in groups.

A symphony orchestra viewed from above
Kimberly Bowman and Anne Buffardi, with Sophie Freeman