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Looking Ahead By Looking Back: Evaluating 25 Years of Democratic Change

The work of advancing democracy and peace in the world is indeed a slow slog. The one consistent contribution the international development field can point to is the lasting investment made in people and institutions, who then go on to continue making a difference in their own country.

No one program design, no one donor, and no one building block of democratic societies has been or will be enough.  Rather, a continued commitment to local capacity building and investment in institutions is what has been proven to make a difference in the long term.

With foundation support my organization, Partners for Democratic Change, has recently finalized a three-year evaluation of nearly a quarter-century of work. There is too much data from this global evaluation to share in one blog post, so we plan to share the stories and learning throughout the coming year leading up to our 25th anniversary.  But here are some important insights from the abbreviated evaluation report  that I believe can serve as a guide to others wishing to undertake such work:

1. “Partners’ hypothesis for how to achieve its mission proved right.”  Democratic change is advanced through sustainable impact investment that recognizes:

  • the importance of investing in local partners and building their capacity to promote democratic change;
  • the most pressing development challenges facing the world need to be addressed in a participatory manner with the input and shared commitment of government, businesses and civil society, which requires local leaders with sophisticated skills in change and conflict management; and
  • the work of social entrepreneurs to make a difference in their own countries is strengthened and legitimated by technical and relational support from an international network of like-minded professionals facing similar challenges.

2.  Good Process Matters.  The most common belief in all our collective work is that ‘process matters’ and that impartial, skilled facilitators, mediators and trainers have an important role to play in bringing about peaceful change.  A steady hand is needed to undertake the slow slog of working with government, civil society and business to help effect positive change; we’ve done this through what out evaluator called “the Partners’ way” – applying good process to all our various activities:

  • Training leaders in change and conflict management skills;
  • training trainers to enable a multiplier effect of skills dissemination,
  • applying change and conflict management processes (e.g., mediation, facilitation, cooperative planning) to help diverse groups achieve consensus on real issues;
  • promoting public policies that recognize and legitimate the use of mediation and participatory processes;
  • cooperative advocacy with local and national government to change public institutions, policies and practices;
  • research and publishing to share cutting-edge learning on democratic change and conflict management, ‘best practices’ and ‘how-to’ guides; and
  • assessing conflicts and needs, designing better programs and monitoring and evaluating projects to increase effectiveness and results.

3. It is difficult –but not impossible – to function as a global network of autonomous organizations under one unifying Theory of Change.  Because Partners’ has historically prioritized good process and social entrepreneurship when investing in local affiliate organizations, there has always been great diversity within the global network, Partners for Democratic Change International, regarding the specific challenges we all work on, from anti-corruption, to women’s empowerment, to natural resource management. So it was impossible to begin our evaluation with a common theory of change and then measure our collective impact.  But we found that after careful analysis of our combined work, we concluded the evaluation exercise with a clearer unified theory:

If we change attitudes (e.g., towards minority populations), build skills (e.g., conflict management, deliberation, dialogue), bring people together to form relationships (e.g., coalitions, networks, partnerships, working groups, committees), and provide participatory and collaborative platforms (e.g., dialogue forums, participatory budgeting processes, joint analysis and cooperative planning workshops) in which people can use their skills, or set up structures (e.g., mediation centers and systems, conciliation commissions) for decision making and conflict management, then change towards [goal] will occur.

Partners is now working in more than 40 countries throughout the Middle East, Latin America and West Africa to help bring about peaceful change towards more democratic and prosperous societies.  We are collaborating with several U.S. government agencies in these regions and support its focus on investing in local implementing partners under the USAID Forward policy.  Partners has accumulated a great deal of expertise on how to make this kind of lasting local investment – backed up by concrete data from the evaluation – to share with our colleagues in the international development field.

Julia Roig is President of Partners for Democratic Change and a global expert in Good Governance, Public Participation, Access to Justice and Conflict Resolution.

 

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