© phototechno / iStock
© phototechno / iStock

We talk a lot about positive impact: the positive impact that a programme or project is having, a positive impact delivered into someone’s life, etc.

But we all know that things don’t always go swimmingly. Sometimes, in fact, our interventions don’t have the anticipated results. Sometimes people are actually worse off. What then?

Well then, dear friend, you need to own it. Acknowledge that the positive result you were working towards isn’t going to happen. Don’t ignore it and don’t brush it under the carpet. Instead, sit down with your team, your beneficiaries, your partners and other stakeholders and talk about why it didn’t work. What can you learn from failure and how can you ensure that this doesn’t happen next time.

The other thing to do is check that this failure isn’t just a short term result that might be positive in the longer-run. Let me give you an example. I was working on a ground-breaking evaluation in Zambia in 2010 looking at social value creation from a client’s project. There were very few financial proxies or value metrics available to use, so I was designing new financial proxies with sampled beneficiary groups who were talking to me about the impact this project had had in their lives. They loved the project, they thought it had done much good. After all, families were staying together, children were getting the healthcare that they needed and girls were still going to school long after other girls in neighbouring villages had been taken out of school. 

But when we drilled down a little bit, the story changed. Because mothers now had the knowledge and knew what to do when their children were sick in the evenings, the household was using twice as many candles. Just as food expenses had gone up because families were staying together and school fees had risen because girls were staying in school for longer. This was a real drop in living standards and increased costs to the household that was taking some further into poverty as a result. Or was it? When we ran the numbers and modelled the impact to social value over five years we found that the negative impact was a short term thing and that by year five those households that had been worst affected should have actually moved out of poverty again. In short this was because the longer-term income generating ability of the households had also improved with families staying together.

The client was still upset and there was much hand-wringing. My response was straightforward: this isn’t a problem, but an opportunity. You see my client at the time didn’t do livelihoods (now everyone does it and you can fall over the multitude of livelihoods projects) and didn’t know where to start with this information. So I pointed out that where a result for beneficiaries needed a response outside of the client’s expertise that they should identify an appropriate partner organisation that can respond to that need and partner with them to meet the complex needs of the households they were supporting. Back in 2010 ‘partnerships’ in the international development sector were not as common place as they are now, so you can imagine that some eyebrows were raised. But they nevertheless accepted the recommendation.

I heard recently from someone that used to work there that they had used my recommendations regularly to encourage partnerships and to demonstrate the value of a negative outcome.

So here are the three things about negative impact that I think you need to know:

  • Don’t be afraid of negative impact
  • Make sure you really understand it and understand why it happened
  • Use this knowledge to improve your future programming to avoid the same outcome

Have you ever experienced negative impact in your work? What happened and how did you respond?


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