Thinking outside the baseline

Dustin Barter Methodology, Real Geek

Dustin Barter takes us through Oxfam’s baseline management for a Durable Peace Programme in Myanmar and lays out how, this time, our approach was so different to the status quo.

Allocate some funding, get a consultant to collect data and write a report, and there you have it, baseline done. Share it with the donor and if they’re happy, contract compliance complete. Improved organisational capacity? Minimal. Information sharing? Only for the donor. Advocacy? Negligible. Informing programming? Occasionally. Satisfaction? Only if a sigh of relief counts. And so goes the typical process for baseline reports; a mandatory step for nearly all development projects to measure future impact or lack thereof. Although a simplified description, that process is largely reflective of the begrudged baseline status quo. This post is about doing things differently.

In 2015, Oxfam launched the Durable Peace Programme (DPP) in conflict-affected Kachin State, northern Myanmar. A consortium programme managed by Oxfam, activities range from peace support to income generation to reconciliation. Saying goodbye to convention, we embarked on an ambitious baseline process, as part of one of Oxfam’s approaches to impact measurement. The report is available here with a few reflections below.

Collaboration, Capacity Development and Ownership

Oxfam managed the baseline, but all organisations were involved from survey design to data collection to analysis. In contrast to outsourcing the process to a consultant, this process ensured extensive capacity development for people from all involved organisations. Utilising tablets for data collection, each organisation developed vastly improved skills in survey development, interviewing techniques, data analysis and the many nuances of a solid baseline, such as statistical significance and randomised sampling. The final product is accredited to the consortium, not Oxfam, not individuals. This resulted in collaborative ownership; since then, organisations are proactively utilising the baseline to its potential, as follows:

Making the Baseline Public

Over 2,200 interviews later, including in some of the least accessible parts of Kachin State, we had robust data and unique findings, particularly on sensitive issues relating to community linkages with authorities and attitudes towards peace. It’s information that many actors need, from local civil society to United Nations’ agencies. Prioritising the reader’s experience, data was processed into beautiful infographics, making it accessible and engaging. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and we hope this encourages others to pursue a similar path. Rather than baselines for every project, costing money and consuming community time, why not shift towards increasingly shared, public baselines that reduce the need for project-specific baselines?

Advocacy for Conflict-Affected People

Highlighting the acute needs of displaced people and communities’ lack of access to peace processes, amongst many other things, disseminating the baseline to targeted stakeholders has been a critical advocacy process. From civil society to donors to authorities, the baseline gives primacy to community issues, increasing the impetus for increased support and engagement from all stakeholders. Avoiding the usual descent into the abyss, the report is reaching diverse, influential stakeholders. Evidence-based advocacy through and through.

Informing Programming

Internally, the baseline results had many implications for our programme, such as the need for de-centralised peace participation mechanisms. For other actors, the findings will hopefully be equally influential, both in refining existing programmes and for designing programmes that more effectively meet the needs highlighted in the report.

Was it all worth it?

The approach we took was time consuming, complicated and at times, challenging. Fancy review processes by seven different organisations? By no means was it a perfect approach, but at the end of the day, rather than just tick off a compliance box, we’ve seen vast benefits in improved organisational capacity, influencing/advocacy, and encouraging new ways of working that may even turn the begrudged baseline into the beloved. And that is indeed satisfying.

What’s next?

Complementary qualitative data collection is underway, followed by a quantitative endline survey scheduled for late 2017, all of which will follow the above principles, namely collaboration, transparency and advocacy. This feeds into part of one of Oxfam’s approach to impact measurement, all of which will be made public. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment or contact us with any questions.

The 3.5 year Durable Peace Programme is funded through a seven million Euro European Union grant and implemented by a consortium managed by Oxfam and including KBC, KMSS, Metta, Nyein, SwissAid and TrĂ³caire.


Suman Gupta