Needs assessments and self-fulfilling prophecies
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Jennifer Obado Joel, Research Associate, Centre for Public Policy Alternatives, Lagos Nigeria, currently a student in the MA Public Policy program at the Central European University, Budapest Hungary.

After reading Alex’s post ‘Is it a needs assessment if you have already decided on your intervention?’, I would like to give my comments on questions raised by him. In my response, I write as a policy research analyst in the global south and also as a former applicant to one of the INASP grant programs.

While musing on how to respond to Alex, I asked myself why I included a needs assessment program within a grant application for an intervention project. The answer was quite jarring and humbling. I thought I knew what the answers were. My knowledge of the subject matter, the policy environment, constraints and opportunities faced by my target audience gives me an omniscient capacity to infer a solution. Right? Wrong! With the benefit of hindsight, it is with all sense of responsibility that I admit how teleological and short-sighted it all seems now.  I will begin by giving my opinion on questions addressed by Alex in his blog-post and conclude by sharing my experience with incentives for adequate investigation of causal factors before intervention programs design.

The first question posted by Alex was ‘Is the needs assessment considered a box-ticking exercise to make an application better?’ The answer to this is not clear cut, while interventions projects might be designed from local knowledge, how else to make it ‘scientific’, if not through the conduct of a needs assessment? The underlying assumption is that the findings are a given. While this raises ethical questions, another point of discussion should be the pressure placed on applicants to validate the empiricism of their chosen intervention methodology.   However, suffice to say, this conduct restricts  inclusion of nuances that could have been discovered during an unbiased pilot study.

I am with Alex on his concern with objectivity of needs assessments for a premeditated intervention.  This usually ends up exposing grave methodological flaws within the project design. Usually, the wrong variables and population are targeted, which often reduces or totally eliminates any impact such projects could have achieved. However, the funding challenges facing non-governmental organisations are real — there seems to be a battle between efficiency and equity. The opportunity cost is enormous in a battle between professional reputation and organisational survival. Would the tension be less if grant organisations were willing to commit to a project preceded by a needs assessment? Usually, there is a certain fear that if the findings of the pilot studies falsify underlying assumptions of the project design, the grant will be lost. Thus, faced with this dilemma, the inclusion of needs assessment within a project grant application ensures there is a guarantee that the funding agency will not renege on its commitment, whatever the findings are.  If learning becomes a central objective of a grant, I can unequivocally state there will be an higher likelihood that grant applicants would focus more on conducting pilot studies to gain better understanding of the problem.

I am aware there is a parallel ethical discourse on normative  project design, but I am stating the reality about the perplexity faced by large numbers of grant applicants, especially small sized organisations that survive from one grant to the other.  My best experience in conduct of needs assessment was probably for a youth employability project funded by a local grant organisation in Nigeria.  The organisation specified the dedication of the first quarter of the one year project for a background research on causes of high rate of graduate unemployment in Nigeria. Furthermore, the organisation provided adequate funding for a parallel monitoring and evaluation project, which led to several modifications of the program design within the year. The commitment of the grant organisation to understand causal factors contributed to the overall success of the project. The result of this extensive engagement was an overhaul of the implementing organisation intervention methodology, a win-win situation.

From personal experience, there is no motivation for a grant applicant to include a needs assessment in a program grant application, if the funding for both items can be treated as independent but symbiotic. However, this does not imply that this is just a question of availability of funding, there are cases in which certain organisations with years of experience on a given field exhibit intellectual arrogance. This is expressed by vigorous defence of the intervention and reluctance to commit to rigorous background research. However, this is quite rare.  The spate of change in knowledge and experience around the world, demands that NGOs retain a fresh perspective on issues, else they run the risk of becoming obsolete.

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About Jennifer Obado

Jennifer Obado Joel, Research Associate, Centre for Public Policy Alternatives, Lagos Nigeria, currently a student in the MA Public Policy program at the Central European University, Budapest Hungary.
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