Reflections on the Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis Seminar

May 8, 2013 by  Comments (0)

USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning (PPL) invited me to be the “Thought Leader in Learning” last April and to present at a seminar on the Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis (PIPA) methodology. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Knowledge Management Impact Challenge UnConference where many of the same challenges of “measuring” the benefits of knowledge management interventions and practices and of sharing and learning from information derived from M&E, were discussed (a final report and articles from this conference here:  KM Impact Challenge final report. I feel we still face most of the same challenges, regarding knowledge management, learning, and integration of lessons learned in subsequent development initiatives. Agriculture, in particular, faces its own challenges, as do sectors such as health, education, economic growth, natural resource management, and other areas of development where time is, alas, going by too fast.

There are a few issues that come up for me every time I present or discuss PIPA. While so many people like PIPA and want to use it, I am reminded of how little of the methodology and its corresponding materials are “written in stone.” We have learned this every time (a quick count of around 30 times since 2007) we implement a PIPA- informed process. Each time that new ideas and needs arise, we respond by improving the methodology and its exercises, but the processes by which these changes in our practice are incorporated and documented is still very organic and scattered.

After the USAID seminar, I met and chatted with around 20 people — and almost every one of them had cases for which PIPA would be an interesting approach. And for almost every one of them, I have also worked on a similar project, or one whose results would have informed the other, and so on. This generates the feeling of opportunities lost and of the constant “reinvention of the wheel.” Sounds grim, and seems to all be related to M&E and KM... My response will be not to despair (when has that been of any use at all?) but rather to start finding ways to compile and document the case studies of PIPA applications. Lessons learnt, new sources of information and connections, “what ifs,” and FAQs: all of these need to make it into a space that is accessible and easy to use for project managers and others interested in PIPA. Documenting some of our own “a-ha! moments” carefully is also a priority right now. If you are interested in helping with this effort or know of someone who might, please let me know!

I was very happy to see again how many “facets” there are to the PIPA experience. Some people spoke about their interest on the more participatory aspects of PIPA — such as giving voice to stakeholders, proposing strategies for creating understanding between very different groups of users, and doing our best to make sure they all get heard. Some others have questions and wish to know more about our use of Social Network Analysis (SNA) principles — how SNA is useful for visualizing partnerships, networks, and interactions for innovation. This seems to be a distinguishing characteristic of PIPA that generates a lot of interest. Others are interested in the use of PIPA to set an M&E framework. We discussed its usefulness to generate indicators for monitoring and the related topic of baselines.  With the few that are deeply entangled in evaluation theory, I am in debt. During this type of event, I rarely (and unfortunately) have enough time to discuss PIPA as a formulation of a series of Theory of Change hypotheses and how we assess programmatic learning. But I keep looking for more space to indulge in this! Finally, I found others who share my own interest on PIPA and its potential for our take on mapping outcomes, impacts, and working toward better development outcomes (see CGIAR, CIAT for examples).

The PIPA methodology is so adaptable (as anything that confronts complexity has to be) that almost every case is a new application and combination of the PIPA tools. If this is exciting, it also makes it difficult to come up with a standard presentation for the method given the time needed to adequately discuss all of its related applications. I would love to have more time discussing and sharing, especially with people like the kind and bright folks I encountered at USAID. I feel we are one when it comes to finding the best ways to learn and improve in our development projects, for the benefit of those who need it the most. 

Sophie Alvarez
Knowledge Management and Capacity Strengthening, CIAT   
Skypename: bsalvarez