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Monday, January 11, 2010

The LFA Debate: Making the LFA participatory

-- Greg Armstrong --

SIDA's LFA Papers:

3. The Logical Framework Approach - an Appreciative Approach

This  is not a complete guide to participatory use of the LFA, but it could help focus attention, in the initial needs assessment stage of project development, not just on problems, but on opportunities.  Much of what is said here was old news in adult education 80 years ago, but good ideas do occasionally merit repeating.

[Edited to update links June 2018]

Level of difficulty:  Moderate
Primarily useful for:  NGOs looking for participatory needs assessment techniques
Length:  24 pages
Most useful section: Guidelines on running a workshop, p. 12-20.
Limitations:  Academic jargon may distract the reader, no discussion of indicators or reporting

The LFA Debate (part 3)

Prepared by the SIDA Civil Society Center and published in 2006, this is the third in a series of publications produced by SIDA dealing with the different perspectives on how and whether, to use the Logical Framework Approach in development programming.

The first document of the three I have reviewed was a summary of the basic elements of the LFA, published in 2004.  The second was a discussion of how civil society organizations critiqued the use of the LFA.

Who this document is for:

This document is rooted in the experience of a Swedish Civil Society Organization (Swedish Pentecostal Mission’s development cooperation agency)  working in Africa, and is apparently aimed at project designers and planner working in NGOs.  The guidelines for conducting a workshop, and the suggested time allocations for different components, suggest the document is aimed at organizations with fairly small projects.

Overview - Useful, but not new

This document proposes that “Appreciative Inquiry” an approach to research which focuses on how participants perceive their own strengths, problems and opportunities be applied to the Logical Framework Approach used by most development agencies. The model presented here focuses on planning, not evaluation, and is based in part on field trials in Niger, Nicaragua and Tanzania in 2005.

While the ideas have some utility, the use of academic jargon to label what is essentially participatory planning, is likely discourage from reading it, some people  who might otherwise find some reasonable ideas here.  

Not that the ideas are necessarily new. Much of what is said here was old news in modern adult education 80 years ago: Start with the learners, build on their strengths, help them explore their own potential. John Dewey, Edward Lindeman, Moses Coady, and Roby Kidd among many others have been making the same case, give or take a few academic flourishes, for the past 100 years.  But good ideas do occasionally merit repeating.

Principles of Appreciative Inquiry

The basic premises of Appreciative Inquiry, as summarised in Appendix 2 of this short document, appear to be that:

1. The language we use affects our perceptions of ourselves and our communities. “By changing our language, e.g. by talking about opportunities and strengths instead of weaknesses and threats, we can alter our mental frame of reference, and thus our reality.”

2. The process of inquiring about a situation (needs assessments, for example) affect the situation itself:
"Change begins the moment we start to ask questions and study someone’s experiences and perceptions, and the questions we ask determine what we will find.”
[This is described in more general approaches to qualitative research as an “interaction affect”, something with which anthropologists and most other  professionals applying qualitative research methods will be familiar.]

3. The way people talk about their situation, is a narrative, and  interventions - research and action -- should take particular note of what people say as the basis for understanding.

4.  The expectations people have about the future -- their  “vision”  or  preconceptions -- affect the actions they take, and contribute to, or bias that future:
“Studying our preconceptions and expectations about the future, and formulating desirable  visions of the future on the basis thereof, will help us to take positive, action-oriented steps in our lives.”
5. Building a positive attitude in discussions is important for change: 
“Positive, affirmative premises are needed to build and maintain the forces of change at a deeper level. The more appreciative our starting premise, the more successful and sustainable our efforts to bring about meaningful change and development.

Applying Appreciative Inquiry to Project Planning

In applying these rather general concepts to project planning, this document is quite specific about the context in which it suggests appreciative inquiry can be useful, particularly in reference to SIDA guidelines on working with civil society organizations:

1. The views of the poorest people should influence decision making about what will affect them (presumably including development projects)

2. There should, at the end of the intervention or series of interventions, be long-term improvements in the situation of the participants

3. The capacity of local groups and civil society organizations should be strengthened by interventions.

The Logical Framework approach, in theory, although often not in practice, begins with stakeholders identifying a problem and its causes, then specifying results which would presumably improve the situation.  And, taken in this context, there is really nothing surprising in what  this document proposes to do with the basic steps in the Logical Framework Approach.   

This paper was intended as an integration of what are basically participant-centred methods with the Logical Framework Approach, so it is reasonable that the basic steps of the LFA would be incorporated, but adapted slightly.  And, where the concepts might appear a bit vague, in the text, the document presents, in Appendix 1, a 9-page outline for a workshop.  This guide lays down a set of prescriptions about how to use this approach - detailed enough to specify group size and even the amount of time in hours and minutes to be allocated to each stage.

Steps in the Appreciative LFA process

This document breaks the usual LFA process into nine steps, and although there are some slight variations in sequence or how the steps are combined,  they are not  significantly different from what the SIDA 2004 LFA summary paper described, from what Philip Dearden described in his 2005 guide to using the LFA, or from what most agencies now use.  My comments, if any, are noted in brackets.

Step 1 - Identification of necessary participants  [One component of stakeholder analysis in other LFA formats]

Step 2 - Situation assessment:  A Description of the current situation -- both what works well, and what does not work, or works poorly.

Step 3 -  Analysis of what the consequences are of this situation -- undesirable effects, and any useful effects that participants do not want  to endanger or undermine through programming.  In this stage too, the document includes a discussion of what the participants would like to change. 

[Steps 2 and 3 together are sometimes in the usual LFA process addressed in  problem identification - although again, this “appreciative inquiry approach” emphasises identification of opportunities as well as  problems]

Step 4 - Analysis of the factors affecting the situation   [This often happens in  assessment of the causes of problems in other LFA approaches - and is frequently included in the problem identification stage.   Here, again, this document emphasises also analysis of the  causes of successes, not simply the causes of problems]

In this stage, several questions are asked:

  • What things, people or processes are working well - supporting positive aspects of the situation, or mitigating negative aspects of the situation?
  • What factors, similarly, are contributing to negative or undesirable effects of the situation?
  • What is the relationship between these factors - do they interact?  
  • Which of these factors - the ones leading to positive or negative results, should a project or programme concentrate on?

Step 5 -  Analysis of assumptions and internal conditions necessary for success.  Here two questions are asked:

  • Based on the analysis of factors, which groups are most important to change?
  • What strengths and resources do these groups bring with them, and how can they be effectively applied?
[It is clear - and refreshing to see - that this paper takes the discussion of assumptions seriously. Accounting for assumptions  is implicit in most LFA formats, but rarely directly addressed in practice.  In the accompanying workshop guide, in Appendix 1, two of the nine pages are given to descriptions of how to work through a discussion of assumptions in the group]

Step 6 - Identification of the project goal and “deliveries” (deliverables).

  • Based on the analysis of problems, strengths and critical factors affecting both, what changes should the group focus on? 
[This looks like a mid-term result - achievable by the end of the intervention -- what OECD-DAC defines as a medium term effect, or Outcome -- essentially, however ,just a longer-term change to which the project hopes to contribute.]

  • What will the project “deliver” to contribute to this change?  :
The example provided is:“Local decision-makers and leaders in civil society organisations (CSOs) have been educated on, and understand children’s rights”
[This seems to combine, what in other circumstances would be Outputs - completed activities --- “decision-makers…have been educated….” with short term results -- ‘…decision makers….understand children’s rights.” 
  •  What strengths - identified in step 4, during the analysis of factors -- can different participants bring to these activities and results?

  • What are different groups prepared to take responsibility for?

  • What are they key factors we need to consider to get results?  [This seems, although it is unclear, to correspond to the risk assessment or risk analysis in other LFA terminology]

Step 7 -  Overall Goal of the Project 

  • To what longer-term result is the project likely to contribute?
 [This clearly seems the equivalent of the OECD/DAC “Development Objective”, CIDA’s “Ultimate Outcome”, or in more basic terms simply the long-term change to which the project is intended to contribute.]

Step 8 -  Resources and division of labour

  • What resources can different participants including the donor bring to the activity?
  • What organizational capacity needs to be improved?

Step 9  -  Action Plan 

[This, combined with step 8  seems to correspond to the activity development or activity design component of other LFA processes.]

  • What concrete needs do we have; how will labour be divided; what are the deadlines, and methods of reporting?

Greg Armstrong’s Comments:  

1. Adult Education and Project Planning

The overall idea of putting more emphasis on strengths and not just problems seems to me to be constructive, but it is not particularly new, as I noted in the introduction to this review.  Putting the label “appreciative inquiry” on the process of starting with strengths, does not necessarily make it innovative, but nor does it invalidate the utility of starting with how people see their situation, problems and opportunities.  

What putting this academic label on the process could well do, however, is discourage field-oriented practitioners from reading this, and therefore from learning something useful, because nobody wants to get bogged down in academic jargon. Results-based management itself has enough jargon without adding a new layer of academic terminology. 

If academics really insist on applying their considerable expertise to practical issues, they would be well advised to reduce the jargon.  But, that may be an unrealistic hope. if they don’t eliminate the jargon, however, what can we expect next: 

  • Transformative Learning and the LFA?  
  • Critical Self-reflection and the LFA?
  • Reflective Dialogue and the LFA?
  • Conscientization and the LFA?
  • The Dialogical LFA?

2. Needs Assessments and RBM

Needs assessments have always, in theory, started with an attempt to understand the strengths and problems of individuals, communities, institutions or countries, and then have attempted to assess available but underused resources, to build on strengths and minimise problems. 

The appreciative inquiry approach explained in this document makes that process of assessing strengths and weaknesses explicit, and that is probably useful, because over time, there has been a tendency to focus on problems.  Analysing what works, and trying to build that into a programme is essentially what adult education does - building on our strengths to overcome our problems.  

3. Sequencing Results and Activities

The general sequence suggested here -- at least on the identification of problems, strengths and how they play into a potential definition of needs and the structuring of a project, is reasonable, but not revolutionary.  But steps 6-9 are somewhat problematic for me.  It would seem to me that focusing on the broader change - the long term result (step 7) might logically precede the definition of the immediate project results (step 6), which might eventually contribute to a desirable long-term change.  

The danger of focusing first on project results is that short term changes might not really be relevant to a long-term need.  Some universities, for example ,have in the past been notorious for assuming that the result of every project should be more graduates.  While that might serve the university’s immediate need, (particularly in terms of job security for professors) it will not always contribute to the solution of a longer-term development problem.

Limitations: Indicators and reporting

This document is intended as a discussion of planning, not implementation or reporting.  So, it might be unfair to criticise it for not discussing reporting.  In fact, it would probably be fair, analysing the guidelines for the workshop, to say that approach may be aimed at improving primarily the LFA stage of situation  analysis, not the concrete activity development needed to finalize a project. If limited to this stage in the development of a project, I think it could be said that the document makes some useful contribution to the process of defining needs.

The  paper does at least suggest, however, that it is integrating the participatory process not just with needs assessment, but with the whole Logical Framework process, and if the LFA, or results-based management in general are to have any utility for aid agencies, reporting has to be addressed.  

If a participatory approach to planning is used, the implications of this for reporting need to be discussed in detail if the participatory approach is to have any credibility with field workers or donor agencies.

Indicators - the evidence that will tell us if we are making progress on results, are an essential (and often criticised) element of practical results-based management.  Although the word “indicator” is mentioned 54 times in this document, the complex process of identifying practical indicators is never actually discussed.  There is no discussion of what the group process of identifying an indicator might look like, no discussion of the potential problems such an approach might present in practice, and particularly strange, coming from advocates of a participatory approach, no discussion of the strengths of group identification of indicators,

The bottom line:  This report provides a reminder of the utility of engaging stakeholders in real discussions about problems and strengths of their community, during the project planning process.   Although in practical terms there is little here that is startlingly new, those interested primarily in focusing on the situation analysis, needs assessment and problem identification stage of RBM and the LFA process could probably make use of these approaches.  As a guide to the whole LFA process, however, it is unlikely to be as useful as the 2004 SIDA publication summarizing the LFA process..  

Because of its limited scope this paper does not resolve the debate on the utility of the LFA.  Of the three papers prepared for SIDA between 2004-2006 on the LFA, it is probably the first, on the theory behind the LFA that is likely to be of the most practical use to field-based development practitioners.


Greg Armstrong is a Results-Based Management specialist who focuses on the use of clear language in RBM training, and in the creation of usable planning, monitoring and reporting frameworks.  For links to more Results-Based Management Handbooks and Guides, go to the RBM Training website

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