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What gets measured, gets done

Written by Elaine Reinke

“My social life is very important to me”, declares Jihad Al-Hakimi, Microfinance Manager of the Economic Opportunities Fund in Yemen, grabs his wedding ring from the table and places it above my ipad. As part of this valuation exercise, participants of the Social Return on Investment (SROI) training were asked to bring a number of personal items and rank them by their value – not so easy, given that the 21 trainees had very different views about the value of their belongings.

Considering the multiple realities of different stakeholders – that’s a core principle of SROI. Being a participatory method to assess the social, environmental, economic and other dimensions of benefits resulting from development interventions, it can be used at different stages of the project cycle: at the onset in support of planning and appraisal, during implementation for monitoring, and at completion for evaluation.
Under IFAD’s Innovation Mainstreaming Initiative, the Near East, North Africa and Europe Division is testing SROI as a new means to generate evidence-based knowledge and learning in IFAD-funded projects. Together with Fons van der Velden and Pol de Greve from Context, International Cooperation Foundation, a Netherlands-based social business providing capacity development support to development actors and social enterprises, I travelled to North Kordofan, Sudan, for the first SROI pilot.

This women of Elhamair community explains
how her life changed due to the water yard.
In the state capital El Obeid we met the male and female trainees from different projects and line ministries in Sudan and Yemen to embark on a joint learning journey over the coming 12 days. Following Context’s SROI manual, we started off with a three day classroom (yet practical) training covering the nine steps of SROI – but there went the theory. Allowing the participants to get their hands on the matter, the training has been embedded into assessing water-related activities in the IFAD-supported Western Sudan Resource Management Project.

And off we went to the field: divided into two groups, we visited the villages of Elhamair and Sawarda to capture and understand the invested resources and benefits for the local community generated by a Hafir (open pond for rainwater harvesting) and a water yard (elevated groundwater tank) that were constructed by the project in 2011 – and the value the beneficiaries attached to these resources and benefits.
Pol de Greve, Mohamed Y. Elnour and
Ahmed H. S. Mohammed
take detailed notes of resources and benefits
connected to the water yard.
For the group visiting the water yard in Elhamair, the first day in the community felt like a piece of cake: the training participants were impressively skilled facilitators letting the villagers tell their story of the water yard and how it changed their lives. At the end of the day, the community had developed its own theory of change and listed all resources, including their value, that were invested in the water yard. On the next day, we started understanding what Oscar Wilde meant by “some people always know the price but not the value”: the training participants teased out a list of some 43 benefits – but helping the beneficiaries to value these was a quite challenging task, especially when it came to intangible and indirect benefits such as reduced tensions among settlers and nomads, and empowerment of women through water users committees. But we made it – and the community rewarded us with a remarkable performance of traditional dance, singing and poetry.
Back in the classroom, we jointly reflected on the lessons learned from our field work, and then rolled up our sleeves to embark on the process of verification, analysis and report-writing for both case studies. By triangulating different sources of data, the training participants calculated the total value of all invested resources versus benefits to derive the SROI ratio. It turned out that for every dollar invested, the project generated a benefit worth 1.66 dollars in case of the Hafir and 2.5 dollars for the water yard. Pretty impressive, yet a number is just number. The important part of SROI is what Pol and Fons call “narrative numeracy”, that is embedding the number into a narrative which reveals the story behind and captures those elements that are most difficult to measure. By considering the views of multiple stakeholders, developing this story is where project-based learning is happening.

Focus group discussion with selected community
members under a shady tree of Elhamair village.
At closing time, participants looked back over the entire process and developed follow-up action plans in their respective project teams. They are now keen to conduct additional case studies and integrate these into project reporting, use SROI in mid-term reviews, organize SROI planning workshops at country-level and provide SROI training to government partners. Their plans and reflections fed into a debriefing with more than 20 government officials and local leaders in El Obeid, including HE the State Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, who also opened our workshop. The discussions demonstrated profound interest among different stakeholders in using SROI as a contribution to improve results measurement at strategic level. This will also guide Pol, Fons and myself in designing the next steps in our joint innovation project: organizing a second on-the-job training in another country in the region, and pulling the threads together in a Rome-based reflection cum write shop to develop a meaningful knowledge product on IFAD’s first experience with SROI for wider dissemination.