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Home > Blogs > Director's Blog > Outcomes are nice, but what about measuring them?

March 2013 Director’s Blog, by Alain Vidal

This week we are publishing thirteen CPWF outcome stories. Just a few days after the groundbreaking ceremony of the CGIAR Headquarters in Montpellier, where French authorities were told how the new CGIAR was “big, bold and beautiful”, these outcome stories may look small, even tiny. “Islands of success” in the middle of an ambitious “ocean of change”.

What we in CPWF have learnt over the last ten years is that it is not so easy to “get people to do things differently”.  We cannot just provide ‘evidence’. Science lays the foundation by providing deeper understanding of the problems, better ways to target interventions or new solutions (also called “innovations”, “interventions”, “strategies” or “alternatives”).  But in order to influence stakeholder behavior and achieve outcomes we need to go one step further and engage stakeholders in the process of research itself. It is through their own learning processes that people begin to change or alter how they make decisions.

But let’s consider these outcomes stories more carefully, because outcomes – the new paradigm for the whole CGIAR, which our program was entrusted to test at its creation ten years ago – come in all shapes and sizes. Outcomes can be defined as changes in stakeholders’ behaviors through shifts in their practice, investments or decision-making processes. They are more about change than about size. That being said, these stories also give a way by which to measure the outcomes achieved. There is nothing that a development agency or donor (such as IFAD or GIZ, whom I recently visited) values more than metrics.

For instance, in Cambodia, the story of drip irrigation farming linked to market opportunities demonstrates how improved water efficiency, primarily in the form of irrigation drip-kits, resulted in water savings, lower labor requirements and improved yields. Income of the target farmers more than doubled.

Another outcome, related to benefit sharing mechanisms in the Rio Ubate / Fuquene lake watershed in Colombia, shows how different stakeholders changed their attitudes towards one another. Combining conservation agriculture with Payment for Environmental Services, partners set up a revolving fund program managed by farmers’ associations. The fund provided smallholder farmers with credit to make an initial investment in conservation agriculture. So far, 100% of the first round of loans have been recovered. From 2006 to 2009, more than 180 hectares of land were brought under conservation agriculture, which in turn increased farmers income by 17%.

These outcomes are not the end of the road. In both instances, the initiatives further innovated and led to new outcomes. In Cambodia IDE is continuing to improve service delivery and diversify markets. The work in Colombia has continued under the guidance of CIAT in the Andes.

The main lesson that we have learned is that outcomes take time to generate, are iterative and not linear. There are not magic bullet solutions in getting to outcomes.

Over the coming months CPWF will be capitalizing on its ten-year research for development experience. Identifying ways to achieve ‘islands of success’, in all their shapes and sizes, is just one way CPWF can contribute to CGIAR’s envisioned ‘ocean of change’.  In its quest to reach millions, CGIAR must focus on the essentials: working through partnerships, engaging with development actors, building trust and listening to the problems at hand rather than just identifying big science-based solutions. What other lessons can we offer to help contribute to this change?

Read the outcome stories…











  1. Doug Merrey says:

    This essay on ‘outcomes’ is well-put and important. Okay, each of the 13 stories plus more emerging from CPWF phase II are “islands of success”. But many (not all) islands grow over time, and sometimes even coalesce into bigger continents. In my curret work with the Nile BDC, I see the potential for having a substantial impact on how Ethiopia does its massive SLM-RWM business. With the wisdom of hindsight I see some missed opportunies along the way, but this is counterbalanced by the willingness to learn from experience and make corrections. I feel confident that by 2014 we will begin to see real change as a direct outcome of the NBDC team efforts.

    This ‘outcomes’ paradigm is a tough sell to some — in my experience especially to scientists. It requires new ways of doing things and new kinds of partnerships. But it makes a lot of sense.

    • Alain Vidal says:

      Thanks Doug for your comment, and glad to read your optimism on our Nile program. Would be good to explicit SLM-RWM for all those reading this blog and non-specialists (I myself can guess what it is but not 100% sure…), and to share here what for you are the promising factors you have identified in Ethiopia that could sustain what you anticipate.

      On outcomes, yes this is a tough sell, and changing the way we do our research has a cost, which Challenge Programs detractors quoted negatively as a “transaction cost”. It is actually and simply the cost of a true and unbiased engagement with partners and stakeholders, which a lot of past CGIAR experience had already demonstrated.

  2. ALI YARROW says:

    The terms the ” island of success” in middle of an ambitious “ocean of change” is really touchy, and that is the way to go in order to counter the ever increasing water resources deficits/degradation. Lets us all embrace small changes at the grassroot levels that would enhance real benefits for others to emulate. We can then gradually join the islands and translate them into ocean of success.

  3. Alain Vidal says:

    Thanks Ali, and welcome to this blog! No doubt we should start at grassroot levels. The real challenge to build up “oceans of change” is certainly what is hidden in your “let us all”, which requires human, political and often financial investment, which is why engagement is key from the outset.

  4. alina paul-bossuet says:

    Thanks for this visual and informative post Alain. Its crucial that research can prove its worth through real outcomes on the ground. The examples you highlight show how important partnerships are in driving change across the globe. We have used some of these in our French post on 7 ways to conserve water.

    Look forward to following the other outcome stories.

  5. Jean Albergel says:

    Thank you for this great blog! I enjoyed all these success stories where research could serve not only researchers and knowledge but also the local communities we work with for so long! I am particularly sensitive to stories where the study has highlighted the services given by the hydosystems to the communities. We can see that the conservation of hydrosystems in good operating condition allows services often more profitable than the very expensive developments. Several examples show the importance of taking an ecosystems approach to understand ecological shifts and a societal approach to balance production and market, production and maintenance. I like the story on the ecosystem services of the Limpopo wetlands and the story on regenerating grasslands by feeding termites in Uganda.

    Outcome stories with changes in our research practices are several and not only in the CPs. CPWF should open this blog to other projects working in the interface domain between food security and water management and gather success stories where research and international cooperation in science and technology have led to great progress. Local knowledge brought often as much or more than academic knowledge in this domain and it is a topic where mutual interest is important…

    All these examples highlight a raising awareness about the necessity for scientific cooperation in order to take advantage of global knowledge. But research in partnership with developing countries must be done with the same standards with the so called competitive research and follow the same ambitions. This research is original because it is often multidisciplinary and positioned on the edges of science. It is finalized research as it feeds public policy and development. It carries impact, especially at the levels of training, capacity development and use of knowledge (expertise, innovation etc). This cooperation feeds also the understanding of phenomena on a global scale due to the continuity of research topics between the North and the South (as for example environment, climate change …).

    • Alain Vidal says:

      Thanks Jean for your comment, and suggestion to open our blog to other projects working on the interface between food security and water management. That is among other what our Water and Food Blog is for, and it actually is open and we would welcome any inputs from people you would suggest.