External Review of the idrc acacia Program icon

External Review of the idrc acacia Program

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Appropriateness of Prospectus Implementation

Key findings:

  • The implementation of Acacia III went largely according to plan. Where changes were made, these were well reasoned and justified.

  • The well-conceived and defensible logic and priorities in the Acacia III strategy, its division into sub-themes and networks with common objectives, and its well-articulated operational principles—which the Acacia team closely followed—laid the foundation for its coherence, successful implementation and achievement of expected outcomes.

  • The committed, interactive and adaptive (flexible, based on learning) management style of the Acacia team helped to overcome or avoid potential management risks and tensions.

  • Acacia’s willingness to take risks by working in under-researched areas and its commitment to understanding how ICTs can contribute to economic, political, and social development are widely recognized as a key strength.

  • Program coherence was facilitated by the well-coordinated, stable team of experienced and specialized Program Officers and network leaders, a shared understanding between them of Acacia’s strategy and operational principles and a good Program Officer-to-budget ratio that facilitates their ongoing engagement in shaping the areas of work.

In evaluating the appropriateness of the choices made to evolve the Acacia III strategies from what was outlined in the Acacia Prospectus 2006-2011, the panel considered four key variables: (i) the priority areas of work and other choices made against Acacia’s mission as articulated in the 2006-2011 prospectus; (ii) Acacia’s implicit, and later explicitly articulated change logic; (iii) key developments in the ICT4D field; and (iv) constraints and potential risks to relevance, effectiveness and impact.

The panel identified two main drivers for the priorities and choices made during implementation of Acacia III:

  • the Acacia III strategy which is based on a framework informed by the IDRC’s goal of fostering inclusive knowledge and information networked societies, lessons learned through the evolution of Acacia II and Connectivity Africa, inputs from participants in the first Harvard Forum,3 and consultation with potential participant groups in Africa; and

  • the operational principles articulated in the 2006-2011 Prospectus which were, in turn, supported by a limited ‘adaptive management’4 approach.

These drivers were critical to the program’s relevance, relative coherence and effectiveness. The review panel finds the Acacia III strategy to be well conceived and defensible. The strategy is reflected in the project portfolio for each thematic pillar and is evident in the considerable synergy between the desired and achieved outcomes. Resource allocations were more or less equal to each theme (Annex 10), and the priority areas of work closely aligned with what was originally intended. Acacia’s ‘theory of change’ which was made explicit at the 2009 Acacia Research and Learning Forum (ARLF) shows few signs of departure from the initial strategy aside from some expanded details and updated assumptions about the change logic.5

Few implementation changes are explicitly mentioned in the FPR. The most significant of these is the identification of ‘contributing to a formal body of knowledge’ and ‘applying meaningful gender analysis’ as formal program objectives. This modification does not appear to have affected the overall program direction6 given that the importance of these categories of activity had already been recognized in the Acacia II evaluation findings7 and were included as program activities in the 2006-2011 Prospectus. A related decision was the shift from identifying ‘thriving research networks’ as an objective to recognizing it as an implementation modality. From a program design perspective, this decision was appropriate.

Despite the potential for several of the implementation choices to expose Acacia to risk and programming tensions, the panel finds the rationales underpinning these choices to be generally convincing,8 and notes that they appear to have been managed in a manner that minimized potentially negative impacts on Acacia’s effectiveness:

  • Given that Program Officers and network leaders exert significant influence over the types of research undertaken in the thematic areas, the decision to steer clear of soliciting competitive grants for the sake of capacity building and nurturing ongoing relationships within a decentralized management structure could have perpetuated ‘pet’ projects and researchers.9 This risk appears to have been offset by such factors as the need for defensible rationales for adopting specific research foci in the Acacia sub-themes, the experience and commitment of individual Program Officers and network leaders, the frequent interactions between Program Officers and research partners regarding proposal strengthening and appraisal, and the Program Officers’ efforts at expanding viable networks.

  • A ‘forward planning’ organizational imperative combined with cross-fertilization between projects and the growth in networks such as RIA, GRACE and AVOIR enabled Acacia III to expand across some 22 countries in Africa and the Middle East. While significant differences in formal and informal institutions, language, infrastructure and development imperatives across the sub-regions in Africa brings with it formidable management challenges,10 it is apparent that researchers in many countries have benefited from Acacia’s research funding (Annex 10).

  • South African organizations and researchers received significant amounts of funding. However, in many instances these transfers were managed as intermediary grants that connected researchers and networks across countries with the benefits of these grants accruing beyond South Africa (Annex 10). Acacia’s rationale for this allocation pattern is rooted in the need for the transfer of high level expertise, capacity building and mentoring, and organizational capacity to manage large grants. While the panel acknowledges the measure of risk associated with concentrating grants in ‘comfort zones,’ it is satisfied that given the infrastructure and capacity constraints in Africa, the funding allocation strategy employed is appropriate and did not diminish the effectiveness or impact of Acacia’s efforts.11

  • Acacia provided measureable support for several under-researched yet important domains of ICT4D including participatory Geographical Information Systems (GIS), ICTs and agriculture, ICTs and crisis situations and ICTs and climate change, cybercrime, censorship and human rights. Its willingness to take risks and its commitment to understanding how ICTs can contribute to economic, political, and social development is widely recognized as a key strength.

In verifying and assessing the coherence of the Acacia III program,12 the panel finds significant horizontal (thematic) coherence. The themes, sub-themes and networks consist of projects that complement and build upon one another. In this sense, Acacia can be considered to be ‘more than a sum of its parts.’ There were also many positive comments on the usefulness of the ARLF in October 2009 where network members met together for the first time, enhancing the opportunity to exchange and understand what value can be added through collaboration. (Several key informants confirmed that they were unaware of the potential until this event.) This conclusion, however, is somewhat offset by the seemingly limited cross-fertilization across some networks and projects. The panel recognizes the several efforts made to link the work of different networks but notes that despite the presence in some cases of structures to facilitate cross-fertilization (e.g. emphasis on and promotion of outcome mapping), the information emerging from a number of interviews suggests that these mechanisms did not always work as well as desired.13 This is view is reaffirmed by the comments on page 23 of the FPR which note that there should be more cross-collaboration between gender and sector teams, and that initial efforts to establish cross-fertilization with RIA, for example, were not yet successful.

The panel finds that there were two key success factors in establishing coherence. The first is the well-reasoned strategy for Acacia III. The second is the decision to work within sub-themes with networks and projects that either address a specific challenge through a number of different activities, or provide for comparative work across countries and regions.

The ability to manage for coherence appears to have been facilitated by the presence of three important factors. First, a well-coordinated stable team of experienced and specialized Program Officers and network leaders; second, a shared understanding of Acacia’s strategy and operational principles; third, a good Program Officer-to-budget ratio that facilitates their ongoing engagement in shaping the area’s work.

Overall, the review panel finds that Acacia III has been managed in a manner which ensured that program implementation was in line with what was envisaged at the start of the existing program period. Priorities were established and changes were made in a thoughtful manner, with convincing rationales offered for divergences from what was originally intended.

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Date conversion04.03.2012
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