copyright © 2006
Chris Whitehouse, Cornwall, UK
updated: 3rd June 2011

The Ants and the Cockroach

- a challenge to the use of indicators

by Chris Whitehouse

space for third world development

This is the latest version of the paper, as published in Why did the chicken cross the road? And other stories on development evaluation edited by Sarah Cummings, and published in 2005 by KIT publishers. See PDF version of this paper

See original version (PDF) as written in 2003

See more papers by the same author

Imagine this scene: thousands of ants are dragging a dead cockroach towards their nest. It is an amazing feat of teamwork. But now, study any individual ant, and you will find that it may be doing any number of things; it may be a key player, pulling the dead cockroach in the right direction towards the nest. It may unwittingly be one of a minority pulling it in the wrong direction. It may be running around doing nothing, but just feeling very excited to be near the action. It may, through its very presence, be encouraging the other ants in their work. Conversely, its comments might be irritating the other ants, and lowering their motivation. It may be helping to clear the route, flattening the path and thereby easing the movement of the cockroach ... or it may, in its excitement, be making the path more difficult.

So how to measure this ant's contribution to the task at hand? Ask it, and it will say it contributed actively, as it indeed shares the colony's dream of having the cockroach at the door of their nest. It can provide us with supporting information. For example, it can tell us for how many minutes it (itself) was pulling at the cockroach (but in which direction, it might not be able to tell us!). It can advise us on how many pieces of debris it moved (but off the path, or onto the path?) It can tell us how many suggestions it made (but did they help or hinder its colleagues?)

Or we can be more 'objective', and ask the other ants. But again, there may be factors that influence their reply: they might not like this particular ant; perhaps it had previously been alleged to have contributed to the collapse of the west wing of the ants' nest. They may not have noticed this ant. They may be too busy just now, and give a quick but inaccurate reply. Another option is to go to a higher level of assessment. We could measure the average speed of progress of the cockroach, but this would be affected by such factors as the weather, the gradient of the slope, the time of day, the nutritional levels of the ants, etc. Or we can just assess whether the objective was met: did the cockroach arrive at the ants' nest door? The broad measures may seem objective but they will be vulnerable to external factors. The more finely tuned measures (specific to the one ant) are less vulnerable to external factors, but more vulnerable to subjectivity.

A new idea: the queen ant introduces indicators
One day, the queen ant, after listening to an inspiring documentary on monitoring and evaluation on the radio, decides to improve efficiency. She announces that, henceforth, it is not enough for each ant to just 'chip in' to the tasks at hand. Next time there's a cockroach to be moved, she is going to measure each ant's contribution, and their rights to gnaw at the flesh of the dead cockroach will be awarded in proportion to their contribution to the effort. Furthermore, she instructs 10% of the ants to carry out the monitoring on her behalf. Each ant will have to report to his or her monitor ant, as well as to be observed by the monitor ant during his or her work. The monitor ants will collate the findings and report to her every quarter.

Of course, this initiative made a lot of sense. The queen had noticed that some of the ants were not pulling their weight, were free-riding the system. Indeed, she had begun to feel that those who ate the most were the very ones who did the least work. This new initiative was very timely, also, as the number of ants in her nest was rising, while at the same time the supply of dead animals for food was getting scarce. No, it was really high time to make a change.

That evening, there was considerable unease in the nest. The ants were all tired, of course, after the day's work, and the prospect of being watched all the time was, to say the least, unsettling. Plus, as one of the more mathematically minded ants pointed out, they would now only have 90% of the workforce actually pulling the cockroach; the other 10% would just be patrolling up and down, taking notes. Not only that, they would have less time to do the pulling, as they would, each one, have to report to their monitor ant on what they each had done. Still, the queen was probably right: the lazier ants would either have to start working or leave the colony and, through the supervisory scheme, they would all put in a bit more. So at the end of it all, there would be more food for fewer ants! Yes, the queen was right. By the time they went to sleep, all but the laziest ants were happier than they had ever remembered.

The ants' story continues: the ants and the dead beetle
Next day was the beginning of a new era for the ants, and they woke up early, looking forward to a new life. And when the report came through the nest's intercom system that a dead beetle now lay 20 metres east of the nest, they rushed to work. Of course, knowing they had to report their activities to their monitors, they each made sure to greet their monitors; just to be sure they were recorded as having gone to work. They each carried with them a notepad, pencil and stopwatch so that, whenever they were pulling, or clearing debris, or cheering their colleagues on, they could note down how many times they had done each, when and for how long. After all, it would be disastrous if they concentrated so much on their work that they forgot to record it: they could find themselves excluded from the beetle-feast tonight!

The first delay came when the monitors decided to measure the beetle's weight by finding out the minimum number of ants needed to hold the beetle full off the ground. They then had to record the distance between the beetle and the nest. The best way, they found, was to have all the ants stand head to tail in a long line, and the monitors counted how many ant-lengths lay from the beetle to the nest door: it came to a staggering 198,865,314! It was now mid-morning, and the ants were tired from both of these activities. The whistle blew, and it was time for action! With a sense of exhausted relief, the ants rushed to move the beetle ... but the scene was one of unprecedented chaos. Never before had so many ants been so eager to be seen to be doing something useful. The monitors held their front legs to their ears; such was the din of thousands and thousands of well-meaning but contradictory suggestions. And the beetle all but fell apart because so many ants were pulling with all their might in opposite directions.

Eventually, the beetle, now in pieces, lay nearer to the nest door, again the distance was measured; and again the various parts of the beetle were weighed. Then the exhausted ants formed long queues to submit their reports to their monitors who, in turn, had to collate the many thousands of figures which were then submitted to the queen. She was, of course, delighted: it was really working. And she was pleased, too, to find that none of the ants had been found to be lazy.

The only slight disappointment was that the flesh of this beetle was found to taste not quite right and, as they went to sleep, many of the ants complained of feeling a little dizzy. Was it all the excitement and noise? Or was it just exhaustion? Or was there something wrong with the flesh of the beetle? In their enthusiasm that morning, none of the ants had noticed the strange coloured liquid which one of those big humans had pasted onto a leaf near where the beetle had died.

The dangers of indicatorism
The story of the ants illustrates the dangers of indicatorism. The key problems with indicators fall into three main categories: the time and resources spent on identifying and measuring indicators; the skewing effects that inclusion of indicators may have on programme design and implementation; and, perhaps most seriously of all, the fallacy of confusing concomitance with causality.

The story of the ants demonstrates something that many of us already recognize in the real world: that the requirement to report results entails using resources which could otherwise have been used for implementing a project. A balance has to be struck between a perfect monitoring and reporting system, and the desire to spend as much time and money as possible directly on project activities. To ensure efficient monitoring, we need to know (1) that indicators measure what they are supposed to measure; and (2) that the cost of measuring is not out of proportion to the project budget.

As noted earlier, there is a play off between indicators which are easy to measure, directly related to outputs, and which are de facto trivial (e.g. number of people trained), versus the more difficult to measure indicators of outcome which are far more significant but which, at the same time, are more vulnerable to external factors (e.g. improvements in government service to the public; or improved standards of living amongst the rural poor).

A review of logical frameworks in project documents shows a spectrum from the banal to the stratospheric:

a. One project might have the activity given as 'information and communication technology (ICT) training for 20 information technology (IT) managers'; the output is '20 IT managers trained'; and the indicator is 'number of IT managers trained'. Means of verification, an important element in any logical framework, would be 'attendance record'. Yes, they did the training, the trainees were trained, and we can know it was a success by counting the number of people trained -but was the training course well designed? Was it useful? These questions remain unanswered.

b. At the other extreme, the activity could be the same, and the output (or really, perhaps, the outcome) defined as '20 IT managers able and motivated to provide full IT service to all the government offices in their districts'. The indicator could then be something like 'number of breakdowns of computer systems which remain unrepaired 24 hours after reported breakdown'. Now, this indicator would very clearly reflect the quality of the training but maybe other factors will come into play as well. What will happen to these measures if one of the trainees has to attend a funeral on the other side of the country? What if the computers were using pirated or poorly installed software? What if a lightning storm caused an electricity surge across half the country? Yes, we have a fine indicator, but does it measure only what we want it to? The answer is 'no'.

I can anticipate the response - 'oh, you have chosen some particularly weak indicators' -but I would say that such weaknesses tend to be the rule, rather than the exception. I look forward to the time when I can see a project document whose indicators are measurable, will truly measure what they purport to measure, and which are neither trivially meaningless nor so grand that they are compromised by external factors beyond the control of the project.

Let's return to the ants again - what went wrong? Firstly, they invested heavily, to the detriment of efficiency, in measuring and monitoring. Indeed, 10% of the labour force was taken out to carry out this monitoring. Normally, time and resources invested in indicators should be kept to a minimum, and must remain proportional to the size of the programme being measured. Did the ants really need to weigh the beetle, and to measure its distance from the nest and, for each one, to record their contributions to the team effort? But another key error of the ants was that they focused on the measurables, and ignored the most important (but least easy to quantify) aspect of their task. They measured weight, distance and total ant-hours spent making suggestions and pulling, but ignored the most important but least quantifiable element - did the beetle taste OK? In fact, the most appropriate indicator for the ant colony may have been something as simple as nutritional levels of ants; or, at the broader level, average life expectancy in the colony. But then, as discussed above, these measures, although more appropriate, would be vulnerable to external factors - in this instance, to beetle demographics, climate change, use of pesticides by humans, etc., over which the ants cannot possibly have any control.

Even more worrying than the above is the temptation for designers of projects and programmes to engineer their activities towards 'measurable' achievements. That is to say, focus on indicators can skew development programmes during their design stage. Current programmes may survive, as we implant backdated indicator baselines and target figures which become a useful annex to well-designed programmes. However, many of these good but otherwise 'wishywashy' programmes may not have been approved had indicatorism been the fashion a decade earlier.

We have seen a shift away from the small independent projects building a bridge here, giving literacy training to a women's group there - and rightly so. It is recognized that we need a more integrated approach, where a bridge, literacy training and many other components should fit into a whole: an integrated programme. The danger with indicatorism is that it will result in a de facto redivision of the integrated whole into only the measurable parts. The 'wishywashiness' that binds an integrated programme together is the very element which will fall away when we focus only on the measurables.

A related worry is that project designers, especially if they know that they, the same people, may be responsible for monitoring the project during implementation, may feel tempted to under-estimate the targets to be reached. Should we aim at 15 out of 20 of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) achieving growth? No, better aim lower - perhaps we should aim for 5 out of 20. And then, great success, the project is completed and 10 NGOs have seen growth! Wow!

Yet another worry is that the priorities of project management personnel during implementation are likely to be swayed by this emphasis on indicators. Rather than invest time and effort in something which common sense would suggest was necessary or desirable, they may feel tempted to focus on those activities which will most speedily and easily achieve the targets set. Why risk allowing the lower class (and lower educated) people into the training programme? If we are aiming for 75% minimum to pass the final exam, then better to go for those trainees with a higher chance of passing. And certainly, 'don't get any women trainees as they will be bound to miss some classes due to family commitments.

One is reminded of the absurd situations that arose in the Soviet Union. For example, one of the targets set for a shoe factory was 'number of shoes manufactured in a year'. Since it took time and effort to adjust the machinery to make right shoes after making left shoes, and the target only specified total number of shoes (not pairs of shoes), then it just made sense, didn't it, to churn out only left shoes for the whole year? We can laugh at the Soviet Union now - but would we like to have people laughing at the development community in the same way in years to come?

A focus on indicators, therefore, can have detrimental effects on project design, and on implementation. So, if you are going to have indicators, and are going to take them seriously, enormous care must be taken to ensure that the wording of the indicators is sufficiently tight that the project focus with respect to indicators is exactly matching the project focus as a whole; and that the project focus would remain valid even if indicators were not on the cards.

Can anyone advise on which indicators the queen should use? They would need to be indicators of factors over which the queen and her colony can have control, they should be measurable and (most awkwardly) they should be sufficiently directly relevant to the needs of the colony that introduction of these indicators will not skew the colony's programme activities away from their prime needs.

The final challenge to indicatorism is perhaps the most serious. The introduction of indicators at first sight appears to demonstrate a logical, scientifically valid system of auditing, monitoring, proving transparency and accountability. Yet this, as shall be explained below, is definitely not the case.

Firstly, in order to see the fatal flaws in the logic of indicators, we have to draw a very important distinction between concomitance and causality. When an event A is followed by event B, it is tempting to say that A caused B. When the sun sets and darkness follows, especially when it happens time after time, we deduce that the setting of the sun causes the darkness that follows. However, one can also think of instances where A is followed by B, but we know (through our scientific understanding) that A doesn't cause B. For example, the chiming of Big Ben for 6 o'clock in London may be followed every evening by the departure of the 18:01 train to Bristol. Does the chiming cause the train to depart? No - and this can be proved if you sabotage Big Ben to stop it chiming one day, yet still you will see the train depart. Or you could sabotage the engine of the train, and find that even after the clock chimes, the train doesn't go.

Scientists are very aware of this distinction between concomitance and causality. Before any medicine is approved for sale, causality has to be proved: it has to be shown that not only those suffering a headache are cured when they take medicine YYY, but also that their headache is not cured if they don't take medicine YYY. Indeed, modern experimental methods require that double blind tests are carried out. Out of a group of 50 volunteers, 25 would be given medicine YYY, and the other 25 would be given an identical-looking but harmless and inactive placebo, where neither the patient nor even the person administering the treatment know who is getting the real medicine and who is getting the placebo. It would only be through this kind of test that YYY could be demonstrated to work.

In the development world, through indicators, we also hope to test the validity of treatment YYY (e.g. a training programme for civil servants) as a means to arrive at situation ZZZ (i.e. improved service for the public). But what do we do? We provide YYY, and then claim, with zero scientific basis, that situation ZZZ was as a result of the provision of YYY. We fail completely to have a control group - to be able to compare what actually happened to the target group with what would have happened if they hadn't received this programme.

Does this make sense? Let's use a stupid example to show what I mean: I go to a 5-year-old child, who wants to be taller. I say to his parents that I can help. First let's measure his height. Then, let me give him three carrots to eat, once a week, for three years. Then, at the end of three years, let's measure him again. If he's taller, then we know that carrots make you tall. Or, I can go to the government, and offer a course in hydrology for all government hydrologists. Without having any control group (i.e. of hydrologists who are not receiving this training), then how can I show that, simply because they are offering improved hydrology service five years later (outcome indicator), that our hydrology course had any positive influence? Only if you offer a 'placebo' course (e.g. in Asian cookery) to another group, and if the hydrology-trained people fare better than the cookerytrained ones five years later, can you start to show that your course was successful.

It is not enough to show improved scores as against a baseline because progress (whether of the child, getting taller; or of the hydrologist getting wiser) will often happen even without carrots, or without training programmes. We need to have a control group, outside of the support programme, against which to compare any improvements.

It has long been a cause for concern, even before indicators became fashionable, that project reports of income generation programmes, for example, would highlight growth in income for their target group as a success, without seeing what negative impacts there may have been in neighbouring villages. But now we are taking a further, and more dangerous step, of claiming scientifically measurable progress: of giving numbers to 'prove' success. It is tempting to assume that if a certain training programme is followed by an increased efficiency in an office, then the training was a success; even more tempting if the project management shower us with pre-training and post-training measures of office efficiency. But, without a control group against which these figures can be compared, these figures are meaningless. It would be a cause for grave concern if those funding such programmes were so impressed by these 'figures' that they would prioritize further support for this programme, to the detriment of other programmes which might be more valuable, but where the project managements are not bombarding the donors with convincing-looking, but essentially flawed, statistics.

The logical framework is a highly valuable tool for development workers, but a focus on indicators can be detrimental. What is being challenged here is the validity and efficacy of a 'measuring stick approach'. We must take care not to assume that a series of 'before' and 'after' statistics demonstrates the worth of a project, nor should we assume that investment in indicators would have positive impact on the quality of design, or of implementation, of a project. Indeed, indicatorism can have a significant negative impact.

space for third world development


And now the response, in defence of indicators:

space for third world development
A pot of chicken soup and why Brits need umbrellas

by Dr. Thomas Winderl

space for third world development

Imagine you feel suddenly hungry. While the hydrologists in Chris Whitehouse's article 'The ants and the cockroach' were well versed in Asian cuisine, you would like to stick to something less extravagant. You want to re-heat the succulent chicken soup (no, not for the soul) from last night. While the soup is on the gas stove, you want to monitor progress of the re-heating process although, of course, in cooking no one uses the word 'monitoring'. After all, you hate cold soup, and you don't want it to boil over and burn, nor to gulp down a lukewarm soup. So what do you do? You choose an appropriate indicator.

There are many to choose from. You might want, for example, to visually monitor the soup surface in the pot, and remove the pot once the soup starts to boil. You could use your extended experience in soup re-heating, and use a time frame (e.g. 3 minutes 30 seconds for a half litre pot) as an indication that the soup is ready to eat. If you are a connoisseur, and a rather adventurous one at that, you might stick your finger into the pot every minute or so to feel progress. We could easily think of more possible indicators.

Let's take another day-to-day example, this time not gastronomic but rather meteorological. You intend to take a stroll to the local supermarket, and want to know what clothes to wear, and if you need to take an umbrella (doesn't apply to Brits). What do you do? You would probably look outside the window, see the sun, see the trees moving in the wind, see people wearing t-shirts in the streets, and conclude naturally that it is a sunny, but windy summer day. There is (normally) no need to measure the exact temperature, or the speed of the wind. These casual indications tell us what we want to know: not to wear the fur winter coat, not to take an umbrella (except for the Brits), but to dress lightly, and maybe to take a light jacket against the wind. Even if you normally would not say 'Darling, I'll go and monitor the indicators for the weather', this is exactly what we do every day.

Talk about indicators and result-orientation is a part of contemporary development speech. No self-respecting expert in human development would go without it. Indicators and result-orientation seem to be, as so many trends before, a temporary development fashion, like 'participatory processes', 'structural adjustment', 'grass-root based work', or 'micro-finance'. While result-orientation and indicators emerged in the 1980s, they are here to stay, and with good reason. Indeed, indicators - and monitoring progress in general - come natural to human beings. We have been using them, are using them, and will be using them all the time. If you want, they have been around since the cave men, and might even be a significant part of what makes the Homo sapiens a highly successful species. True, in the caves -and even nowadays for that matter - we didn't call them indicators, but rather common sense. A lot of work still needs to be done to de-mystify indicators, and look at them as a standard tool for planning and monitoring progress in any development situation too difficult to appraise immediately.

Argument 1: More time and resources
While re-heating yesterday's soup from the fridge, few people would design an elaborate monitoring process with complicated indicators to monitor the heating process. Nobody with a sound mind would call for high-tech instruments, or extensive surveys among soup particles. You would not call in a team of soupcooking specialists to help you re-heat your soup. You can do it all by yourself. It is relatively easy and not very time-consuming.

Chris Whitehouse is arguing that time and resources invested in indicators must remain proportional to the size of the programme. I couldn't agree more. However, the reality is that there is not enough time and funds invested in designing and monitoring clear and relevant indicators. As we know, decades after the 'invention' of logical frameworks and indicators, the inadequate and skewed logical frameworks and bad or plainly wrong indicators still dominate the development business. And here I utterly agree with Chris: bad indicators are worse than no indicators at all.

Let us look at the resources spent on thinking up and monitoring indicators. As a rule of thumb, guidelines for monitoring recommend earmarking about 2-3% of the project budget for this purpose. In development reality, however, it is highly doubtful whether many projects and programmes spend even that much time. In a 3 million USD project, that would mean 90.000 USD dedicated to creating meaningful indicators and monitoring them, which is hardly the case in the contemporary development business.

The same holds true for wasted time. It is true that the selection of a good indicator requires a collective, time-consuming thinking effort. This is not easy. While creatively thinking up good indicators is the time-consuming part, most methods to monitor change using an established indicator are easy, quick and cheap (and they usually don't involve dangerous things like sticking your finger in boiling soup). But if a whole month is spent by the project designers to come up with quality indicators and monitor them in a 5-year project, this would amount to only 1.7% of the total time involved in the project implementation. And it is next to impossible to find programming exercises where even one week is invested in thinking up indicators. It just does not happen.

Here, Chris Whitehouse is indirectly pointing out an important reality. It is not the case that either too much time or too many resources are invested, but that the result is generally of very poor quality. A common mistake is the definition of too many indicators. What do you do if half of them point at a strong improvement, and the other half at a deterioration of the situation? Nothing is won, and we would be better off without them, using our common sense and informed assumptions. Other indicators indicate the wrong thing. They were not thought through, and lack creativity. In these cases - which are without doubt the majority in most development organizations - the monitoring of these indicators brings no additional benefit. Time and resources are lost, which could have been spent more effectively on the project itself.

Chris Whitehouse is absolutely right when he argues that 'a balance has to be maintained between the time and effort spent doing what needs to be done, and that spent reporting.' However, we should interpret his argument as a case for more resources and time spent on careful planning and monitoring, rather than less. Given the choice between putting your money into an activity where impact is proven through a (mostly lengthy) narrative using a host of (hopefully not wild, but informed) guesswork, and well thought-through outputs, outcomes and impacts with indicators, a 3-4% share of time and resources is well spent indeed.

Argument 2: Skewed implementation behaviour
Chris Whitehouse's second set of arguments, based on the premise that indicators can skew development programmes during the design stage, is only partially valid. Let me point out some of his misconceptions.

Firstly, Chris' worry about the re-division of integrated projects into its measurable parts is lacking any base. If indicators are taken seriously, they do not only include input, output and outcome indicators, but also long-term goals. And only extremely poor logical frameworks allow for multiple goals. The norm is to have a clearly defined goal at the top level of a logical framework. As we know, if outcomes are not contributing to the overall goal of a project, they should be deleted from the framework. Rather than dividing integrated projects, the logical framework (not so much the indicators), if applied properly and rigorously, force project designers to focus on a coherent set of outputs and outcomes to achieve one goal.

Secondly, Chris Whitehouse seems to lament that the 'wishy-washiness' of oldstyle project design will fall away when focusing only on indicators. While it is true that old projects without indicators might sometimes have resulted in valuable development improvements, they did so despite - and not because of - the lack of indicators. The approach of 'let's do something and something good will probably come out of it' is not an option any more. This romanticizing image of the positive spill-off of random project activities is clearly, and rightly, a matter of the past, mostly due to the overall poor results of development aid and the increased accountability of donor countries to their clients, the taxpayers.

Thirdly, an extremely valuable aspect of including indicators in project design is the process itself. It forces the designers to define better what outcome is intended. While it is easy for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to set as a goal the increased capacity of the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) in Bhutan, it is much harder to think up indicators which address what this really means. What is the RCSC actually doing? What aspect of what the RCSC is doing do we want to enhance? Are we happy with 5 people working more effectively and efficiently, or are we targeting 50 people in the RCSC?

Fourthly, 'The ants and the cockroach' argues that there is a strong incentive to under-estimate the target if the designers and those undertaking the project are the same. This is indeed true, if one does not link the framework with the inputs, namely the funds used to achieve the targets. Using Whitehouse's example, it might look acceptable to spend 75.000 USD to help 15 NGOs achieving growth (5000 per NGO). However, if the designers set their target at 5 NGOs, that is 15.000 USD per NGO, the donor organization should decide that this is too much, and refuse the funding of this activity. Agreed, the linkages of inputs and outcomes in logical frameworks are still weak in development practice but this does not indicate a flaw in the concept. On the contrary, the tendency is more and more to ask: how much money do we need to spend to achieve outcome X? Could we do it in a more effective way? What other options do we have at our disposal?

Fifth, Chris Whitehouse describes a valid problem, namely the focus on indicators in project implementation. Citing the convincing example of the Soviet shoe factory churning out left shoes in order to achieve the target set, he provides us with a hilarious description of the importance of getting your indicators right. Assuming the intended outcome of the Soviet policy was the provision of sufficient, cheap and high-quality pairs of shoes to its citizens, the chosen indicator was evidently flawed on the output level. It requires careful and creative thinking, and anticipating the fallacies of indicatorism for the implementation phase, to create indicators that capture the intended output, outcome or goal. Rather than being an argument against indicators, it is a good example of the peril of brainless indicators.

Argument 3: Picasso, not Einstein
Chris Whitehouse's third main - and potentially most devastating - argument is that indicators aspire to create a logical, scientifically valid system of monitoring and auditing, providing transparency and accountability. Once again, it is not his line of argument but his underlying assumptions which are flawed. While indicators - together with their twin, the logical framework - aspire to introduce a more structural and logical thinking into the complex realities of projects, it is a misconception that indicators pretend to set up a scientifically valid system. His argument is based on the popular myth that indicators, maybe because they operate with numbers, are science. They are not.

Let me explain, in more detail, two of the fallacies in dealing with indicators: first, they are not - and do not claim to be - scientific. Second, they do not normally measure progress or regress. We cannot claim for most indicators that they are anyway close to scientific measurements. Indeed, the creation of indicators is by no means a scientific action. Although most experts will agree whether a particular indicator is better or worse, there is no systematic way of deciding among indicators which are equally good or bad. In short: far from being science, the development of indicators is art, combined with a large portion of systematic, logical thinking, and an even larger portion of common sense. If you look at the process of how indicators are being thought up, you will see contradictory elements. On the one hand, a certain number of tools are necessary to help in the process: problem trees, logframes, etc. But, on the other hand, the process demands a high degree of creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, or de Bono's 'lateral' thinking. The choice of the right indicators is an art rather than a science.

The second misconception is related to the first one: indicators do not measure progress. One doesn't have to look too closely at the word itself to find out that indicators - well, as the word tells us - 'indicate' a direction. They tell us which direction a change possibly takes, or whether there is hardly any change. If the average time the ant tribe takes to bring in a juicy beetle over the year is half the time it took them last year, it indicates to us, beyond reasonable doubt, that they are doing much better than before. Indeed, the better an indicator, the better it matches the actual direction of a change. A good indicator will represent the actual development as closely as possible. However, this is not always the case.

Let's look at another example: MS Poor wants to be rich in 10 years. Having defined 5 million USD as her personal threshold of wealth, she can measure her assets easily by looking at her monthly bank account statement. By monitoring this simple indicator (although no one would call it that way, it's just common sense), she knows with certainty where she stands in regard to her ultimate goal. This is one of the few cases where the indicator 'USD in bank account' comes close to measuring her wealth. There are very few indicators which manage to come so close to indicate a change. MS Poor could have taken another indicator: the value of the cars she is driving. We can assume (yes, that's what indicators do!) that the richer she grows, the more expensive (or bigger? that would be another indicator) her car will be. But it's not as good as the bank account. It could happen that - because she saves all her money - she initially sells her expensive Porsche, and keeps on buying second-hand vehicles. She could look at the dividends her money creates. But stocks go up and down, and -although the general direction might tell us a bit about her financial status quo - we might get a distorted impression as well.

Here is a last example how indicators indicate and not measure. The UNDP supports the Royal Government of Bhutan in its negotiations to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Finding an indicator is a bit tricky here. A possible solution could be the number of years the WTO grants Bhutan before it has to phase out subsidies for fertilizers. What a wacky indicator, you might think. But think again: subsidies for fertilizers are generally a major point in accession discussions. One could readily assume that the better the Government negotiates with the WTO, the longer the transition period for fertilizer subsidies might be. Together with a few more indicators, this might well indicate to the donor agency how well its money was spent. The point here is: the length of the transitional period for fertilizer subsidies clearly does not measure at all the skills involved in the negotiations. It measures, well, the length of the transitional period. But still the indicator would be - among others - a clue to how well the Government negotiated.

Indicators come naturally to human beings and we are using them all the time, although we usually do not call them indicators but rather common sense. Indicators and a result-orientation are part of contemporary development speech and they are here to stay. Chris Whitehouse argues that too much time and too many resources are invested in creating indicators but this does not reflect the current development reality. Instead, more time and resources need to be spent in constructing well thought-through indicators for evaluating development interventions.

Chris Whitehouse's second set of arguments, based on the premise that indicators skew implementation behaviour, is only partially valid. While indicators and the logical framework aspire to introduce a more logical thinking into the complex realities of projects, it is also a misconception that indicators pretend to set up a scientifically valid system. Indeed, as Chris claims, the development of indicators is art, combined with logical thinking. Finally, the author and Chris Whitehouse are both agreed: bad indicators are worse than no indicators at all.

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The Ants and the Cockroach - a challenge to the use of indicators
by Chris Whitehouse and Thomas Winderl is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Chris Whitehouse, miniAID the consultant's consultant Chris Whitehouse, miniAID

>>  The above is the latest version of the paper, as published in Why did the chicken cross the road? And other stories on development evaluation edited by Sarah Cummings, and published in 2005 by KIT publishers. See PDF version of this paper (16 pages A4, PDF format, 280 Kb)

>>  The original (longer) version of this paper as written in 2003 is also available in PDF format (10 pages, 156 Kb)

>>  MORE PAPERS by the same author

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