Beneficiary Assessment Revisited: where does it fit?

February 05, 2014 | Blog-Admin1 | Methods & Tools, SDC Experiences |


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Riff FullanIt sounds wonderful: gaining real insight into the impact of a project from the point of view of intended beneficiaries! But can it satisfy the needs of development organisations to assess and report on the work they support? The answer is yes. A Beneficiary Assessment  isn’t always going to be the right thing to do, but it can provide valuable evidence relating to project outcomes and impact.

By Riff Fullan, Helvetas


I recently blogged about the Participatory Impact Assessment approach known as Beneficiary Assessment (BA). It was based on training community members to conduct an assessment of a water project in Nepal. Eight months later, and having been involved in a similar exercise among pastoralists in the Borana region of Ethiopia, it’s a good time to reflect again on possibilities for BAs.

Beneficiary Assessment in the PCM context

beneficiary assesment revised_2

© Harihar Sapkota

When is the best time for a BA? It depends on the purpose, but one of the key principles of a BA is to be responsive, to adjust a project (or program) based on the results of the BA. Therefore, it is well-placed just before the end of a project phase when future planning is important, or as a midterm review to point to areas where a project can be adjusted.

So, a BA can be a very useful evaluation or impact assessment tool, which could be used instead of a traditional (expert-driven) review. A BA could also help to strengthen and inform a traditional exercise. In that case, implementing a BA shortly before a ‘standard’ impact assessment can help to use local perspectives to validate the conclusions of the traditional assessment, and to draw on strong bases of both quantitative and qualitative evidence.

BAs also provide us with a way to also answer to primary stakeholders, to strengthen our accountability to them: every BA includes a validation workshop shortly after the research to reflect results back and discuss them with key stakeholders. That is only the first step. The responsiveness principle includes future follow-up and adjustment based on what we learn from a BA. The bottom line is this: we should not undertake a BA, asking people to share their time and their thoughts, unless we are prepared to act on the results. So there is also a powerful sense of moral responsibility, which at the same time should help us do a better job.

Specific learning from the Borana experience

beneficiary assesment revised_3

© Riff Fullan

The key players

Citizen Observers, who are members of the local community and who conduct the BA research. In contexts where illteracy is high, and you want the mix of Citizen Observers to be representative, some of them will also be illiterate in the local language. We have seen that they can be helped by peers in reporting, but it would also be useful to incorporate more visual training methods, balancing those with the need to have the ultimate results in written form.

For most Citizen Observers, the BA exercise is much different to anything they have done before. Even a week of intensive training (including field testing), may not be enough to help them internalise the methodology. It’s probably better to include a follow-up training day between the initial training and the fieldwork to answer outstanding questions and give a refresher to Citizen Observers. A great idea I saw at work in Ethiopia was to use photos of Citizen Observers during their field testing in household and focus group conversations. They really helped the Citizen Observers see good and bad ways of talking to people and giving them your attention.

Who owns the Beneficiary Assessment?

The perennial question and challenge is to promote Citizen Observers being in the driver’s seat. It is too easy to simply use a project logframe to point to which questions should be asked to evaluate the impact of a project (and this makes it easier to do a report that is clearly linked to the project). But, as the Ethiopia BA showed, if you provide Citizen Observers with a broad overview of a project and its main goals, and then ask them to identify areas of assessment and questions related to those areas, they will themselves create an assessment framework that fits well with the project. This helps to not only validate the project’s logframe (or other M&E framework), but it tremendously increases the level of ownership and engagement of Citizen Observers in the BA.

Why don’t we do more Beneficiary Assessments?

Maybe because many of us are used to using the same methods, and it’s always a bit scary to try something different, but BAs present a great opportunity to hear from the very people we are most interested in, so why not give it a try?

Find more ressources here:

  • The Beneficiary Assessment section of SDC’s poverty-wellbeing website, which includes descriptions, guidelines, presentations and a variety of BA reports going back a decade.



Comments to“Beneficiary Assessment Revisited: where does it fit?”

  1. Mirgissa Kaba says:

    I fully agree Riff. The point is whose account matters other than those coming from beneficiaries themselves! Their arguments are always made within specific contexts that are equally important as the information development partners are interested in. Thus, instead of asking beneficiaries to fit into ‘our development standards and languages’ development partners should open themselves up to a different and enriching approaches of how development is understood and measured by beneficiaries.

  2. Riff Fullan says:

    Many thanks, Mirgissa. Yes, I see the opportunity for a dialogue amongst different perspectives as another positive potential of the BA approach. More and more, all of us involved in development need to design and participate in processes that involve multiple perspectives to understand contexts, and co-creation of solutions, with those who are most directly affected by those solutions playing a key role.


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