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Monitoring performance or performing monitoring? The case of rural water access in Ethiopia

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posted on 2023-06-08, 16:26 authored by Katharina Welle
Performance monitoring is commonly portrayed as providing a uniquely objective, rational foundation for decisions, based on a single-stranded feedback loop between setting objectives and measuring results. In this thesis, I investigate whether this portrayal is accurate. I analyse whether the linear model underlying performance monitoring provides an adequate basis for understanding decisions about access to rural water supply in Ethiopia. My examination focuses primarily on the politics of knowledge production from three angles. First, I examine whether the assumptions underlying the definition of ‘access’ to rural water used in performance monitoring in Ethiopia, adequately represent the divergent notions of access among the relevant actors. My findings show that formal framings of access, codified in national and international guidelines and benchmarks, focus on technical aspects of the water supply infrastructure. I bring to light that the goal of performance monitoring in relation to achieving ‘access’ is driven by the methods used to measure it, mainly the parameters of infrastructure, volume, distance and quality, suggesting a circularity between framings of the inputs to and objectives of appraisal. In this self-referential process, a particular image of the world determines the meaning of performance, which is used as a yardstick. The power of this dynamic is apparent in Ethiopian stakeholders’ characterisations of access, which, even when critical, revolve narrowly around these dominant parameters. This one-dimensional and technical framing of access, constantly reproduced in self-referential monitoring circles, contrasts starkly with the multi-dimensional and dynamic nature of the water access experiences of local residents in Ethiopia. Second, I test whether, in reality, monitoring processes conform to the linearity assumed by the feed-back function of performance monitoring. The process tracing method used to illuminate the political and power dynamics of monitoring processes, shows that sector government actors at different administrative levels, with different rationales, provide different stories of ‘access’. Viewed from this perspective, performance monitoring can be seen not, as conventionally asserted, as a uniquely rational appraisal of performance, but rather as being about ‘performing monitoring’ – the playing out on a management stage of certain politically-necessary performances. At the same time, I find that numerous less formalised monitoring practices proceed in parallel with the formal PM process, which, together, form a body of largely ‘tacit’ knowledge that informs sector stakeholders’ daily work. It is this wider body of knowledge, rather than only formalised PM results, that informs decisions. Third, I investigate the mechanisms that led to the formulation of specific decisions associated with rural water access and the role in these of performance monitoring. I find that particular decisions, such as repairs to rural water schemes, have multiple causes, among which performance monitoring is a contributory and necessary, but not sufficient factor. My investigation of criteria affecting budget allocations highlights that sector offices’ limited control over them contributes to making strategic planning a rubber stamping exercise whose processes can be characterised as ‘muddling through’ as opposed to adhering to the linear model suggested by Results-based Management. My findings highlight the need to break the self-referential cycle of narrowly framed performance monitoring exercises. They suggest greater attention to the ‘tacit’ monitoring practices in local settings, and a focus on the process of monitoring and the power relations within it, to complement the dominant focus on monitoring targets and indicators.


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  • SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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