Not all knowledge is evidence, not all good advocacy is evidence based
I’ve got a few blog posts in the hopper right now – but while I finish them, I thought I’d share something I wrote for an internal blog about a year ago – relating to our fixation on making our advocacy “evidence based”. I’d still stand by this today. The theme will be familiar to regular readers of this blog…. let me know what you think.
I’ve been in a number of global meetings lately where the issue of being more “evidence-based” has come up. I’m greatly encouraged by the strong emphasis on making better use of evidence in its programmes and its advocacy, and that in order to do that we also need to be better at generating it, acquiring it and sharing it both internally and externally.
I’ve also heard quite a few misconceptions about what evidence is and how and when it should be used and how far we can rely on it to inform our work.
Evidence is not the same thing as Knowledge – Evidence is usually taken to mean “hard” demonstrable, measurable things. Evidence comes from direct observations, surveys, experiments and evaluations and the like. Evidence is crucial to advancing scientific learning as well as on an everyday level to know how things are going such as through programme monitoring. Knowledge (i.e what we know) is internalized learning – in this sense we only know something demonstrated by evidence if we have internalized it- i.e. we “believe it”. Similarly there are things we know (and act on) for which we don’t have strong evidence – often this knowledge comes from learning and direct experience – even if this is not documented and measured. Much important learning is not documented as evidence – that’s why we often ask for someone else’s advice – someone who “knows”, someone who has done it before.
Not all good advocacy is “evidence-based” – Evidence-based advocacy has been interpreted by some to mean advocacy that uses data, charts, includes report citations etc. to show the strength of the evidence on which a particular argument is based. However it’s probably fair to say we all know people who are unimpressed by numbers and so even if the argument is made more concrete by using them for some audiences this will be a poor method of persuasion for others. A weaker definition of evidence based advocacy would be that the argument we are using to persuade is informed by and supported by available evidence, and is not contradicted by it – but that the evidence itself is only used if that is helpful in making the case with the particular audience. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as “evidence-supported” advocacy. It’s also worth mentioning that part of effective advocacy is understanding and taking into account the interests, needs and prejudices of the person you are trying to persuade – issues such as the political situation in country, a person’s background etc. in this case you might well stress certain evidence that appeal to the audience and downplay or even omit others. Possibly your whole appeal might be at an emotional level or about values and ideals rather than evidence at all (e.g. all children ought to have a right to free education – beecause it’s the “right” thing to do). This isn’t evidence-based advocacy – but it might be good advocacy. What I think we should not do is advocate for things which are contradicted by available evidence – or where we don’t have some grounding either in evidence or in principle (e.g. in Human Rights principles).
Evidence does not equal truth – An obvious point, but evidence is based on fixed observations that are often partial, and new evidence emerges all the time often contradicting or muddying the conclusions we arrived at from past evidence. Just because we have evidence for a particular model or theory doesn’t make it true. We also need to be aware of personal biases in interpreting evidence – in particular people tend to interpret evidence in a way that is supportive to their existing way of thinking.
So what does this mean for our work?
1. When we talk about strengthening knowledge management we shouldn’t only be talking about strengthening our evidence base – we need also to talk about learning and the tacit knowledge that rests in people’s experience.
2. When we talk about strengthening advocacy we need not only to be talking about evidence-based advocacy – but rather strengthening advocacy as a whole including appropriate and more effective use of evidence in it.
3. We need to keep an open mind – what we know as an “evidence-based” approach today may well be contra-indicated in the future. We therefore need to keep learning and be prepared to change our minds if the situation warrants it.