Locating the unintended consequences of interventions

Contributions exploring the unintended impacts of development programming have become increasingly prominent in the literature, as the accepted interdependence between the impacts of climate change, on the one hand, and questions relating to sustainable development, on the other, has become a mainstream topic among policymakers and researchers (Bhatasara & Nyamwanza, 2018; Serra et al., 2022). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines impact as the “positive and negative, primary and secondary long-term effects produced by a development intervention, directly or indirectly, intended or unintended” (2013, 1:3), while the assessment of unintended consequences has been described as a “blind spot for evaluation theory and practice” (Bamberger, 2012). One reason for this is that programme logic models and results frameworks are primarily designed to explain how the intended project impacts will be achieved, meaning that the underlying theory relating to unintended consequences has remained absent (Bamberger et al., 2016). This is not only a problem for evaluation, but also – more importantly – for strategy and attempts to mitigate such impacts through effective design. Indeed, a growing body of empirical literature is demonstrating that climate and development interventions that are poorly planned and operated can exacerbate the underlying problems. This increases inequalities and, consequently, social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities, too – a process that has been described as “maladaptation” (Schipper, 2020; Eriksen et al., 2021).

Constructing logic models to gauge unintended consequences is necessarily more difficult, given the broader range of potential causes. Nonetheless, we present a tool here – “Locating the Unintended Consequences of Interventions”, or LUCI – that seeks to aid analysis of how development projects are able to create winners and losers, by assessing their broader consequences in terms of their impacts on existing group-based inequalities (Lomax et al., 2021; Sovacool et al., 2015).1 Our motivation stems from the recognition that even though knowledge of how and where interventions may create unintended consequences is crucial for all sectors, the impacts on group-based inequalities are particularly troubling when they affect communities with a history of conflict, since interventions have been shown to be significant contributors to the exacerbation of conflict potential (Barrott, 2020; Froese & Schilling, 2019). This emphasis becomes even more pertinent when we acknowledge the estimation that two-thirds of the world’s poor will live in fragile and conflict-affected states by 2030 (Baier et al., 2021).

Although we argue that the LUCI tool can be useful in many contexts, we present an example here of how it can be applied to analyse the potential conflict impacts of a climate change adaptation development intervention, which is designed to deliver rural electrification to economically marginalized groups, through the introduction of solar hybrid mini-grids in northern Kenya


Summary of findings

Interventions that are targeted at improving energy access in rural Turkana through the use of mini-grids may reinforce or reduce horizontal inequalities in the following ways.

Action-based: where identity groups among the target group benefit differently from the access to electricity. This may be a result of existing resource inequalities or the selection choices accompanying the intervention or that are made by the electricity suppliers.

Outcome-based: where certain identity groups among the farmers, business owners, water users, generator electricity suppliers or generator retailers experience different outcomes from the efforts to change access to electricity. These benefits or losses may stem from changes to productivity and sales, changes in access to water, or changes in business competition. They could be a result of existing resource inequalities that affect access or consumer selection choices.

Opportunity-based: where certain identity groups among the landowners, mini-grid maintenance service providers, mini-grid construction service providers, mini-grid operators, diesel suppliers, local workers, national workers or target group experience different opportunities stemming from the efforts to change access to electricity. These benefits or losses may involve the supply of land, the supply of services, the supply of inputs (such as components or fuel), employment or engagement in decision-making processes. They may be a result of existing resource inequalities that affect access.


Excerpt of: Locating the unintended consequences of interventions: A tool for analysing impact inequality in development programming (Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), 2023)


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