In this section I outline briefly my research design – the research problem, questions and theoretical framework.

Research Problem

My PhD research addresses the problem that, although there are many different initiatives to monitor access to rural water supply by government, donors and NGOs in Ethiopia, it remains unclear whether and which monitoring results affect decisions concerning access to rural water supply.

Research Questions

The main research question to be answered is:

When does monitoring have an effect on decisions concerned with rural water supply in Ethiopia?

Sub-questions are:

  1. How do different actors monitor access to rural water supply in Ethiopia?
  2. How do different actors frame access to rural water supply and how does that influence their inputs (overall purpose, methods,role of actors, indicators, and processes) into appraisal (monitoring)?
  3. In what ways do inputs condition monitoring results?
  4. What is the relationship between monitoring results and decisions taken on access to rural water supply at different levels (woreda, regional, federal)?
  5. What changes are likely to increase the relationship between monitoring and decisions concerned with access to rural water supply?

Theoretical Framework

In my theoretical framework I use the concept of ‘social appraisal’ in order to analyse the relationship between monitoring and decision making in the Ethiopian rural water sector. Social appraisal was developed by Andy Stirling to support decision making on different technology options in the energy sector. Social appraisal is defined as

“the collection of social processes through which knowledges are gathered and produced in order to inform decision making and wider institutional commitments” (Stirling et al 2007: 1).

The Oxford English Dictionary definition describes ‘appraisal’ as the “setting of a price” or “estimate of worth”. In the UK civil service, the term appraisal is mainly used as an ex-ante tool, to inform decisions concerned with planning and approving of policies, programmes and projects. Compared to ‘appraisal’, in ‘social appraisal’ the social process is central to any appraisal exercise. In other words, the subjects – people involved in appraisal exercises – are seen as crucial in producing an appraisal output; they are not just an object of investigation.

Importantly, Stirling distinguishes conceptually between social appraisal and commitments as shown in Figure 1 below. While appraisal focuses on ‘epistemic’ processes related to building up an understanding of or evaluating a given problem (ways of knowing), commitment refers to ‘ontological’ manifestations of the problem such as concrete governance interventions or channelling of resources (ways of being). In other words “appraisal is about informing, and commitment is about forming tangible social choices in the governance of science and technology” (Smith and Stirling 2007).

Figure 1: the concept of social appraisal

In practice, social appraisal encompasses a vast array of formal and informal appraisal exercises. Figure 2 displays two methods that are often displayed as dichotomous namely expert-analytic instruments such as cost-benefit or logical-framework analysis on the one hand and participatory-deliberative methods such as participatory rural appraisals or community-led total sanitation (CLTS) on the other hand. However, many more designs are used in practice.  As informal appraisal exercises, even personal value judgements are part of the realm of social appraisal. The appraisal exercises relevant to this study are the formal and informal activities related to monitoring access to rural water supply in Ethiopia.

Figure 2: different designs of social appraisal

Likewise, commitments include a wide array of governance interventions starting from decisions over various aspects related to implementation such as channelling of resources, undertaking design studies, implementing infrastructure projects etc. This is shown in Figure 3 below. In the context of this research project, my focus within commitment is on decisions to improve access to rural water supply in Ethiopia.

Figure 3: different stages of commitments

Social appraisal is conceptualised as a political process in which different actors exercise power, which, in turn, determines appraisal results. There are different ways of conceptualising power. In line with Stirling et al (2007) I analyse power through the framing of actors. A framing can be explained as a picture frame through which a person sees the world. This frame will determine what the person sees as important and worthwhile. In an appraisal exercise a powerful actor will determine monitoring outputs by favouring certain methods, consulting some actors over others, or pose some questions while neglecting others.

In Ethiopia, different actors monitor access to rural water supply. These include the government, bi-and multilateral donors, international NGOs, indigenous CSOs, and citizens. Based on their worldviews, they frame access to rural water supply in different ways. Their framings, in turn, influence their inputs into monitoring of access to rural water supply – in other words, how they define the overall purpose of the monitoring exercise, the indicators and methods they choose, the role of different stakeholders, the processes they deploy etc. Figure 4 below visualises how the framings of different actors influence the inputs into the design of appraisals – in this case monitoring of access to water supply in Ethiopia.

Figure 4: framing and inputs into social appraisal

I compare how actors’ inputs into monitoring differ, and whether this makes a difference as to whether monitoring results are used in practice to improve access to rural water supply.


Stirling, A., M. Leach, L. Mehta, I. Scoones, A. Smith, S. Stagl, and J. Thompson (2007). Empowering Designs: towards more progressive appraisal of sustainability. Brighton: STEPS Centre.

Smith, A., and A. Stirling. (2007). Moving Outside or Inside? Objectification and Reflexivity in the Governance of Socio-Technical Systems Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning 9(3-4):251-373.


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