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This paper summarises the results of a joint action-research project undertaken by a number of international and local NGOs, which involved case studies in four countries in Africa, three in South Asia, one in Latin America, and one in the UK. The paper seeks to situate the discussion of impact assessment in the context of a growing critique of international NGOs. Overall, it is suggested that simple models of cause and effect which link project inputs to outputs and impact, although important, are usually inadequate for assessing the impact of what NGOs do. Instead, the author recommends the need to develop models that embrace the wider context of influences and change processes that surrounds projects and programmes, and the broad-ranging impacts that result. A major conclusion to emerge from the case studies is that the ability to select a judicious mix, and sequence, of tools and methods for impact assessment is vital. The paper concludes by looking at the broader policy implications of the studies notably in relation to: dealing with the problems of attribution and aggregation; exploring the issue of poverty reach and gender relations; warning against simplistic use of impact assessment to allocate resources; and in suggesting how impact assessment can be part of a ‘virtuous circle’ of change that can help promote greater accountability and learning among international NGOs.

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