Made in Africa Evaluation, Part 2. Africa-rooted evaluation

What is Made in Africa Evaluation (MAE) – a term coined by the African Evaluation Association – or what some call Africa-centric Evaluation?

It is simply evaluation that is (i) rooted in Africa and/or (ii) led by Africans for African contexts. There is a simple yet important notion behind this concept: African expertise, priorities and experiences, as well as African values, perspectives, philosophies and knowledge systems should be mobilised and applied to contribute to their full potential to the global pool of evaluation theory and practice – and vice versa. This is in line with the ‘decolonization’ debates and efforts that have been sweeping over parts of the world, in no small measure in my own country, South Africa.

I believe that evaluation professionals working in and with Africa should commit to being knowledgeable and thoughtful about ‘Made in Africa’ / Africa-centric evaluation, and contribute to it. We need to be concerned about the fact that at the moment all evaluation theories and nearly all evaluation practices have their origins in the West, in particular in the US, UK, Europe and Australia. Only recently have very thoughtful contributions from African-Americans and indigenous groups – especially the First Nations and Inuit people in North America, and the Māori in New Zealand – emerged to enrich evaluation worldwide. Africa – a continent of 58 countries and territories and around 1.28 billion people, nearly 17 percent of the world’s population – is not yet sufficiently visible in terms of creative contributions to, and innovations in evaluation.

There are good reasons for this situation. Evaluation is a relatively new endeavour among African specialists. There are few indigenous evaluators and those with solid reputations tend to be overcommitted and overworked. Academic centres with substantive programmes in evaluation are still rare. But this situation has to change. We not only need more contributions from Africa for the sake of the evaluation profession worldwide, but African professionals should also be more adept at engaging with evaluation from an African perspective – for the sake of more effective and sustained development.

As I noted in Part 1 of this series, we already have some useful MAE materials to inform insights and debates. Please read these with the intent to contribute to thought and practice leadership on this important topic. In the following posts I will add my own perspectives, starting with the hypothesis that evaluation can be much more ‘rooted’ in Africa than it is at present.

Baobab

The Baobab tree – Africa’s tree of life.

What does it mean to be rooted in Africa?

We are also creatures of changeless truths and of interesting possibilities. Once you are born, your spot in the tree of humanity is fixed. You will always have emerged out of everything that shaped the tree before you – the biology and the history. The millions of bits that initially made you – all the cultural bits and the genetic bits, each with its risk factors, predispositions, and probabilities, were shaped by that past.

Trees and plants need fertile soil to grow well, to have healthy roots and to bear beautiful flowers as well as healthful seeds and fruit. The more tailored the soil to the type of vegetation, the better the chance that the latter will flourish.

Our societies’ and nations’ ‘soil’ is our distinct and shared histories, contexts, values and identities. We are all shaped by the interactions – the co-evolution – between our societal cultures (indicated as red concentric circles in the diagram) and their historical and current contexts (indicated as blue concentric circles). This reflects the notion of path-dependence in complexity science. The one influences the other, and what has happened in the past during such co-evolution influences what takes place now and into the future.

Yet even as our societies change, we appear to have a core – deep-rooted ways of perceiving the world and acting upon our perceptions, informing and informed by our value systems. These do not change, or they change slowly. This is the result of the sharing of our DNA within specific groups, complemented by the influences of the contexts in which we live (see for example The Invisible History of the Human Race, and the study of epigenetics).

Source:  Zenda Ofir, EES Connections, Sept 2016. (Please click on the image to see a clearer view)

There is something at the core of people on the continent that can be construed as being African – distinctive enough that I, as a member of the only white tribe rooted in Africa for 330 years, will remain distinctly ‘European’ in character, even though my heart and being are ‘African’ (So although I use ‘African’ and ‘we’ to indicate the collective in this post, I remain in essence a bystander). This despite the fact that it has been shown that when we live for extended times in other cultures, our own culture becomes a blend – one of the key reasons why highly educated Africans who have studied abroad might lose touch with the values and traditions of rural communities, or of rural-urban migrants living on the edge of city life.

Evaluation rooted in Africa therefore calls upon us to recognise the importance of our cultural heritage in a micro (community/tribal) and especially macro (African) sense; to have some understanding of how our heritage changes and evolves with the contexts and interventions around us; and apply these insights in our work. We need to understand how this can, and should, shape how we think about, and do evaluation.We cannot ignore our African roots if we wish to contribute to development. It is too fundamental to how things work in a particular society – including to how change comes about when we intervene, and evaluate interventions.

First and foremost, you need to embrace your own roots before opening up to others

Léopold Sédar Senghor, the First President of Senegal

Drawing on the past is a form of self-confidence – and not doing so, a form of low self-esteem.

Xi Jinping, President of China

All models of development are essentially cultural….

The inherently close links that exist between a society’s culture and its development would imply that any model of development that ignores, marginalises or rejects the society’s indigenous culture is unlikely to be successful….

Mervyn Claxton, Trinidad and Tobago, ex UNESCO

As such, evaluation as it is conceptualised and practiced today, remains very much a Western practice …. closely attuned to the exigencies of Western donor nations ….

Jill Chouinard & Rodney Hopson, CJE, Jan 2017

Key characteristics of evaluation rooted in Africa

First, evaluation rooted in Africa recognises and considers indigenous cultures and contexts. Evaluation professionals who want to discover and respect ‘Africa-rooted evaluation’ will try to understand how culture and context evolve together, and influence how we as individuals, communities, tribes or societies think about, and experience, ‘development’ and different models of development in Africa.

Second, it recognises and engages with known issues of culture and context that affect evaluative processes and judgments. Evaluation professionals who want to practice Africa-rooted evaluation have to be familiar with debates and practices elsewhere in the world. This means engaging with concepts such as culturally responsive evaluation, cultural competence and multicultural validity. We need to consider these concepts in how we think about our evaluation approaches, designs, methodologies and methods. In essence, they call for ‘Made in Africa’ evaluation.

Third, it engages with that which makes us ‘African’. Being African is the largest identifiable grouping that binds together people on the continent and in the diaspora. It does not negate the fact that we also have other identities – individual, family, organisational, tribal, religious, and so on – that at times also have to be considered.

The Bellagio Forum report notes that although there is great diversity in Africa – there are an estimated three thousand tribes – there are many common threads that weave together the fabric of African society across the continent. These threads highlight the potential for departure from perspectives that are Western, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and so on. Such differences are displayed for example in notions of the individual versus the collective, the power distance in societal hierarchies, understanding of causality and ‘theories of change’, and the sense of control over outcomes (This will be further elaborated later in this series of posts).

Fourth, it requires balanced, thoughtful engagement with the positives and negatives in our own, and in other cultures. We have to be proud of our heritage, and respect other cultures, while recognising those aspects of our own cultures that might be undesirable in today’s societies – especially when they hold back our own development as communities, nation-states, or as a continent (or for that matter, the planet as a whole). Recognising and respecting our own or another’s culture does not mean that we need to embrace everything that it espouses. Cultures evolve, and can be shaped by society or circumstance in positive and/or negative ways. We can be critical of aspects of culture, as long as we understand deeply the implications of our critiques, and the fact that they are essentially value-based – in particular, values about what a society in today’s world can and should look like if it is to prosper.

Such arguments and judgments are seldom simple. There are good reasons, for example, based on notions of health and wellbeing, why violence against women or FGM can be judged as impeding the development of a society. Ideally, that particular society should deal with such impeding factors. Japanese society is known as a good example of such an approach; they are particularly well known for the fact that they absorb very effectively from other cultures that which is positive for their own wellbeing and development as a nation while remaining quintessentially Japanese.

It is also important to recognise that changes in aspects of culture are not brought about overnight by some intervention. Such processes of change are challenging, and should be treated and evaluated with respect.

Fifth, with an authoritative understanding of current evaluation theory and practice, we should ask ourselves what evaluation would have looked like if it was invented in Africa. The ‘indigenisation’ or ‘Africanisation’ of evaluation means that we need to be more knowledgeable about current evaluation theory and practices worldwide; about that which is our own; and about the potential of blending the two, as Bagele Chilisa eloquently laid out in a 2015 paper. Africa has to date produced no evaluation theories or designs, and very few visible innovations in approaches, methodologies or methods. As noted and quoted in the recent paper by Bagele and also by Fanie Cloete, the rules about what counts as legitimate knowledge have been couched in the history, philosophies and culture of the West. And evaluation as we know it today stems from a history of ‘program evaluation’ in the West. Our curricula, short courses and practices in the field almost blindly continue to reflect this.

As Chilisa and Malunga noted in the Bellagio Forum report, quoting from Adair et al, conceptual frameworks should emanate from the “religion, cultural traditions, norms, language, metaphors, knowledge systems, community stories, legends and folklore, social problems, social change, and so on, of the culture, rather than from some universalistic or developed world literature”. If this is not done, differences in ways of doing or thinking, or unspoken taboos might become obstacles to development success.

So we need to be much more adept at developing and using our own ideas and, where necessary, blending them with imported concepts. We need to develop or adjust theories, approaches, designs, methodologies and methods, and infuse them into existing evaluation standards, competencies and curricula. But there is a precondition: We first need to master existing evaluation theories and practices. This is extremely important. Only then can we truly create and innovate, and speak with authority in our field.

Sixth, the fundamental idea is not to ‘indigenise’ or ‘Africanise’; the idea is to improve development. In a recent article, two African academics argue that the continent does not need ‘Africanised’ universities, but ‘developmental’ universities. The following quote from the paper articulates a perspective that resonates very well with my perspectives on evaluation rooted in Africa:

A developmental university is any university that focuses on contributing to all aspects of the development of its home country. It does so through research, analysis, teaching, learning, advocacy and its relationship with industry and government. ….

The development of any society is essentially an internal process and culture is at its core. It is therefore practically impossible for the developmental university to analyse Africa’s development problems and needs without an intimate knowledge and understanding of the nature of African culture.”

This is what I mean. Effective development has to deliver dignity, peace and prosperity for Africa and its people. Given the unparalleled development challenges facing the continent, evaluation has to play a much stronger role. In order to better serve development on the continent, we need to be sure that we plant evaluation’s roots also in Africa.

The next posts in this series will start to articulate what is meant by ‘Africa-led evaluation’ as complement to ‘Africa-rooted evaluation’. I will also present one possible framework and examples to illustrate how ‘Made in Africa’ / ‘Africa-centric’ evaluation can be approached.

Cultural confidence should, however, not be confused with cultural pride. The real test of a people’s confidence in their own culture is not whether they are proud of its cultural attributes, its cultural traditions, or its cultural products, but whether they have confidence in the capacity of their culture to provide solutions to the problems of their society’s development.

Mervyn Claxton

 

Acacia

An Acacia tree at sunset – an African cliché, but with good reason.

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Zenda Ofir

Zenda Ofir is a South African evaluation specialist currently based in Switzerland. She is a former AfrEA President, IOCE Vice-President and AEA Board member. She has worked in around 40 countries, primarily in Africa and Asia, and provides evaluation advice to many multilateral and international organisations.

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