Updating the DAC Evaluation Criteria, Part 8. A Global South, Global North lens on evaluation – 2.

**10 min read**

In my previous post I started to make the case for the evaluation of transformative change and transformative development in a way that recognises the differences between what we call the Global South and Global North, and that then shapes our practice accordingly – including our evaluation questions and criteria.

Viewing societies through a ‘Global South’ / ‘developing country’ lens

In 2012 my good friend and colleague AK Shiva (Shiv) Kumar and I wrote a chapter, Evaluation in Developing Countries. What makes it different? in a book on development evaluation edited by Stewart Donaldson and others. We postulated that critical issues are not addressed because of the failure of evaluation practices to deal fully with the needs and circumstances of what we then called “developing countries”.

Already then – six years ago – we noted the importance of thinking beyond projects and programmes to focus instead on intervention and development trajectories. We argued for practice and knowledge synthesis that can support the evaluation of change that is sustainable and transformative, and progress that endures.

We pointed out the lack of attention given to the broader frameworks or sets of values that determine the nature and focus of evaluation in development contexts. We briefly referred to three of these approaches: human development, human rights and human security, emphasising that attending to such issues is of far greater importance, and more challenging, in economically poor than in economically rich countries.

We then described some of those characteristics of contexts and societies in what we now call the Global South that must shape our practice if we apply a “developing country lens” to evaluation: Societies and institutional systems are more fragile and vulnerable, and hence more easily destabilised. They are often old civilisations with rich cultures that have been eroded through foreign intervention or, at times, their own actions. They have had to align with others’ notions of, and values around “success” and “development”. This has in many countries led to confusion and intergenerational tension about how their ingrained values, norms and knowledge systems relate to the modern world. This is frequently exacerbated by a sense of victimisation, of dependence on uncontrollable forces and a daily struggle to cope.

We pointed out that large swathes of these populations tend to remain economically poor even when countries advance and that they thus lack the exposure to new ideas and the ‘freedom to choose’ that other societies take for granted. Those who are already powerful, both within and outside these countries, continue their domination over natural and material resources, the media and the intellectual discourse.

We argued that all these factors work together to limit the capacities of countries in the Global South to cope and thrive, especially in a world that has been dominated by Euro-American perspectives, development models and power. Intellectuals who studied abroad return with blended cultures that assist them in bridging the challenges of evolving societies, but many without that exposure feel marginalised, inadequate, disempowered – feelings embedded over generations.

Shiv and I noted that those of us working in development and in the evaluation of development tend to underestimate the impact of these situations on the psyche of an individual, community, institution or nation – even though we can admire their resilience and stoicism amidst constraints and suffering. Success factors in society include having sufficient education and exposure as well as feelings of self-knowledge and confidence; appropriate and diverse opportunities; real, not false hope for a better life; and the freedom to develop suitable strategies based on evolving values, beliefs and norms. Where this is absent, development suffers. And this is much more pronounced in the most fragile societies and states. In spite of recent power shifts, the least powerful – although often admirably resilient – remain the most vulnerable and exposed to exploitation from within and without.

I saw all of this in my own country, South Africa, and in programmes I have evaluated across Africa.

Individuals, communities and nations respond differently to such triggers. Some are passive; some turn inwards; some lash out; some become resolute and move forward on their own or others’ terms. Struggles for power over their own destiny – sometimes by any, even unsavoury means – ensue. For a long time, development models were out of favour that have national policies and strategies deeply rooted in the country’s own understanding of its comparative strengths and niche globally and regionally, while drawing effectively from its own as well as international values, norms and innovations. Only over the past decade, with success stories that could not be ignored, has the value of such approaches to development become more recognised. But this does not always find support among those used to power and control. Bitter battles between opposing forces have ensued, and will likely intensify in the near future.

I will return in my next and final post on this topic to what this means for our evaluative practice.

How significant is the Global South / Global North divide?

A quick journey through key aspects of the current state of affairs:

According to Oluwafemi Mimiko, writing in 2012, the Global North with around a quarter of the world population (at the time) controlled four-fifths of the income earned anywhere in the world, owned or had located 90% of the manufacturing industries, and had populations where 95% had enough food and shelter. Inversely, the Global South — with three quarters of the world’s population — had access to only one-fifth of the world income. In 2016, a joint publication between the Group of Fifteen (G-15) and the South Centre pointed out that fewer than two percent of the populations of ‘developed’ countries suffered from food insecurity; in East and South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa this ranged from 20 to 34 percent.

Everyone quotes the rise of the emerging economies, in particular China, as hopeful examples of how the situation in the world is changing. It is an incredible achievement to lift 800 million people out of poverty in a few decades. China has thus been almost solely responsible for diminishing extreme poverty in the world from 40 to 10 percent. Yet the average annual income in the US is just over US$58,000 (median wage just under US$30,000), while in China it still is only around US$8,700. Even if the contributions of informal work were taken into account, such disparity remains stark.

Some of these figures have to be updated given the rapid changes over the past 1-2 decades. But the overall picture of serious disparities on key indicators of wellbeing and progress between the Global South and Global North remain. This can be visually appreciated in the World Bank World Development Indicator maps for 2017.

Most telling is the very useful SDG Index and Dashboards Report produced every year by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). It highlights interesting patterns using a traffic light system for each country’s progress for each SDG.

SDG index

Other efforts such as SDG-Tracker and the UN SDG Indicators Database do the same in other informative formats.

These maps show clearly the need to continue to distinguish clearly between how ‘development’ is to be conceived and done in the Global South compared to the Global North, and which issues and priorities matter most – even though the development strategies in both cases will have to take account of the interlinked, complex adaptive systems nature of global, regional and national challenges and solutions.

Development strategies in the Global North will for example have to focus much more intensively on consumption patterns, living within planetary boundaries and changing global supply chains to be more humane and in harmony with nature.

In contrast, most countries in the Global South will have to do much more to protect societal and institutional fragilities, and harness whatever resources they have. And they have to attend to progress from much lower baselines across multiple dimensions of development. This means that they have to work much harder to enable in a timely manner the synergies, catalytic pathways and integration that will accelerate progress and help ensure positive development trajectories that sustain in the long term.

The 2017 Annual Report of the South Centre also highlights key challenges in efforts to sustain development trajectories in the Global South in the current era: – increasing climate change impacts, stagnant global trade flows, technological advances (controlled by a few), conflict situations, fragile health systems in the face of rising threats, and internal and cross-border movements of people facing a variety of pressures. These are issues that are much more intensive, and much more difficult to cope with amidst the challenging contexts in the Global South sketched at the beginning of this post.

Development, and evaluation for development, become much more challenging in such contexts.

Will this situation change in the near future?

No – this is not likely, except if there is a major global shock.

First, some of the analyses noted above should be updated, and will likely reflect somewhat more positive results, and greater granularity (with analyses at regional and country level) will bring richer insights about trends and dynamics. But it is almost certain that despite impressive advances among a good number of LICs and LMICs, the unevenness in the status quo will persist. The remnants of the great divergence and inequalities resulting from unbridled capitalism and other forces will remain with us for some time to come.

The well-known Oxfam data state that the richest 1 percent of people held 82 percent of the wealth created in 2017. In 2018, the richest 42 people in the world own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half (3.6 billion people). Between 1988 and 2011 the incomes of the poorest 10% increased by just $65, while the incomes of the richest 1% grew by $11,800 – in other words, 182 times as much. Credit Suisse notes in their 2017 Global Wealth Report that if trends continue, by 2022 the number of millionaires will have risen by 22 percent, from 36 million people today to 44 million. Yet the group occupying the lowest tier of the pyramid – those earning annually less than US$10,000 per adult – is expected to shrink by only 4 percent.

Second, many of the economically rich countries also continue to fail to deliver on promises – whether on the famous 0.7 percent of GDP for aid, the US$100 billion promise to fight climate change, aid to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and other undertakings in line with the notion of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Yet it is highly unlikely that their citizens will at this time accept major changes in their quality of life in order to contribute even near sufficiently to “no-one left behind” ideals in the rest of the world.

Third, politics and power asymmetries continue to matter at all levels. What some have called the pillars of global apartheid have not changed significantly – the structures of veto power in the UN Security Council, World Trade Organisation, the IMF and World Bank; the rules of trade that privilege protection to Western agriculture and other interests; the protection of hard currency by central banks through the Bank of International Settlements; immigration controls that benefit rich countries; the use of aid and investment to control elites in economically poor countries; and more. The ‘Rest’ now has a majority in many international institutions, yet still lack the political power to reject decisions by a Western minority.

On the other hand, what has been changing is the emergence of much more coherent action by the Global South through intensifying South-South collaboration, both on international platforms where agreements are negotiated, and in supporting one another with development ideas and resources. The imbalances in the current so-called global ‘order’ are also one of the key reasons for the establishment of new institutions driven from the South, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB). An initiative that has the potential to change global dynamics quickly and dramatically, and that can be a major transformative force, is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambition of massive scale aimed at strengthening infrastructure, trade and investment links – and, as a result, development – between China and around 65 other countries that account collectively for over 30 percent of global GDP, 62 percent of the world population and 75 percent of known energy reserves.

In my last post on the topic I will discuss the implications of all of the above for our evaluation questions and criteria.

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Zenda Ofir

Zenda Ofir is an independent South African evaluator. Based near Geneva, she works across Africa and Asia. A former AfrEA President, IOCE Vice-President and AEA Board member, she is at present IDEAS Vice-President, Lead Steward of the SDG Transformations Forum A&E Working Group and Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University.


  1. Dear Zenda
    This is a great article. I agreed also need more effort on S2Sce initiative to be move forward sooner than late when all countries heading for 2020 agenda on 1st evaluation of SDGs.

  2. Interesting read. I particularly appreciated this point about underestimation: “that those of us working in development and in the evaluation of development tend to underestimate the impact of these situations on the psyche of an individual, community, institution or nation – even though we can admire their resilience and stoicism amidst constraints and suffering.” Look forward to reading more.

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