Being an Evaluator

I am a South African citizen and an Afrikaner, a member of the first white tribe that explicitly described themselves as part of Africa (Afrikaner means “from Africa”). My forefathers came to South Africa from France in 1690 and from Scotland in 1810. The remarkable history of my family, my country and my continent has shaped me, and continues to have a strong influence on my work.

Evaluators carry great responsibility. If our work is used, it can affect a few or millions of lives, one or more ecosystems, and even our whole planet. It can do enormous good. It can also cause enormous harm.

Our power does not always come from where we are in hierarchies, but from the quality, relevance and utility of what we do, from how we do it, and from the ways in which our work is used – or sometimes misused.

I am driven by justice and a belief in harmonious living. This is why I became involved in evaluation. Evaluation can make a real difference to those who have too little, to the wellbeing of society and its ecosystems. Today’s evaluation challenges transcend geographic, disciplinary, sector, demographic and institutional boundaries. We have to work together to ensure that evaluation contributes to development that sustains, to harmony within and between societies, and to the revitalisation of our beautiful planet and all its exquisite ecosystems.

It also appealed to my quest for a professional challenge. Evaluation is demanding – philosophically and intellectually. It demands an understanding of complex adaptive systems principles. It demands not only technical, but also social, ethical and political acumen.

I am a systems thinker, and have always had a systems view of life. I am acutely aware of the interconnections that influence what is done and achieved, how, why, when, for whom, and under what influences and conditions. Evaluation cannot be done well unless the evaluator is a systems thinker who understands the complexity of situations, integrates matters, and searches for what lies beyond the obvious.

We need to judge based on monitoring, research and evaluative evidence, using our experience and intuition. But we also need to understand and be clear about the set of parameters, values, models and ideologies within which we do this.

We have to balance our empathy with distance from our emotions. We need to be aware of our own values and biases when working with those who are very different. We have to grapple with the spectrum of worldviews, designs and methodologies in which evaluation theory and practice are rooted.

We also have to learn from one another – and especially from worldviews, perspectives and cultures different from our own.

All this makes evaluation one of the most exciting and fulfilling professions in the world – but only if its true value proposition is appropriately reflected in our work, and in how our work is used.