The DAC criteria, Part 8. Global South, Global North 1

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**6 min read**

Now that the concept of “developing” and “developed” countries is at last unfashionable, is a special focus on “development evaluation” still useful? Is the less emotive, more palatable Global South / Global North terminology more appropriate, and what does this mean for how and what we evaluate? Or should we rather treat the world - including the evaluation world - as one entity because we are all facing similar issues and challenges?

This is an issue of growing importance for the global evaluation community as power and resources shift. First of all, we see ourselves as a “global community”, yet still have a focus on “development evaluation” with its often quite distinct emphases, frameworks, priorities and ways of working. We hardly ever think about the South/North divide except marginally when we deal with the evaluation of aid initiatives. Yet we have recently joined the many South-South Cooperation efforts (see also here and here) by establishing the South to South Evaluation (S2SE) Initiative aimed at collective action around creating, sharing and learning from the many contexts, experiences, philosophies, cultures and development models in the Global South.

The question that we should ask now is the following: How, and how much, should a notion of a Global South/Global North divide influence the way in which we approach evaluation - including the evaluation questions we ask, and the evaluation criteria we use?

In my previous blog posts in this series I have made the case that our evaluation questions and criteria should be framed and selected fully cognisant of development viewed from a complex adaptive systems (CAS) perspective.

Here I want to bring a second important, connected argument to bear: Our evaluation questions and criteria should be selected fully cognisant of the need for transformative development – and in both the Global South and Global North. This demands attention to issues far beyond what the DAC criteria currently offer.

So, bear with me as I take your through a line of argument that should emphasise once again the serious engagement and conversations we need to have around the current process of revision of the DAC evaluation criteria – and in general around our evaluation questions and criteria.

This is incumbent upon everyone who is part of the global evaluation system, across the Global South and the Global North.

Dominant narratives around the North-South divide

Three narratives have been pushing us in the direction of minimising the distinctions that exist between the approximately 60 countries and around 1.5 billion people that make up the Global North, and the more than 140 countries and more than 6 billion people that make up the Global South.

One prominent narrative is shaped around shifting boundaries of poverty and inequality. It focuses on the rise of the emerging economies that indicates that power and poverty asymmetries between countries are becoming more diffuse and fluid. The ‘north-south’ divide is seen as no longer between countries; growing inequality is now between communities within countries.

A second compelling narrative is anchored in transboundary phenomena. We all have to deal with transboundary systems and influences such as climate change, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, biosphere pollution, the over-consumption of resources, and complicated global supply chains and other ‘transmission belts of globalisation”. This is of course a key reason why the terminology refers to the “Global” South and North – recognising that there is no strict geographic divide or line to be drawn between “the South” and “the North”, and that we all have to deal with global issues.

A third - and the most comforting - narrative is built around the fact that we can now at last confidently dismiss the inherent arrogance and sense of superiority/inferiority relations behind the idea that has reigned since the Second World War - that one small set of countries can define and set the standards for being “developed” towards which the “underdeveloped” majority must strive.

Yet several aspects of these narratives are misleading, if not disingenuous. The potential end of the arrogance and ignorance that has perpetuated so many of the negative narratives about “developing countries” is extremely welcome. Yet this is not the time to brush over the many real differences that remain between the South and the North or, as others put it from a slightly different perspective, the West and the Rest. Doing this appears to be aimed at absolving those countries that are still some of the most powerful in the world from their responsibility for having created of much of the state of the world today with its many challenges.

The notion of a Global North/Global South divide that should influence how we think and work are embedded in the systems and processes around us. There are very good reasons for the highly challenging international negotiations and lack of international consensus around the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities that emphasises that all states are responsible for addressing global environmental destruction, yet not equally responsible. Or for books such as From Global Apartheid to Global Village in which renowned African scholars such as Adekeye Adebajo, Ali Mazrui and James Jonah analyse the inequitable power relations between the North and South, and how these are deeply embedded in the global order, including in the UN. Or for the fact that despite rapid progress in many low and middle-income countries, international indexes related to the state of societies and countries show how few countries in the Global South emerge in any dimension into the top third. Important asymmetries between the South and North persist even as power shifts.

Why should we engage with the Global South / Global North distinction?

We should not live in the past. I agree that we should embrace that we are all part of one world that we all have to steward with the necessary commitment and responsibility. More than anything, we should celebrate the remarkable progress made over the last few decades in countries that, despite major obstacles in their path, have been able to show good or excellent progress across a range of indicators.

But we should also draw from what got us here, even if the interpretations around this differ. The notion of path-dependence forces us to learn from the co-evolution of countries over centuries, from the history and dynamics of the evolving international order, and from the asymmetries propagated by aid and fertilised by divergent agendas and power and resource asymmetries.

Such insights will help us to be more thoughtful about the world in which we now live - and hence about the role evaluative practice should play in such efforts in different parts of the world, and how we can best structure and conduct our craft to contribute as well as possible to the development of nation-states, our ecosystems and the planet as a whole.

In my next two final posts on the topic I will put forward my main argument, which is that we need to recognise that both the South and North require transformative change and transformative development, but from different points of departure. This should be reflected in the selection of our evaluation criteria – and in whether we still talk of ‘development evaluation’.

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2 thoughts on “The DAC criteria, Part 8. Global South, Global North 1”

  1. You have been putting forward very valid arguments so far, Zenda. It is necessary to stimulate a more explicit debate on the increasing perceptions in the Global South about the widening gap between rhetoric about attempts to level the playing field and to reduce the inequality gap between South and North, and the reality on the ground that does not seem to change significantly in real terms.

    I trust that the time is now ripe to agree on a more relevant and appropriate set of measuring instruments to assess progress towards really putting our money where our mouths are :-). This implies an unequivocal and explicit stand on what should accepted as the outcomes of sustainable empowerment and other developmental goals.

  2. Fanie, as usual, very good observations from you. We need more explicit debate and deliberate action on all sides that can help address existing asymmetries, both in the evaluation and the international development arenas. There are, as we all know, multiple and complicated reasons for persisting inequalities between the South and the North – much to do with all types of power asymmetries, and fingers can be pointed in all directions. But as you point out, at the very least the global evaluation community needs to be more active in considering whether we as professionals contribute sufficiently and to the maximum value that evaluation can add to the current situation. Instead, we appear to be obsessed with methods and technical detail – not that this is not important. It is just that the ‘bigger picture’ gets lost amidst all the minutiae.

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