Donna Mertens’ Top Tips for YEEs. Youthful Energy Contribution to the Pursuit of Transformative Evaluation

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**8 min read**

I had the pleasure of getting to know Donna at an AEA conference many years ago. Since then, our paths have crossed again and again – including in 2007 when we invited her to participate at the 4th AfrEA conference in a special stream on “making evaluation our own”, the precursor of what is today known as “Made in Africa Evaluation”. She has always been an inspiring figure: a pioneer in evaluation theory, totally committed to those whose voices are most often ignored, and soft-spoken yet very firm in defending her passionate beliefs about the good that evaluation can and should do. Impressively, she also manages to look younger and better every year! Donna has always cared about young evaluators, and here she has some very important messages for our next generation of prominent evaluation specialists – messages that are very appropriate for this era, and fully in line with her impressive work on transformative evaluation. 

The final session of the 2018 American Evaluation Association meeting was devoted to engaging with youth in evaluation; the wonderful surprise was that the panelists were all youth who had worked as evaluators on projects in which they explored strategies for meaningful engagement. The session was chaired by Katie Richards-Schuster and Bianca Montrose-Moorhead; the panelists were Celia C. Soto, Ana Amaya, Jordan Scrimger, Abhijay Kumar, and Qudratullah Jahid. They described the importance of having a theoretical framework to enhance their exploration of authentic engagement and they cited the transformative paradigm as one framework that they found to be useful.

As I authored the book Transformative Research and Evaluation (2009) to which they referred, I felt gratified that my work was viewed as being useful and also excited that the concept of transformation is a part of the youth evaluation agenda.

Transformation is a term that is now being used widely, especially within the international development evaluation community, as a part of the process for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The goals are lofty, including addressing poverty reduction and increase in prosperity, decreasing inequality, supporting positive climate change and environmental improvement, and enhancing peace and justice.

Top Tip 1. Think carefully about how your role as evaluator can support achievement of the SDGs.

As we contemplate the role of evaluators in supporting the achievement of the SDGs, we need to consider some important questions.

What is the meaning of transformation for each of the SDGs in the eyes of the full range of stakeholders?

What are the relevant contextual factors that will impact the world’s ability to make progress towards these goals?

What is the nature of the power structure within the evaluation context and how can we respectfully and meaningfully engage with the full range of stakeholders?

What are the cultural values, beliefs, and practices that will serve to support achievement of the goals and those that will impede progress?

How can we collect data about the context and cultural factors in ways that illuminate the experience of those who are most impacted by the lack of progress in these areas (we might call these the marginalized communities)?

How can the data from the contextual and cultural factors be shared with the full range of stakeholders in ways that lead to interventions that are culturally responsive and increase the potential for transformative change?

What are the evaluation strategies that can be used to be inclusive and supportive of all voices in the evaluation context?

How can we use the information from evaluation to improve development and implementation of interventions to support the desired transformative change?

What data collection strategies will allow us to look at the intended and unintended consequences of interventions?

How do we integrate utilization of the evaluation data and findings throughout the evaluation process to support transformative change?

Top Tip 2. Make sure that your work contributes to transformative change, cognizant of different contexts.

I regularly ask the stakeholders that I work with about their vision of transformation. What would transformation look like if we are to improve quality on the basis of gender or disability? The discussions that ensue provide interesting insights and often lead to identification of values and cultural beliefs that can impede or support the enhancement of rights for members of marginalized communities.

For example, Indigenous communities often describe transformation in terms of sovereignty and recognition of their land rights. People with disabilities often describe transformation in terms of respect and supportive access to societal resources and opportunities. Environmental activists often describe transformation in terms of finding harmony between social, environmental and economic justice.

Evaluators have a role to play by building relationships that are culturally responsive and inclusive that allow them to provide data throughout the course of development activities related to achievement of the SDGs.

I am calling upon the evaluation community, old and young alike, to advocate for evaluation approaches that incorporate contextual and cultural analysis as groundwork for decisions about interventions. This expanded role, I argue, increases our potential to contribute to a pathway for constructive action that is transformative.

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6 thoughts on “Donna Mertens’ Top Tips for YEEs. Youthful Energy Contribution to the Pursuit of Transformative Evaluation”

  1. Tiroyaone Kebalepile

    I have just joined the Evaluation field as a PhD candidate at the University of Botswana and I’m very much impressed by the way evaluators talk about transformative evaluation particularly among marginalised communities/evaluands. I’m looking forward to contributing to this field as marginalised communities are close to my heart.

    1. I am pleased to hear that you find the idea of transformative evaluation relevant to your work with marginalised communities. I hope that you will apply these ideas and share your experience with the evaluation community.

  2. I have watched you live these fine words and make space for the younger generation to shine – thank you for the legacy you are leaving in your field, and bringing up the next bearers of the flame

  3. Tiroyaone Kebalepile

    I have read with keen interest some evaluations reports but I find the issue of reflectivity lacking in a majority of them. As evaluators we talk more of evaluation from outside and it is not clear of how our being inthe evaluation affects/ has affected the evaluation. Our insidership whether short term or long term is not apparent but I believe it’s important to reflect and be reflexive in our reports.

  4. Donna Mertens

    You make a very good point. Evaluators have a standard for meta-evaluation. As that is the study of the evaluation itself, it makes sense to include reflexivity as a part of the meta-evaluation (although I would argue that we should be reflexive on a continuous basis.)

  5. Absolutely true that we should continuously be reflexive. Particularly that our being is continuously affected by our evaluation contexts and the needs of the evaluand.

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