Transforming Evaluations and COVID-19, Part 1. A GPS for complex terrain.

**6 min read**

We are at a transformative moment in the history of humankind and of our planet.

During this extraordinary time and beyond, the global evaluation community will have to hone and reposition evaluation, in close alignment with research, as a GPS that can help humanity navigate the complex, uncharted terrain that lies ahead.

Our Earth has gone quiet.

While nature’s increasing silence has been with us for some time, at last the ‘noise’ of humans – their magnificent contributions and, more pertinently, their heart-breaking destructions – has abated. Humanity’s headlong rush to planetary ruin has been put on pause.

Perhaps intelligent thought and inclusive empathy will now prevail over senseless posturing, endless greed and pervasive ignorance. Perhaps we will now recognise that a systems view of life is essential.

Sompong RattanakunchonFrom a macro perspective – Earth as our only home, with all the beauty of its diverse cultures and ecosystems – the shock of COVID-19 could well be the best thing that has ever happened to inspire essential transformational change in societies’ values, priorities and ways of living. Not only has it brought humanity to a standstill to take stock. Calls to recognise ‘complexity’ is now everywhere. The pandemic has clearly displayed many of the interdependencies that determine global development or disaster – between health systems, economic policy (and theory), financial markets, global supply chain networks, food systems and the destruction of biodiversity, the behavioural structures and values of societies, political agendas and ideologies, power in diverse forms, (social) media narratives, and much more. As we emerge from the crisis, we will have a unique opportunity to implement policies that can make a real difference to our other global crisis – climate change and the other devastating effects of humanity’s footprint.

We have to embrace this moment.

As species we are on a knife edge. Perhaps at a tipping point. We are capable of creating astounding beauty, of generating highly effective collective action from local to global scale. Yet the ‘uglification’ of the world has been increasing – nowhere more visible than in the ruthless destruction of nature, and in the hatred spewed on the Internet between individuals and now increasingly towards nations.

The full force of what lies ahead struck me a few days ago when I saw bulldozers in The Netherlands dumping into landfills masses of flowers still wrapped in their plastic, ready for export. At times like these the beauty of flowers can be as essential for our souls as food for our bodies; yet many Kenyan citizens, and perhaps some in The Netherlands, will go hungry because flowers are not designated as essential goods.

At a micro level, the suffering in vulnerable communities and societies will at times be too much to bear.

But we have to think and work at a macro level too – even more so. For our survival in the era of the Anthropocene, now also about to be defined by the effects of COVID-19, all societies have to become much less egocentric, much less ethnocentric – and instead, much more world-centric, much more planet-centric, much more cosmos-centric.

We will have to adopt a living systems mindset and nurture living systems leadership. We have to understand and manage with realism and savvy the many facets of ‘power’. ‘Exceptional’ societies will have to be defined not by their own values, but by a new, carefully crafted global value system. Lazy rhetoric and damning hypocrisy about ‘human rights’ will have to be complemented by emphases on ‘societal’, ‘ecosystems’ and ‘planetary’ rights. Policy-making will have to reflect new approaches and values, akin to Bhutan’s approach where each policy is explicitly informed by its four pillars of Gross National Happiness (only one of the reasons why Bhutan continues to dwell in my mind after working in or visiting societies that make up more than half of the world).

We are in uncharted terrain. The world as a whole is experiencing a triple shock – health/social (already partially apparent), financial (becoming visible) and economic (still to emerge in full). Unless surprisingly quick resolutions to all three are found, the global crisis will as never before test the resilience of individuals, communities and societies. It will also test the levels of empathy versus meanness within and across societies.

For many, the consequences of the intertwined shocks will be dire. It is not clear whether (economically) poor or rich countries will be the most resilient; a factor yet to be recognised is the massive external debt and alarming debt-to-GDP levels of many supposedly prosperous countries that make them much more vulnerable to serious shocks than rhetoric and efforts to maintain appearances indicate. Creating more trillions of debt and printing unimaginable amounts of money (euphemistically termed ‘quantitative easing’) are unlikely to provide long-term, sustainable solutions. Future generations will be stuck with the consequences of such folly. And in the short term, ‘aid’ to the Global South will suffer.

The point is, there is no chance that humanity will be able to go back to business as usual. Without doubt this is a time for transformation – of the inner self, of the values of societies, of the systems that shape the world.

At this moment I have little hope that such change will bring harmony between societies and with nature, and much-needed circular economies. Much of humanity is too selfish or too comfortable. Those working for transformative change on a large scale are often too far removed from the sources of global power and from the incentives and covert systems that drive and enable them. And the pandemic will very likely make economic survival at both micro and macro level trump any effort to re-balance the broken relationship between people and nature, and between societies with very different worldviews and histories.

This is why evaluation should have its own transformative moment.

My first blog post ever in 2016 (re-posted in 2017) was about the beauty of evaluation. I wrote that it was beautiful in concept; in practice, often much less so. I should perhaps also have focused on its power, or lack thereof – something that concerns me more these days.

Michael Quinn Patton’s recent blog post on the implications for evaluation of COVID-19 alerts us to how evaluators can and have to adjust to cope with, and advance our practice in these times. As usual, this evaluation visionary has given us once again a much-needed systematic approach that advances our field – this time one that addresses what an evaluation luminary such as Robert (Bob) Picciotto has argued for decades. In addition to Developmental Evaluation, Blue Marble Evaluation is what we need now. It is also part of the effort of the SDG Transformations Forum to create a transformations system across many interests, sectors and experiences. These approaches provide evaluation with the potential to be relevant for (large-scale) systems change initiatives, and to global platforms and networks. This matters now more than ever.

The strengths of evaluation make it perfectly suited to serve as society’s GPS when navigating difficult terrain. It provides credible, immediate, context-sensitive direction. It lowers risk and informs decisions about the best course of action. It shows preferred as well as less appropriate options based on analysis of evidence and experience. Despite some in-built biases and occasional lack of precision, it is today essential to get to desired destinations.

But this has major implications for the concepts, principles, standards, criteria, competencies and methodologies that shape our work as evaluation specialists. As the world transforms, evaluation has to transform too. Yet as the recently revised OECD DAC criteria show, the global evaluation community is not quite ready to take on ‘transforming evaluations’ (word play intended).

In his thoughtful book, Three Horizons: Patterns of Hope, Bill Sharpe writes: “A caterpillar grows by getting longer and fatter, but this can only go on for a while before it reaches the limit…. It has to go through a transformation in how it is organised and how it relates to the world around it. The caterpillar changes the pattern of its life, abandoning the old and adopting the new. Similarly, we recognise the need for transformational change when we see that the way things are getting done now has limit; that we cannot get beyond these limits however much we try to improve the existing system, and that we must, as a result, create a new pattern of life for the future we want and need.” 

Yet, so often when we think and talk about, and ‘do’ transformation, as Nora Bateson notes, we conceive of caterpillars with wings rather than butterflies with wings.

 

[Upon reading my post again on 31 March I realised that my view of humanity did not reflect enough of the goodness that is also apparent around us every day. I therefore moderated three statements that judged us all too harshly at this time. As Albert Camus noted “To state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”]

 

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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 Evaluation for Transformation Working Group, Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University, and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, Germany.

10 Comments

    • Thank you Antar. I trust the one that follows will also be useful, as it is intended to provide more practical guidance.

  1. Thanks Zenda for your ideas, really interesting towards transformative system thinking on evaluation.

    • Thank you Pantaleon. It is important that we think how our practice can support not only transformation, but also incremental change or reform using complexity science and systems thinking. This is now more crucial than ever.

  2. Thank you so much, Zenda for this thought-provoking and well thought-out piece. COVID-19 is indeed going to shake the Evaluation Community from it’s comfort zone with the realisation that it is no longer going to be business as usual. The onus then is on us the Practitioners, to continue in the state of the ‘caterpillar with wings’ or to transform into the ‘butterfly with wings’ flying…

    This clearly reminds me of the birth of the Blue Marble Evaluators during IPDET 2015 at Carleton University, when the ever-inspiring Michael Quinn Patton led the Participants in chanting the Blue Marble Anthem…

    There comes a time
    When we heed a certain call
    When evaluation must evolve
    The Blue Marble calls us
    To do what must be done
    The future of our planet must be won…

    We can’t go on
    Pretending day by day
    That our designs, as now done,
    Are adequate…

    And the Chorus:
    We are the world’s evaluators
    We are the ones who take a global view–eval-uat-ing.
    There’s a need we’re serving,
    To use a systems lens
    Evaluating complex changes globally.

    • Thank you Ponge for reminding us of Michael’s BME anthem. Let us use these ideas and words and songs as inspiration as we move into an era of transformation, including towards greater resilience and empathy post-COVID-19. It will be important for us as evaluators to understand how to support new ways of thinking and doing for better and more equal societies.

    • Thanks Beverly – and I agree that we should take note of key global frameworks such as the Earth Charter. It is one of the main initiatives to help us all imagine a new future – together with the Regenerative Communities Network, Future Earth and many others. Many of the principles underlying current understanding of the challenges of this decade or beyond are similar, and evaluation needs to draw from such pertinent sets of values and/or principles. For example, something I strongly believe is we that we should shift from an obsession with human rights to focus much more explicitly on on human responsibilities as well as on societal/ecosystems/planet’s rights – as I note in this and other posts.

  3. Thanks for being proactive. is there a standard framework for evaluation in emergencies. what about monitoring

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