Towards Transformation, 1. The buzzword

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Can evaluation help enable and support transformative development? We know we need the latter. Yet like sustainability, transformation (or transformative change) and transformative development are these days frequently dismissed as ‘buzzwords’ (or even worse, as ‘fuzzwords’). This is a very big mistake. These are extremely important concepts for both development and evaluation specialists – and will be increasingly so.

Through this series of blog posts I want to encourage interest and debate on the implications for evaluation of a focus on ‘transformation’. If we believe evaluation should make a difference in the world, we have to start working vigorously with the following in mind:

One, how to think about, and deal with transformative change for development – including what this means for what we evaluate (our evaluands) and for our evaluation criteria, and

Two, how to transform the global evaluation system itself – the inevitable result of a stronger focus on transformative (systems) change and transformative development.

But what are we talking about?


Transformation refers to change that is radical, revolutionary – whether in individuals, institutions, societies, countries, (eco)systems, or the planet as a whole. It is like a phase change in chemistry. Synonyms include conversion, metamorphosis, sea change. We need transformative change that is large in scale and scope. It implies paradigm shifts, alternatives, innovations and transitions. It refers to large systems change, and ‘societal’ rather than ‘social’ change.

It is intimately linked to, and benefits from insights from complexity science.

In the change spectrum it is at the other end opposite incremental change, although many incremental changes can - and often do - lead to transformation, as aptly illustrated by the well-known Chinese saying and development paradigm, “crossing the river by feeling the stones”.

One of the obstacles is that current definitions of transformation or transformative change from a development perspective tend to confuse people – just as the different notions of what constitutes ‘impact evaluation’ used to do (or still do). Just two examples:

Example 1. I have seen definitions for transformative change that imply that institutionalised policy changes or interventions are either essential for, or will lead to transformation. Neither assertion is correct. A 2011 publication by UNDP illustrates this type of definition: “Transformational change is the process whereby positive development results are achieved and sustained over time by institutionalizing policies, programmes and projects within national strategies [my itals].”

Example 2. An interesting 2018 paper by UN-DESA seems to conflate sustainable development (i.e. defined in terms of social, economic and environmental) with transformative change, based on the argument that the structural change models of the past did not include a focus on the environment. If this view is correct, the development of say South Korea, Japan after WWII or China over the past 3-4 decades cannot be called transformational; yet these are some of the best examples of transformative development we have seen in the past century (or in several centuries). The DESA paper appears to confuse the values underpinning the SDGs and sustainable development with the notion of ‘transformation’. Development should ideally be both sustainable and transformative.

Most importantly from a development perspective, we need to focus on, and define transformational systems change – from a conceptual and practical perspective perhaps best articulated in writings by Steve Waddell on large systems change which inspired among others the SDG Transformations Forum.

So everyone is engaging with ‘transformation’ …

In this era it is impossible to avoid the ‘transformation’ discourse. We have to embrace it and understand its importance for development and for evaluation.Most importantly, we have to prevent it from being dismissed as a passing fad. It should not be seen as a ‘buzzword’, but as something countries and societies have to strive for with vigour.

It is essential because initiating and maintaining a positive development trajectory as a poor country, as well as changing stable institutions and comfortable ways of living in rich countries, are likely to become increasingly difficult, especially since our ecosystems and planetary boundaries are already under severe strain. Yet we also have magnificent opportunities. We are at the confluence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; the 2030 Agenda and its 17 SDGs; the digital economy, knowledge economy and an emerging notion of a more human(e) economy. We are also facing complex problems without borders such as climate change and other human-made disasters, as well as complicated webs of value chains and other displays of globalisation that encourage new geopolitical alliances as well as intense competition for resources that have already led to major economic and political power shifts.

The authors of the 2030 Agenda are explicit about the “supremely ambitious and transformational vision” behind the 17 SDGs. This is also the vision in the 2063 Agenda of the African Union; it is great to see a SDG High Level Political Forum side event coming up on 17 July on transformation in Africa sponsored by Chad with the AU, APRM and OECD as co-organisers. Building on what it calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the World Economic Forum has Transformation Maps intended to help users navigate the “complex and interlinked forces that are transforming economies, industries and global issues”. Strong arguments are also made for the dire need to transform the economies of rich countries to become more sustainable and circular. And technology companies do everything in their power – and often succeed – in “disruptions” aimed at transforming the way we live, work and do business; the most quoted and visible example of this is the impact of the mobile phone across some of the lowest income countries in Africa.

Yet evaluators do not ….

One can expect that ‘transformation’ is the point of departure for development planning as well as for evaluation in a development context, which now includes both rich and poor countries. Yet when I look for literature on evaluation for transformation it appears to be meagre. The most pertinent example might well be the recent IIED/EvalSDGs Briefing in which I was a co-author, but I might be wrong. Please let me know about any work focusing on transformation in the evaluation space.  Thankfully we have started to engage with complexity in evaluation, a precursor for engaging with transformative change. Some of my favourite books on the topic by Michael Q Patton, Michael Bamberger et al, Kim Forss et al, Jonny Morell, Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley and Juha Uitto et al discuss aspects of complexity but largely fail to connect it to transformative change for development. More disconcertingly, in their otherwise very useful book “The Future of Evaluation” Reinhard Stockmann and Wolfgang Meyer do not touch on the topic. And the global EvalAgenda 2020 hints at, but does not make explicit what such a focus might mean for evaluation theory and/or practice.

I know that the Climate Investment Fund’s Evaluation and Learning Initiative is doing interesting work on the topic, and IDEAS had some good sessions on complexity and transformative change at its Global Assembly in December 2017 in Mexico. I trust these engagements will soon start to influence our craft.

I believe a key reason for the meagre focus on transformation in evaluation is the fact that evaluators from the Global North - or those unthinkingly following convention - still largely direct evaluation theory and practice, and have yet to come to grips with the urgent call for transformative development at national, regional and global levels. I will therefore discuss the touchy subject of the Global North Global South ‘divide’ in my next post.

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4 thoughts on “Towards Transformation, 1. The buzzword”

  1. Dear Zenda

    Great blog thank you again for making us think a bit deeper. This is the type of thinking that needs to accompany any strategic and or operational planning process at all levels, especially in evaluation. For me the comment I am very interested in and would like to look into further is the issue stating “an emerging notion of a more human(e) economy”, for me the question is somewhat in the eye of the beholder and what is humane for one is not humane for another especially when this is linked to the economy. I find it hard to imagine humane next to economy however this is something we in the South might have a much better intuitive thinking around that our counterparts in North. The question for me are we really actually thinking about it..

    Thank you again and all best

    1. Elma, you are right that we do not yet think about a “human(e) economy”. Oxfam has highlighted it and there is a book by Hart, Laville and Cattani about the Human Economy. It postulates that in order to be human(e), an economy must be at least four things: made and remade by people, and of practical use to all in daily life; address a great variety of specific situations even where complex; be based on a more holistic conception of everyone’s needs and interests; and address humanity as a whole, and the world society that is being created. You will note that we are likely to have multiple interpretations of what such a society should be like, and the concept will resonate better with some societies than with others. As you mention we should recognise that we need to understand what the dominant systems within which we find ourselves are doing to us – and how we accommodate that in our evaluations.

  2. Interesting that you did not mention
    Transformative Research and Evaluation by Donna M Mertens
    Program Evaluation Theory and Practice by Mertens and Wilson.
    Both these books are intentionally focused on transformative evaluation.

    1. I agree. How can you mention transformation and transformative evaluation without mentioning Professor Mertens

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