We need “Evaluation with African Characteristics” - in how we conceptualise evaluation and in how we lead and shape it in the interest of development on the continent.
Instead of thinking about what this means, we tend to slavishly teach and use evaluation theory and practices imported from outside the continent. Our evaluation terms of reference specify the use of (DAC) criteria without sufficient tailoring for what matters to us. The African Evaluation Guidelines reflect some of our context, but we seldom use them. Our evaluation priorities are still driven primarily by international programming rather than by what best serves the interests of our continent. Our universities and short courses prepare emerging young evaluators by espousing almost exclusively imported knowledge, at best with a few tailored examples from Africa.
Instead, we should lead and shape evaluation on the continent by being deeply thoughtful and innovative about what it actually should be, do and achieve for Africa.
Of course, we should master and apply that which comes from outside the continent. This is obvious. But Africa-centric evaluation should also be ‘Africa-led’ – led by Africans for Africa’s purposes: It should not only be rooted in African philosophies, values, knowledge systems and experiences. It should also be fully informed of issues and trends that affect our continent, whether from international (see also here and here) or local analyses (see also here) - and focus on evaluation priorities and ways of doing that can help us to deal better with what is critical for the development of our societies and ecosystems.
Among others it is not enough just to focus on (often aid-funded) programmes and projects, and occasionally on policies; we increasingly need to engage with the larger systems, contexts, relationships and strategies within which the continent develops and within which we conduct our work. We need to understand, not just judge, what is taking place, what influences success and failure as we work towards development.
Most importantly, we should design monitoring, evaluation and learning systems, and commission and lead evaluations, by taking on what comes from outside - yet also creating and tailoring deliberately for our purposes, with a deep understanding of what characterizes our societies, and of what is different about our continent, its development priorities, its philosophies and values.
We have only just started attending to how evaluation in Africa can and should be led by and for Africa. Fred Carden and Marvin Alkin highlighted in 2012 the rather meagre collection of practices that have emanated from the Global South. The African Peer Review Mechanism is a notable (although not always very successful) example; so is part of the CLEAR-AA DETPA winter school and Twende Mbele, which is leading the way with significant potential for the future. The African Evaluation Guidelines developed in 2002 were the first to take the lead in contextualizing such guidance. Today the African Evaluation Journal highlights what is being done. Progress is being made. But we still need to cultivate a notion of leadership in this space, with breakthroughs and deep engagement by our own - similar to the contributions to evaluation theory and practice on the global stage by pioneers such as Michael Scriven, Michael Patton, Ernie House, Thomas Schwandt, Ray Pawson, Donna Mertens, Karin Kirkhart, Kate McKegg, Fiona Cram, Nan Wehipeihana and many others.
There is a lot to do. In recent years South African evaluation and governance scholar Fanie Cloete wrote eloquently about what can and should be done – see for example here and here. It is well worthwhile to consider his suggestions. The 2012 Bellagio Report highlighted significant implications and recommendations for evaluation from this “let’s lead” perspective. It sketched the context for African evaluation for development in the coming years and addressed a host of things to do to ensure leadership in evaluation on the continent. Among others, the following stand out:
One, advance capacities and standards more innovatively - not only for useful and high quality evaluations, but for thought leadership in evaluation that can cross boundaries and contribute to theory and practice in the field globally.
Two, synthesise our evaluation knowledge and contributions, and make them more visible.
Three, engage with African value systems, and with considerations of what is of value for Africa.
Four, work on what matters at macro and not only micro level - and with a lens on changing contexts and complex systems (linear, simplistic notions of RCTs were still very popular at the time).
Five, move from “impact” to “managing for impact” through experimenting, learning and in-time adjustments while ensuring a very strong focus on identifying and understanding negative impacts and tradeoffs.
Six, cultivate evidence-informed evaluative thinking in the broader society, as well as a demand for evaluation in a way that gives it more power.
Seven, let universities and think-tanks develop into a network of – ideally independent - centres of expertise in evaluation.
Eight, ensure dynamic and continuous dialogues within a liberal thinking space in order to inform policies and support sustainable, effective systems in government, including for monitoring, evaluation and learning.
The African Evaluation Association has recently teamed up with four other regional evaluation associations from the Global South to initiate the South-South Collaboration in Evaluation (S2SE) initiative to give life to these ideas in all the regions of the world that are relative newcomers on the global stage of evaluation. I will highlight this initiative as part of a new series of posts I will write on evaluation for transformation.
Zenda Ofir is an independent South African evaluator at present based near Geneva. She works primarily in Africa and Asia, and advises organisations around the world. She is a former AfrEA President, IOCE and IDEAS Vice-President, AEA Board member, Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, and at present Interim Council Chair of the new International Evaluation Academy.