No, I don’t equate evaluation with toilet paper made of gold - even if it costs a cool US$1.3 million.
(I know, this is definitely fodder for jokes). But I want to use the image to make a serious point: that evaluation was neglected during the MDG era partly as a result of the fact that its value proposition did not sufficiently impress influential stakeholders.
In a previous post I referred to seven main lessons for the global evaluation community, distilled from multiple experiences during the MDG era and to be published as a call to action in the proceedings of the 4TH International Conference on National Evaluation Capacities organised by UNDP in 2015. In the next few posts I will highlight some of these lessons one by one.
Call to Action 1
We need to find innovative ways to show and prove the full value proposition of evaluation, especially to influential actors in the development arena.
The first lesson from my analyses of evaluation in the SDG era is that the full value proposition of evaluation is not clear to influential actors in development. Thus the value of evaluation cannot be assumed or taken for granted. It must be demonstrated consistently and continuously, cognisant of the needs and demands of influential policy- and decision-makers.
By “value proposition” I mean the value that evaluation promises to deliver to those who can use it, and the beliefs of the (potential) users about the value that they will experience, or have experienced. I touched on this in two previous posts, here and here.
The value proposition of the ubiquitous toilet roll
Consider the toilet roll, something we all use. We all believe that we know its true value proposition - a simple matter. Yet this is dependent on the values and perspectives about “value” among those who produce and use it.
The very rich will appreciate and value the US$1.3 million toilet roll with a different perspective on its utility. Its value proposition lies in how it looks and the image it projects – not in its conventional use.
The creative ones among us, and those who appreciate art, will view and value it as an opportunity for artistic creation and achievement that gives aesthetic pleasure to others.
Some will focus on its many dimensions - its beauty, versatility and durability - as material for leading fashions.And others on its potential for multiple innovative uses by multiple, diverse users - from plaything to plant pot, from wedding dress to organiser.And of course, the design itself can have a very significant influence on perceptions of value and on utility, and thus on its value proposition for potential users - irrespective of how much fun it was to make the product.
I think (hope) the message is clear!
Back to our first Call to Action
Evaluation has historically been viewed as something primarily enforced for compliance with externally imposed logframes and expectations, with frequently meaningless indicators and foci primarily on time-bound funding opportunities. Over recent years we have learnt that it can be so much more, as reflected in the notion of “learning” for multiple purposes, the newest buzzword.
Yet we still get caught up in the most basic of discussions and fragmented bits of understanding about the use and benefits of evaluation, depending on the discipline, sector or type of organisation and its maturity in using evaluation. These are sometimes contradictory, myopic or even scarily uninformed. Just ask almost anyone in the private sector; they have hardly ever heard of evaluation, yet are now treated as major new sources of development finance.
Of course one can argue that this is the nature of the profession, that this multiplicity can be an advantage, and that the profession can do little more to promote its value. But we need to take care to ensure that we find creative and concerted ways to present and show the value proposition of evaluation, including as integral part of the follow-up and review processes that are such welcome inclusions in the 2030 Agenda.
And as most of the ideas about the niche and value of evaluation come from the Global North, are we in the Global South in full agreement with the accepted wisdom in this regard?
My take on the value of evaluation in the SDG era
Research, monitoring and evaluation constitute a “triple helix” of evidence; they draw from one another. Yet complemented by experience and intuition, each has its value and niche in tracking, measuring, understanding and guiding development progress.
The value proposition of evaluation lies in its conceptualisation and in how it is done. I prefer to focus on the value proposition for the potential users of good evaluation for development (a topic that I will also address in a next post).
First, good evaluation for development can enable thoughtful, realistic, evidence-informed yet quick action that can help ensure positive, sustained development trajectories. Its action orientation provides information grounded in realities and urgent priorities among multiple stakeholders, with long-term perspectives on development.
Second, using systems approaches, good evaluation for development can prevent the application of simplistic solutions and provide nuanced judgments, while enhancing understanding of both the monitoring data and the many influences on sustainable, durable development.
Third, good evaluation for development allows for the consideration of concepts and practical matters from multiple perspectives and sources of evidence in order to both empower and speak truth to power. It does so with care for the vulnerable and marginalised as well as the durability of the ideas and impacts generated, and with attention to often neglected issues such as underlying values, contexts and cultures, power asymmetries, and assumptions that influence development initiatives.
Evaluation in its deepest essence remains true to the cliché that it gives essential support to efforts to make the world a better place.
We should just understand and clearly demonstrate exactly how, and how much.
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.