In August 2023, the Global Change Center published a critical report that highlights the many ways evaluation policies within the development sector can perpetuate global inequalities. The report informs us that inequalities are being “proactively and subtly – reinforced by institutional day-to-day decisions regarding how evaluations are designed, funded, commissioned and disseminated worldwide.” Government resources for women, girls, trans people, and intersex people’s human rights are not delivered to civil society organisations based solely on a principled understanding that human rights and social justice need to be resourced. Over the past fifteen years, government funders increasingly want their funding to be assessed based on reported results. They frame evaluations and assessments as mechanisms that will ensure that their “return on investments” are being met and can be justified through metrics.
Under this logic of donor aid, organisations that are receiving funding must evaluate their work continuously. Many civil society organisations track results annually and conduct evaluations that are often scheduled at the beginning, middle and end of a funding cycle. The principles and requirements of many of these evaluations are more often than not determined by the donor rather than the organisations receiving funding. In a historical and ongoing global context where aid flows from the Global North to the Global South, having the donor determine what counts as success perpetuates existing inequalities. In recognition that power and evaluation are inextricably connected, the report by the Global Change Center specifies the interconnected ways in which evaluation policies reinforce existing inequalities:
1. Policies ubiquitously center Global North principles and standards
These principles and standards are rarely questioned as being culturally specific and reflective of a particular regional and historical context. This leads to a situation where Global-North-centric norms for understanding and assessing social change become a global standard to which civil society organisations in the Global South must conform.
2. Policies influence how evaluators are hired
Recruitment practices systematically favour Global North evaluators, who are assumed to be more familiar with Global North standards of evaluations. When the expertise of Global South-based evaluators is considered, their role is often as individuals responsible for data collection rather than in defining the evaluation strategy. Excluding Global South practitioners weakens evaluations by failing to include, as the report accurately states: “creative, indigenous, and locally relevant ways of evaluating social change.”
3. Global North donors often privilege quantitative and linear methodologies
Evaluation methodologies that assume that social change happens through a series of progressive steps can miss important pieces of information that help to understand how local contexts affect programmatic and project outcomes. Furthermore, numbers alone do not properly capture the lived experiences from a diverse range of stakeholders whose perspectives can highlight the complex ways change occurs.
4. Evaluation reports are not always easily accessible to those who want to learn from them
As the report highlights, donors often control how data and findings are shared with audiences. When – and if – reports are shared, overly technical language prevents individuals from understanding the key lessons learned. As the report rightly states, these exclusionary practices of knowledge sharing “disproportionately impacts Global South evaluators, locals and communities.”
While prevailing evaluation policies and practices perpetuate inequalities, feminist evaluators commit to equitable evaluations that centre on participatory approaches. These evaluations are usually conducted through in-person and virtual workshops, as well as sessions where participants are given the opportunity to review the key findings and results. These activities can generate an understanding of the opportunities, challenges, and context in which civil society organisations are seeking to create meaningful change. Evaluations can thus engender moments of critical reflection, celebration, and to strategize the next phase of a particular project, creating a sense of ownership for those involved. When the outcomes of these processes are shared widely in accessible formats with stakeholders, evaluations can support collective learning.
Feminist evaluators connect these more equitable evaluation practices with feminist research methodologies. These methodologies, thanks to the contribution of black feminists, take an intersectional perspective that considers how a person’s identitie(s) and experience shape their engagements in the evaluation processes. How information is collected, received, interpreted, analysed, and the types of knowledge generated through an evaluation are determined by one’s social position and power. It is, therefore, critical to have representation and participation in evaluation. On a more positive note, survey results from the Global Change Center’s research show an increasing trend toward gender and racial diversity in evaluation teams involved in assessing international donor aid.
The report reinforces the need to shift power in partnerships between Global North and South organisations to ensure that Global South actors’ knowledge and experiences are firmly centred on decisions over resources. Mama Cash and Red Umbrella Fund are two global participatory grantmakers located in the Global North that were featured in the report. Both organisations support feminist activists and movements globally through participatory approaches that honour their wisdom and experiences – including how they define what is valued and what counts as success. The findings from the report capture how both organisations are shifting the power dynamics of partnerships while offering valuable insights that will further strengthen how they evaluate their collective work.
This blog is written by
Julia Bailey, Mama Cash and Alexis Wilson Briggs, Red Umbrella Fund