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Africa Evaluation Blog: Development evaluation for the benefit of the people


Richard Levin

Posted 7 months ago

Good governance, participatory, people-centred democracy and development evaluation are intimately linked. Indeed evaluation cannot be understood outside of “development”, but is an integral part of the development process. While there is an increasing emphasis on the importance of ‘evidence’-informed policy formulation, the methods of gathering evidence often exclude a focus on participatory development evaluation techniques.

This is unfortunate because if we are serious about changing people’s lives and achieving developmental outcomes, we need to connect the policy dots through interdisciplinary research underpinned by participatory as well as other evaluation methods.

Evidence in policy making – whose voice counts?

The importance of this assertion is seen in a recent study by Gilens and Page in the United States, which asked the basic question of whose voice counts when it comes to evidence in policy-making. The study examined public opinion polls on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, and concluded that: “….economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interests have little or no independent influence” (Gilens & Page, 2014). Ernest House has argued that George Bush’s politics influenced a methodological fundamentalism in evaluation focused on ‘evidence’ rooted in quantitative pseudo-scientific randomised trials, through which “Government officials often yearn for certitude in evaluation findings as a way of bolstering their authority” (House, 2003). The importance of people’s voice for development was also once again firmly established in the 2012 study Time to Listen (Anderson et al., 2012). A state-centred as opposed to a people-centred understanding of development is bound to focus on ‘evidence’ that supports particular programmes and interventions, which is invariably in the interests of the state rather than in the public interest. The concept and practice of development has been problematised and criticised in “post-development” literature, which argues that the concept of development manifest in post-World War II Truman doctrine presents the Western world as idealised and hegemonic.

Evaluation: giving voice to the poor

The critique demands a fresh approach to state-people relations and state interventions to support social transformation and development. It recognises that globally, hundreds of millions are marginalised in the context of poverty, social inequality, unemployment and environmental degradation. The role of evaluators engaged in development and development evaluation must include giving voice to the voiceless through participatory techniques that bring new evidence as well as question the entire development enterprise and the social relations that underpin the reproduction of social inequality. Solving the conundrum in post-colonial Africa includes identifying pathways of capital accumulation that go beyond comprador parasitic accumulation from above, and that are characterised by people-driven accumulation from below. Through its interdisciplinary approach, participatory development evaluation can help identify an alternative ‘cultural and economic paradigm’ of development to the Western model of civilisation (Escobar, 2012).

Rethinking development

Indeed the concept of ‘development’ has been contested over the last two decades. Wolfgang Sachs has argued that “development is much more than just a socio-economic endeavor; it is a perception which models reality, a myth which comforts societies, and a fantasy which unleashes passions” (Sachs, 2010). ‘Underdeveloped’ countries must aspire to this passionate illusion. As indicated, the Truman Doctrine inspired this fantasy and in the decades that followed, the state, through massive investment in infrastructure and social welfare, became the epicentre of the development dream. The era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan saw the evolution of a new and more brutal fantasy where the market was seen as a more efficient allocator of resources. The only problem was that the basic principle that “it takes money to play,” was never honestly acknowledged by the enthusiastic advocates of the virtues of free market economics. Against this background, the ‘Washington Consensus’, and its free market policy reforms ushered in the era of neo-liberalism, which witnessed global capitalism through the Bretton Woods institutions embark on a programme of mass restructuring of macro-economic relations across the developing world. Shrink the state, disempower workers, end large projects, support small farmers, end state subsidies everywhere except in the West were amongst the mantras and conditionalities imposed on the wretched of the earth. No one ever thought about asking the world’s poor about what they thought would end their plight until the forces of Western hegemony discovered “Good Governance” and the value and principle of participation and people- centred development. And with this discovery, donor funds were shifted from governments to civil society, as long as Western sanctioned experts were part of “people-centred” solutions. And then the bubble burst. With the onset of the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 and the great recession there was a rude awakening coupled with a realisation that actually the state does have a role to play, albeit in the form of a lean and muscular campaigner. The net effect of this has been a re-legitimisation of state intervention in the economy, without necessarily negating the role of the market. This was illustrated sharply by the Obama administration’s harnessing of cheap natural gas as a critical resource to turn the economy around.

Good governance: the state and people-centred development

What the global recession did demonstrate abundantly was that good governance does not lead to or guarantee development. Neither does it bring about the objective conditions to overcome poverty, social inequality or create jobs. Furthermore, it has become clear that these ‘development challenges’ confront all governments in both the developed North and the Global South. The recession also signified an increasing awareness of the limits of state power and the need to understand the state in relational terms as a synthesising integrator and facilitator of social mobilisation for transformation and development. The increasing significance of evaluation and the role of evaluators in giving voice to the marginalised through participatory development evaluation is another key lesson of the contemporary, complex world in which we live. People-centred development evaluation is part of good governance. It is ethical, puts people first and provides an opportunity to find democratic solutions to development challenges. Inspired by the successes of popular participation across the globe in community health, early childhood development, agriculture, sanitation, asset management and budgeting, there is a growing belief that effective execution is contingent on the capacity of citizens to participate in development implementation and evaluation. This is linked to recognition of the value of people-centred development evaluation methodologies and the belief that effective state action is best facilitated by the evaluation of outcomes and impacts that translate the learning experience into strengthened participatory policy implementation.

Empowered participatory governance

Based on the Porto Alegre participatory budgeting experience, Erik Olin Wright’s general design principles for “empowered participatory governance” (Olin Wright, 2010) include:

  • Bottom up empowered participation through face to face community meetings
  • Pragmatic orientation involving concrete problem solving exercises
  • Deliberative engagement focusing on decision-making processes that facilitate the most appropriate decisions being taken
  • Devolution and decentralisation to ensure that decisions are made at the locus of the problem
  • Recombinant decentralisation that connects local solutions to broader national agendas and supportive muscular central state power, and

Organising countervailing powers by popular mobilisation that reduce the power advantages of the traditional elites. These design principles are part of a general guide, and should not be seen as essential sequential steps. When applied in conjunction with participatory tools such as participatory timeline construction, social change mapping and impact mapping to self-identified community groupings, they provide an alternative approach to top-down traditional public administration approaches, which generally implement policies that suit the bureaucracy’s own working systems and interests. As Esteva et al. argue, “Real social change does not happen as a series of cataclysmic moments associated by great leaders, but through daily transformation conceived and implemented by ordinary people” (Esteva et al., 2013).

Outcomes-based evaluation: changing the way government works

Outcomes-based evaluation more generally, can change the way in which governments work. It brings a focus on priorities. If decisively driven by strong central institutions it may eliminate bureaucratic turf warfare and self-interest and empower citizens to become active participants rather than the objects of development. Critical to unlocking the realisation of this ‘public good’ discourse is the identification of the ‘theory of social change’ which underlies a particular outcome, and pinpointing, prioritising and sequencing the building blocks to achieve the intended result.

Building human capabilities and managing complexity

Building the human capabilities to achieve this requires multifaceted interventions within the state and civil society. Public Services as vehicles for broader social transformation require public servants to understand complexity. In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber analysed the “general dilemmas of planning” which are hamstrung because social policy problems are essentially “wicked” (Ritter & Webber, 1973). This is because these problems are difficult or impossible to solve due to incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. Complex interdependencies mean that efforts to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may cause the emergence or expose the existence of other problems. States often seek a narrow policy solution to societal problems – perhaps due to the inward looking character of governments and bureaucracies that have their own interests at heart, or from fiscal constraints which limit the desirable solutions. The growing complexity of modern contemporary society with multiple dimensions of causality emphasises the significance of participatory development evaluation as a key component of good governance that provides opportunities for democratic solutions to societal challenges. In conjunction with rapid appraisal, real-time evaluation, performance monitoring and appropriate quantitative methods, participatory development evaluation produces real policy options for government to consider alongside the “scientific”, “evidence- based methodological fundamentalism of randomised experimentation”. The recently documented Participatory Impact Assessment & Learning Approach (PIALA) is a welcome recent addition to the toolbox of methodologies available for this purpose. Effective planning is also contingent on the capacity of, and space for people to participate in development implementation and evaluation. Popular participation is not a technical requirement for good governance; it entails social mobilisation to build human capabilities for bottom-up developmental solutions.

State-society relations: mobilising communities for development interventions

State-society relations must facilitate the emergence of an encompassing vision for the future around which popular support can be mobilised. State-society relations must support community capabilities to develop strategies to create material conditions for sustainable livelihoods and entrepreneurship. The alternative to harnessing the legitimate anger of the marginalised into positive energy for change, is a cynical national bourgeoisie dancing in the footprint of the forces of monopoly capital and the reactionary political regimes it props up.


Anderson, M. B., D. Brown and I. Jean, Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 2012

Escobar, A., Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, Princeton and Oxford, (2012 Edition, Preface: xxiv)

Esteva, G., S. Babones and P. Babcicky, The Future of Development: A radical manifesto, Policy Press, University of Bristol, (2013: Preface).

Gilens, M., and B. I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics Vol. 12 (3), September 2014

House, E., “Bush’s Neo-Fundamentalism and the New Politics of Evaluation,” Studies in Policy and Educational Philosophy, E-tidskrift (2003:2)

Olin Wright, E., Envisioning Real Utopias, Verso (2010)

Ritter, H., and M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences, 4 (1973) 155-169

Sachs, W., The Development Dictionary – a guide to knowledge as power, Zed Books, Second Edition (2010) Guijt, I. and A. van Hemelrijck, Balancing Inclusiveness, Rigour and Feasibility: Insights from Participatory Impact Evaluations in Ghana and Vietnam. CDI Practice Paper, Centre for Development Impact (CDI), Institute for Development Studies (IDS), Brighton, February 2016

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