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Africa Evaluation Blog: Perceptions of an evaluation student in Africa


Nombeko Mbava

Posted 6 months ago

My interest in evaluation is sparked - I did not initially consider evaluation as a career. Having worked in the private sector for more than a decade, I became increasingly disillusioned. My main work was, in my perception, contributing primarily to shareholder value and the profit motive that underlies the private sector, with little or no apparent societal benefit.

With a desire to serve and contribute to something bigger and far more meaningful, I found myself heading the Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation Unit of a key public entity in South Africa – an exhilarating role which I took in my stride and enjoyed tremendously for the greater part of five years. As I immersed myself in the role, I found that the monitoring of programme performance was an intuitive exercise that could be perfected as long as the requisite programme monitoring and related processes were gradually embedded in organisational systems.

During this time, the embedding of the Government Wide Monitoring and Evaluation System (GWMES) in South Africa accelerated within the public sector with the establishment of the (then) Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME). This resulted in the mainstreaming of systematic programme evaluation in the South African public sector. It soon became apparent that the demand for programme evaluation will surge.

As a result of these factors, public sector managers such as myself found themselves having to plan for the commissioning of systematic programme evaluations and impact assessments in line with accountability and transparency demands.

Whilst there were emergent public sector evaluation standards and techniques, programme evaluation was new and unfamiliar territory. I soon realised that the biggest challenge facing M&E in South Africa was the need to increase the capacity and capability of public sector managers with respect to the evaluation of strategic government programmes. Stimulated by this emerging field, I committed to empowering myself intellectually to be part of the development and formulations of M&E approaches and methods suitable for a South African developmental state.

A student of evaluation in Africa

Having now embarked on doctoral studies in evaluation, I find the field to be intellectually stimulating, with robust and divergent views as to what evaluation is, how it should be conducted, what constitutes evidence and how the results of evaluation impact policy-making. Although these debates are largely informed and defined by theorists in the Global North, they are instructive for evaluators on the African continent, as they highlight current trends in evaluation thinking and practice worldwide.

Source: Media Club South Africa. Photographer: Jeff Barbee

Evaluation in Africa is still emergent, and methods and practices are largely drawn from the countries in the Global North. It is well known that evaluations in the Global South are largely informed by the adoption of methodologies emanating from North American and Western European traditions. To a large extent, international development aid agencies facilitated the entry of evaluation methods and practices into the continent. Yet as evaluators in Africa we should give thought to how we want to define the field in our specific context. Evaluators in Africa are an important constituency within the global evaluation community. They have a duty to make their voices heard.

It is incumbent upon us as African evaluators – informed by practice and our own contextual conditions – to consider how we can adapt these methods to our uniquely African context. We can draw on international experiences and keep abreast of current trends and developments in the field, but I am of the firm view that we have a role and contribution in leading and defining thought leadership on what evaluation looks like in our context.

This demands enhanced intellectual leadership on our part in defining appropriate methodologies and approaches that enhance and push the boundaries of knowledge, and contribute towards enhanced theory building. Indeed, as evaluators in Africa we are compelled to make this critical contribution. It is our duty to lead intellectually and demonstrate to the global evaluation community at large that, while the field is growing in

Africa, new and adapted theories, methodological approaches and evaluation standards that are unique to the continent are equally on the rise.

The African continent is very diverse – in terms of culture, language, people and politics. Defining evaluation in an African context offers an incredible opportunity to make our voices heard, and to proceed to build a certain brand equity on “Made in Africa Evaluation”. This will leave an indelible lasting legacy in the field.

Emerging as a new Evaluator in Africa

I have found my journey in studying and deepening my understanding of evaluation immensely fulfilling and intellectually stimulating. Having immersed myself in this field for a number of years, I am emerging as a new evaluator. I am also aware that I am emerging as a new evaluator in an uncertain environment, particularly in the South African context.

As in many other countries, South Africa is contemplating the idea of having agreed upon professional competencies as well as evaluation and ethical standards on evaluation. This is largely informed by the notion that essentially ‘anyone’ – regardless of professional competencies – could be an evaluator. This has implications for the quality of evaluations produced by South African evaluators, and the reliance placed upon them by policy-makers.

The notion of ‘professionalisation’ and its long-term implications, which still needs to be properly understood, has become quite contentious in South Africa. Whilst this is still contemplated as we go into the future, I am of the firm view that South Africa should strengthen the competencies of evaluators in the country through education and training and other capacity building initiatives, as driven and led by the South African Monitoring and Evaluation Association(SAMEA).

In line with these aims, we should have a clearly defined set of standards for ‘quality evaluations’. We should also have a set of ethical considerations for evaluators. By embedding these basic foundational pillars, we can have a certain level of comfort that conducted evaluations will meet the requisite standards, and that they will be conducted in an ethical manner. It will result in evaluation findings that are meaningful, have utility value and aid in policy-making. This will go a long way towards providing assurance to policy-makers.

As a stakeholder in the definition and entrenchment of evaluation in the African landscape, I am more than optimistic that the future of evaluation in Africa is highly promising. Now more than ever, as the community of practice of African evaluators, we have an unprecedented opportunity to purposefully and deliberately inform evaluation theory building and practice through the African ‘lens’ and define for ourselves what “Made in Africa” evaluation really looks like.

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