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Africa Evaluation Blog: Why it is time to make evaluation more relevant for Africa – The need for an Africa-rooted Evaluation Paradigm


Fanie Cloete

Posted 1 month ago

Recognising the distinct African Context - At the end of last year I participated in the 2015 AEA Conference in Chicago on Exemplary Evaluations. As is always the case with these events, this one was a fascinating experience too, and very topical for Africa.

In support of the current AfrEA initiative to promote a more contextualised Africa-rooted evaluation approach, I would like to share the following thoughts with the various evaluation communities in Africa and would be very interested in the possible responses.
It is generally accepted that ‘context matters’ in evaluation. This was the theme of the 2013 AEA Conference in Washington DC. Although the so-called ‘Western evaluation paradigm’ recognises different cultural differences that need to be taken into account in evaluation activities, this is frequently only at the rhetorical level.

There is a growing concern emerging among especially non-western evaluators (but also growing among evaluators in western societies) that many evaluation approaches developed in Western societal contexts and predominantly based on highly developed western values, assumptions and practices, are not always appropriate in culturally and developmentally different contexts but still prevail by default.

Western influences on Evaluation in Africa

The history of evaluation in Africa is such a case in point. As happened in many other sectors, the practice of systematic evaluation was firstly imported into Africa from North America and Western Europe through the colonial occupation of Africa by Western European powers during the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century, which brought the latest knowledge and practices especially from Britain and France to the African states colonised by those powers.

These colonial influences did not end with the independence of most African states between the 1960s and 1980s, but expanded after independence in those states as a result of the continued economic and political reliance of those states for a variety of reasons on their former colonial rulers for development assistance and support. Political and economic independence were in many cases mostly on paper, rather than real substantive political independence. These continued colonial influences also included the systematic evaluation of development assistance programmes.

This Western colonialist legacy is secondly reinforced by the fact that the current dominant global evaluation approaches, theories and practices largely originated in the USA, Canada and Britain, and to a lesser extent on the rest of the Western European continent (Mouton, Rabie, De Coning & Cloete 2014: chapter 2).

This is illustrated by the current most influential global evaluation scholars like Scriven, House, Stake, Weiss, Rossi & Freeman, Lipsey, Stufflebeam, Patton, Greene, Mertens, Fetterman, etc). Their ideas and approaches are still the staple diets in the training of professional evaluation scholars and practitioners across the world, including in Africa.

These dominating Western influences are thirdly in turn reinforced by current international development assistance agencies like the UNDP, the World Bank, IMF, the African Development Bank and other international as well as national development agencies like those of the European Union, the OECD, DFID, USAID, IDRC, CIDA, SIDA, GIZ and numerous others, all largely based on prevailing Western paradigms.

They are therefore reinforced by highly influential evaluation practitioners in international agencies like Bamberger, Rist, Picciotto, Rugh, Segone and others who have come through the Western academic evaluation ranks summarised above, and directly influenced professional evaluation practices and systems in the above-mentioned international development agencies.

These mental models and practices are transferred to Africa via the requirements of development aid agreements which normally prescribe the involvement of existing approaches, practices and even evaluation practitioners and consultancies from the donor countries or agencies concerned.

Development assistance is not always readily available from non-western sources, although the current involvement of China in Africa has opened up a new source of such assistance. It is only recently that more independent African voices articulating different routes to develop more explicit African approaches and practices in evaluation, have started to gain tract.

The need for African-rooted evaluation

The most influential argument is that current Western evaluation paradigms are not always optimal in Africa and needs to be contextualised to be more suitable to African conditions, cultures and institutions. In this process the prevailing African ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies have to be infused in a more holistic transdisciplinary manner into the application of systematic programme evaluation on the continent (Chilisa and Malunga in the Bellagio Report 2013).

Chilisa and Malunga state that there is a need for African transformation of current Western evaluation culture and practices in order to decolonize and indigenize evaluation “…to recognize the adaptation of the accumulated Western theory and practice on evaluation to serve the needs of Africans”. A second change that is needed is “…the development of a “’..relational evaluation branch’ (of the evaluation tree that) … draws from the concept of ‘wellness’ as personified in African greetings and the southern African concept of ‘I am because we are’. The wellness reflected in the relationship between people extends also to non-living things, emphasizing that evaluation from an African perspective should include a holistic approach that links an intervention to the sustainability of the ecosystem and environment around it”.

For evaluation to be ‘rooted’ in Africa it should according to the authors for example include an analysis of the intervention’s contribution towards community wellness, and balance both Western and African priorities and indicators. AfrEA has also already started to prioritise such a project.

The content of an African-rooted approach to evaluation

However, a crucial question is to what extent this implies a totally new ‘African’ evaluation approach or paradigm that can be regarded as different from so-called ‘Western’ evaluation paradigms? Is it therefore possible to identify a uniquely different evaluation paradigm for Africa or are the prevailing ‘western’ evaluation approaches largely culturally or contextually generic and only needs fine-tuning or slight adaptations to different conditions in different regions? Can one identify for that matter a totally different Asian or Maori or Indigenous Native American evaluation paradigm?

The questions what changes should be brought about to the prevailing ‘western’ model of evaluation to be more appropriate in Africa and how possible differences should be dealt with, are still unanswered. Chilisa and Malunga as well as the seminal Bellagio Report have thrown out a number of tantalizing ideas of what needs to happen, and it seems to be the right time for African evaluators to engage in discussions and sharing of views on this issue in order to try to reach a general consensus (if that proves to be possible) about what should change (if anything), to make evaluation in Africa more relevant, appropriate and internationally more competitive.

My next few follow-up blogs will attempt to provide some direction to answer some of these as well as related questions and will suggest the outlines of a possible road map to get more clarity on these important issues for potentially improved evaluations in Africa.

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