The storylines of evaluation, both what we value and the way we value, are increasingly reflecting global concerns.

Attending the recent National Evaluation Capacities (NEC) Conference in Egypt, I was interested in how storylines present in international development debates were playing out in evaluation. The conference is an especially good place to understand this relationship, as it brings together government evaluation custodians, parliamentarians, the evaluation profession, and development partners (though civil society representation was lacking this time) to discuss how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) intersect with evaluation across multiple people and issues. The discussions at this conference are reflective of broader debates across the globe, focused on themes such as inequality, inequity, climate change, and the role of youth. As the conference looked at the many approaches to tackling these key development challenges, my attention was drawn to how well our evaluation practice was answering the critical question of ‘Who Benefits?”

Previously, I have highlighted how we need to push ourselves in our practices to recognize invisibility in evaluation, questioning the safety of our practice, and  highlighting that our lists need to be updated. These are sub-plots of a bigger story of how evaluation addresses ‘Who Benefits?’

The individual presentations and sessions at the conference revealed a number of persistent obstacles that still need to be overcome: data is not as disaggregated as we may wish, Voluntary National Review of the SDGs have gaps in the way they address gender and inequality, and we are grappling with how we integrate evaluation of human and environmental systems. Taking a step back and looking across a range of topics, however, there are signs institutions and systems are evolving, driven by an acknowledgment of the importance of addressing key questions.

Four areas in particular reveal trends in evaluation that are helpful in answering ‘Who Benefits?’

First, ‘leave no one behind’—an imperative of the SDGs agenda which prioritizes the need to address inequality and inequity—is an issue receiving sustained focus in evaluation. ‘Leave No One Behind’ was the central topic at the recent NEC conference, and a framing question at the upcoming American Evaluation Association 2019 conference. At the NEC Conference, discussion moved beyond repeating a casual slogan to using the principle as a framework for thinking and acting in evaluation, prompting the mapping of guiding principles to inform how evaluation practice is reflective and supportive of leaving no one behind. The principles contain useful reminders about good practices in mapping and sustaining stakeholder engagement, which are question-led and context-sensitive and involve actually going back to the people who provided information as well as working in fragile contexts. 

Second, the new DAC evaluation criteria provide an informed starting point for thinking about equity and gender imperatives within different contexts, rather than as a straitjacket. Within the criteria, the definition of relevance has been strengthened to encourage people to move out of the self-referential logic, and looking beyond  one’s own strategies to actually asking whether something is relevant for the people it is meant to benefit. Meanwhile the definition of Impact now includes reference to gender equality.

Third, we have positive examples of gender being integrated into a range of voluntary national reviews and, specifically, into evaluations of policy. Voluntary national review reports from Ghana, Rwanda, the Central African Republic and Tanzania all addressed gender in some form. In Serbia an evaluation was conducted of gender in policies. In Columbia, an evaluation of the national gender policy was carried out. While gaps and challenges were noted, all presentations highlighted increased reflection on how to evaluate gender related to the SDGs. 

Finally, we are entering a stage where climate change is increasingly integrated into discussion across evaluation agendas and with framings that help us think about how human and natural systems interconnect. Concerns about climate change were present in multiple sessions and not just confined to a ‘stream’. Also, I became aware of new framings that work through the consequences of recognizing interconnections with the plant and animal kingdoms as our non-human relatives. 

Progress is uneven, and we are right to challenge ourselves to do more. But we also need to stop and look across the system and recognize progress. Ten years ago, the issues that I highlight were only starting to feature in evaluation conferences that I attended. Five years ago, these issues were being increasingly explored. Today, we have examples of day-to-day work on understanding ‘Who Benefits?’. The storylines of evaluation, both what we value and the way we value, are increasingly reflecting global concerns. The impetus appears to come from evaluation networks including evaluators of different methodological perspectives as well as ministries, and parliamentarians who jointly take issues forward. The multiple viewpoints of the people responsible for using evaluations provides diversified experience, that supports better reflection on our complex collective story of ensuring that no one is left behind.

Pictured above: Women and children who benefit from a daycare funded by the Productive Safety Nets Program in Arsi. Some of the beneficiaries who will be regular users of the daycare funded under Productive Safety Nets Program (PSNP) in Sire District, Arsi, Ethiopia. Photo: Binyam Teshome / World Bank

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