The idea of development as a practice which is embedded in a community is an interesting one. There is growing interest in the concept of learning communities, communities which are empowered to chart their own pathways of change. Rather than ‘development practitioners’ ‘treating’ groups of people, and then measuring the effects, this realm of development practice is really about all agents fully participating in change creation. This has strong implications for sustainability.
What is participatory evaluation?
Participatory evaluation refers to an evaluation approach where all stakeholders and beneficiaries participate in determining the evaluation design, the data processes and use of information or all of the above.
By placing the emphasis on participation, it is important, when utilising this approach to be clear on the intention of the evaluation. As for any evaluation, the aim is to understand what the primary users of the valuation seek to know, and how information can be obtained which is useful to them. In participatory evaluation, the principle is the same, only the primary users of the evaluation are also the evaluations beneficiaries. Thus, what you are effectively doing is listening, as your evaluation process aids communities to develop systematic ways of thinking about how to effectively being about their own change, providing them with the tools to define their version of ‘learning community’.
Methods used in participatory evaluation
Participatory evaluation can use a number of methods uses in other evaluation contexts, and the choice of methods will depend on the intentions as stated by the primary users. Through this, by understanding their intention in conducting the evaluation, you will be in a good position to determine the best tools for the job.
Commonly used methods include story-telling, needs analysis (problem trees and ‘so-that’ TOC formulations), self-assessment and the assessment of other stakeholders on the programme. Even though participatory evaluation may be more discursive than other forms of evaluation (uniqueness of time relative to circumstance, and change may be related to discrete events), it is important to think of how tools used, and paradigms created can be help by the community for their future use.
Advantages of participatory evaluation
Participatory evaluation, as it is co-designed by participants from within the community is naturally more relevant to reality, as are the research questions. Thus, there is far lower risk of it not being used.
Also, the process of conducting the evaluation is in itself developmental and encourages communities to think meaningfully about strategy and change. Through this, developmental evaluation can be truly empowering and can equip people with new skills. This process of discovery can also be great for enhancing social cohesion as individuals articulate their role and place in a team committed to creating social change.
Participatory evaluation is considered pragmatic as the data, method of collecting it, and the story it stands to tell is more relevant by virtue of the fact that those closest to the change define all these things.
Difficulties of participatory evaluation
In general, participatory evaluation speaks to small, unsystematic and largely subjective data. Thus, it can be difficult to make broad statements about what worked, and how to leverage change. Also, if this is facilitated, there can be a lack of consideration of context. Development practitioners may unwittingly bring in methods and approaches which simply do not fit with the system of values of certain communities.
Considerations and Recommendations
There can be no doubt that including beneficiaries in an evaluation as active participants is more ethical than merely analysing human units, and participatory approaches can be rich and relevant far beyond methods which lend themselves to statistical certainty.
However, knowing the community is key. Understanding their purpose in conducting the evaluation and knowing their priorities lie is important before the initial facilitation takes place. Remember even definitions of concepts like ‘empowerment’ and ‘improvement’ differ in different contexts. Rather than bringing in defined metrics, participatory approaches should assist communities to define for themselves what good looks like.
Image Credit: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) CARE-CCAFS in Gender & Participatory Research in Ghana