Thursday, August 17, 2006

Cultural Competence of Evaluators

Hazel Symonette from the University of Wisconsin recently visited South Africa and presented M&E workshops in collaboration with the South African Monitoring and Evaluation Association. Unfortunately my diary did not allow me to attend any of the workshops, but I was lucky enough to have some interaction with her on an informal basis. This made me think about cultural competence required by evaluators. Look, we are long past the positivistic view where an evaluator was believed to be the expert able to look at behaviour and responses of people and categorise it objectively. What Hazel’s visit reinforced for me was the fact that cultural competence and identifying the lenses through which we look is extremely important if we want to do a good job as an evaluator.

This morning I read an article in the paper about learners in Mpumalanga schools:

'Teachers are bewitching us' 2006-08-16 19:07:56

There appears to be a growing tendency among Mpumalanga school pupils to accuse their teachers of witchcraft and then start a riot or boycott class. Nelspruit - There's a growing tendency among Mpumalanga school pupils to accuse their teachers of witchcraft and then start a riot or boycott class. Pupils at four schools have rioted in separate incidents since March, said provincial education spokesperson Hlahla Ngwenya on Wednesday. The latest incident happened on Monday when pupils at Mambane secondary school in Nkomazi, south of Malelane, refused to attend classes after allegations that teachers were bewitching them. The pupils returned to class on Tuesday. "Our preliminary reports indicate that the pupils protested after some of their peers died in succession over a short period," said Ngwenya. "They seem to believe this was the doing of their teachers." He said the department was investigating the incident and that pupils found guilty of instigating the boycott faced expulsion.

Imagine I was an evaluator in that community, working with the schools on the evaluation of some whole school development initiative. From my Westernised perspective witchcraft is just silly, and people believing in witchcraft are obviously mistaking one issue for another. Do I have the competence to be the evaluator in such a situation? How valid would my conclusions have been if I was in that situation?

I would probably have searched for alternative explanations, or more culturally acceptable explanations – I.e. There is obviously a problem in the relationship between the educators and the learners. It also seems that there are a range of very unfortunate circumstances (possibly a problem with HIV/AIDS?) in that community that needs attention. Just because I don’t accept their explanation and choose to come up with other explanations that are more culturally acceptable in my frame of reference (and probably in the frame of reference from which the programme donors come), does that mean it is the correct answer? Isn’t there maybe something beyond my perspective?

In my time as an evaluator I have come across a couple of other similarly absurd sets of behaviours – Teachers that toyi-toyi about catering whilst being on a government sponsored training session. Project beneficiaries refusing to disclose their names during interviews about an NGO’s performance. Clients being scared of saying anything out of fear that they might experience negative circumstances. Maybe these “absurdities”, when I recognize them, is a cue that I am out of my league?

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