Monday, May 30, 2011

Values and Evaluation

The AEA’s Annual Conference (Wednesday, November 2, through Saturday, November 5, 2011 in Anaheim, California) will focus on Values. eVALUation was also the topic of the last SAMEA conference in 2009.

Jennifer Greene says about this theme:

Like culture, evaluation is inherently imbued with values. Our work as evaluators intrinsically involves the process of valuing, as our charge is to make judgments about the “goodness” or the quality, merit or worth of a program. Judgments rest on criteria, which in turn reflect priorities and beliefs about what is most important. At Evaluation 2011, I would like us to take up the challenges of values and valuing in evaluation, particularly the plurality of values represented by different evaluation purposes and audiences, key evaluation questions, and quality criteria. I anticipate that greater attention to and openness in the value dimensions of our work can improve our practice, offer voice to diverse stakeholder interests, and enhance our capacity to make a difference in society.

Last week, as we celebrated Africa Day, I thought a little about what it means to be an African. This was my FB status update for the day:

I dream in a language that grew up on the African continent, my forebears shed blood, sweat and tears to help tame the land that is my home, and the spirit of Ubuntu directs my choices. In the words of Mbeki: “I am an African”.

This made me think about the philosophy of Ubuntu and how it translates into values which affect my dealings as an evaluator. Ubuntu means “I am what I am because of who we all are”

The Arch, Desmond Tutu, explained it so:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity. 

There is a Zulu saying: “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which means:  a person is a person through (other) persons” which is very different from “Cogito ergu sum” or "I think, therefore I am".  

I could immediately think of five implications that Ubuntu has for evaluators:

  • You need to be very aware of your role and the role of others as representatives of a bigger collective. Mutual respect is of the utmost importance. This “respect” will affect the way in which you ask questions, and you must interpret people’s answers in this context. Do not be surprised if you have to go to great lengths to get people to provide constructive criticism.  
  • When you share evaluation feedback, affirmation is very important. When you share negative findings, it must never be humiliating for an individual or a group of people.
  • As an evaluator, you are part of the bigger picture. You have an important role to play in a system of interconnected people, organizations and stories. If you try to be the “know-it-all external evaluation specialist” you will hit a wall. Listening and conversing, allowing people to participate in the meaning creation process, is essential.
  • There are many opportunities for “being generous”: If you evaluate a community based organization that takes time to answer your questions and provide you with some of their truly South-African hospitality, you might as well provide something in return. Writing up the evaluation findings in a form that they (not only the donor) can understand and use is one way. Sharing some of your technical knowledge (e.g. how to organize data, where to find a budget template, contact details of other people who work in the same field and could assist) is another way. Sometimes you might even share your evaluation tools and templates with people who did not pay for this “intellectual property”.
  • You have a responsibility to give back. Taking an inexperienced evaluator under your wing or volunteering your time for a good cause shows that you recognize you are where you are because others were willing to share with you. It is not uncommon for people who stay in abject poverty to share the little that they have with each other. Those who have more, probably have a responsibility to share more.

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