Why participatory evaluation is crucial to accountability

Data, Monitoring & Evaluation

“NGO monitoring and evaluation processes are not neutral. They can work to maintain or challenge traditional power hierarchies … Project managers must consider how the evaluation methods they use could perpetuate unequal power dynamics.”

There are lots of buzzwords in the development sphere. ‘Participatory evaluation’ might sound like one of them. Just another piece of jargon employed in NGO monitoring and evaluation for the purpose of virtue-signalling.

However, the concept of participatory evaluation is much more than a buzzword. It’s an important element in discussions about accountability. It also reflects a broader shift within the development sector away from assumptions of Western superiority.

There are lots of reasons to employ participatory approaches into monitoring and evaluation. Before we discuss them, we need to deconstruct some assumptions embedded within the industry. We also need to rethink how we talk about accountability.

Deconstructing assumptions in development


To understand why participatory evaluation is more than just a buzzword, we need to place it in the context of this broader shift within development. People across the sector are questioning the very notion of ‘development’. Certainly, it’s important to understand why.

‘Development’ has historically been underpinned by an assumption that the Western/Global North/Developed countries have a responsibility to help the East/Global South/Developing countries ‘develop’. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with one country helping a neighbouring country, this model perpetuates power hierarchies. 

These power hierarchies are much broader than in the aid sector. Notions of Western superiority permeate all aspects of life. As a result, the Western way of life has been held up as the “right” one – something to which everyone should aspire.

This is not right. 

Assumptions of Western superiority have shaped the aid industry in profound ways.” 

Characterised by one-directional flows of assistance and problematic binaries – think Global North/Global South, West/East, Developed/Developing – the current model assumes the West/Global North ‘knows best’.  This allows more powerful actors not only to set development agendas for less powerful actors, but also to exploit them. As a result, ‘developed’ countries have used their position of power to take advantage of so-called ‘developing’ countries, halting progress for gain and dictating circumstances. 

It’s not hard to see why this is problematic. 

As a result, there has been a push towards more globalised conceptions of aid. Rejecting Western superiority and deconstructing dualistic terms like ‘development’ and ‘developed/developing are part of this push. The sector is beginning to see that inequalities are prevalent everywhere, not just in ‘developing’ countries. 

Deconstructing these harmful narratives involves consideration of how this unidirectional flow of aid has shaped the way the sector thinks about accountability.


Who is the development sector accountable to?


In the development space, the word ‘accountability’ is typically used in the context of donors. 

Is the donor getting value for money? Are the project activities both effective and cost-effective? How is this demonstrated?

These are all legitimate questions relating to accountability.

However, as a result, the sector often overlooks accountability to a different group. Stakeholders – the individuals and communities these projects are supposed to benefit. Those at the intersection of gender, sexuality and class are even more likely to be overlooked under these models.

Accountability mechanisms that privilege donors can turn into compliance rituals that fail to critically engage with the realities in the field. Consequently, a new conception of accountability is therefore needed: one that centres the experiences, needs and voices of stakeholders, particularly those at the intersections of gender and class, and works to challenge existing power structures.

Incorporating participatory approaches into NGO monitoring and evaluation is a practical step development practitioners can take to destabilise power hierarchies.


What is a participatory approach to NGO monitoring and evaluation?


Within the project cycle, monitoring and evaluation are tools that reveal the degree to which a project has achieved its intended outcomes. Monitoring and evaluation play very different roles in the project cycle. However, Western agendas have historically driven both of these processes.

Participatory evaluation disrupts this model by centring the voices of stakeholders. It involves reframing ‘beneficiaries’ as active agents within the project cycle and giving them the power to make decisions about the project and how it affects them.

Ideally, participation and stakeholder engagement should be a key component of all stages of the project cycle. However, this article will focus on how to incorporate it into evaluation specifically.

It’s also important to note that evaluation processes are not neutral. They can work to maintain or challenge traditional power hierarchies, such as the traditional ‘‘developed/developing’ power dynamics or others inherent to the old model, such as hierarchies relating to sexuality and gender. 

Project managers must consider how the monitoring and evaluation methods they use could perpetuate unequal power dynamics.

From evaluation design and data collection to analysis and reporting, stakeholder participation can be incorporated at any stage of the evaluation process. However, there is a range of challenges that come with involving stakeholders in the evaluation process. As a result, consideration must be given to why and how stakeholders are included. 

As Irene Gurjit notes in a Better Evaluation article: 

“The benefits of participation in impact evaluation are neither automatic nor guaranteed. Commissioning such approaches means committing to the implications for timing, resources and focus. Facilitation skills are essential to ensuring a good quality process, which in turn may require additional resources for building capacity.”

These challenges, however, are not excuses to neglect stakeholder participation. Consequently, it simply means project managers must consider how to best make use of the resources available to them. 


Participatory NGO monitoring and evaluation and accountability


Participatory approaches to evaluation are often not simple.

They may conflict with the agendas of donors. Donors tend to prioritise cost-effective solutions that produce results quickly. Participatory approaches usually require additional resources, money and time. Moreover, they also require practitioners to consider how their evaluation methods reinforce unequal power dynamics.

Building stakeholder participation into evaluation can help practitioners expand notions of accountability to include a responsibility to stakeholders. Practitioners should focus on those at the intersections of gender and class. As a result, this can help destabilise power structures and assumptions of western superiority inherent to historical modes of development.

If you want to learn more about participatory evaluation, check out our expert M&E consulting service here.

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