In our region, Latin America and the Caribbean, participatory evaluation is the heir of some rich traditions which include the systematisation of experiences, popular education and participatory action-research. These examples share some reference points but are also characterised by their own nuances and differences. However, a common thread, relevant here, is a liberating and transformative way of viewing reality which significantly contributes to sustaining and legitimising these initiatives.
Therefore, in order to distance participatory evaluation from purely “technical” visions, it is legitimate to insist that it is more than possible to carry out participatory evaluation without “participatory techniques”. Their absence could even be considered positive if when we use them, we are really only trying to find “fun” alternative ways of imparting content or if we are only pretending to gain the perspective of local stakeholders.
I am obviously excluding from this analysis “participatory” approaches which normalise poverty and oppression and insist on merely acting within the boundaries of what “is possible”. In these cases, it is deplorable to think that these entertaining techniques are being used in a manipulative fashion to make people endure processes imposed by external needs. In this case, the distribution of power normally fostered by participation is therefore devalued.
It is therefore important to see participatory evaluation as more than just a set of techniques, workshops or games for the consumption of the most vulnerable and excluded groups. Nor is it a valid response to view them as “second-class” evaluations for situations where a “first-class” evaluation is not possible.
While the techniques, workshops and games are not the heart and soul of the participatory evaluation in and of themselves, they are key and very relevant in participatory processes as they allow us to venture to “create together”. In the participation context, this includes throwing your whole self into the didactic activity (not just your thoughts); creating exchanges which deepen individual and mutual knowledge; handing back the leading role to the true protagonists and making debates functional; and facilitating trust and fun ways of learning. All of this reflects, and will have repercussions on, the desired transformational direction.
Often, the techniques allow us to distance ourselves somewhat from the object of analysis so that we can view it from different perspectives and by doing so, overcome conventional wisdom by taking a critical approach.
As educator Freire once said: “the best way to draw nearer is to distance oneself from the theoretical perspective of knowledge”. And if we are to help overcome conventional wisdom using techniques which contribute humour, irony, drama, surprise and collective analysis, we will facilitate knowledge production in the evaluative context.
All these considerations are valid for popular education, participatory action-research and participatory evaluation. Therefore, we should keep thinking both generally and specifically, about both the macro and the more detailed points, as this will enable us to draw nearer to these closely related disciplines and rely on them for dialogue and growth.
Pablo Rodríguez Bilella | Researcher at CONICET–UNSJ, co-director of the Social and Environmental Labour Studies Programme (PETAS)