How Are Participating Stakeholders Empowered in a Participatory Evaluation?

by Emma Rotondo (*)

In this contribution to EvalParticipativa I will describe the characteristics of the empowerment of multiple stakeholders during participatory evaluations. But first I should clarify what I understand by participatory evaluation (PE).

PE evaluation involves the participation of the parties interested in a programme, project or policy. On the basis of valuing local knowledge and wisdom, it seeks to generate learning about the changes in order to empower people and social groups to make decisions and to strengthen their capacity.

There are three basic elements common to all participatory evaluation processes: (i) a transformative approach, that is, a proposal to produce social and political change; (ii) a joint or associated work between different stakeholders; and (iii) social learning and use of the outcomes of an evaluation. In this context, what is understood by empowerment of stakeholders in a PE process is the broadening of both individual and collective capacity (or faculties) to act; the provision of tools for reflection, dialogue and co-building; and the generation of knowledge to learn socially, all of this with the intent to use the evaluation and transform their environment.

It is important to mention that the roots of the concept of stakeholder empowerment lie in the social participation processes known as “the emancipatory paradigm” that took place in Latin America during the sixties. Under this paradigm the practices had a clear political and transformative intent since they strengthened the capacities for their own development.  PE, which began shortly after, was applied to and associated with various stages of the project cycle and gained great importance in relation with participatory rural diagnoses and their variants.  The roots or origins of PE are not exclusive to Latin America; in fact, there are several precedents on a global scale, such as democratic evaluation, horizontal evaluation, empowerment, collaborative evaluation, utilisation-focused evaluation, pluralism, etc. All of these approaches introduce notions of negotiation, collaboration, empowerment, pluralism in processes and the production of knowledge by the audience. In other words, control lies in the hands of the stakeholders throughout the entire process.

As previously stated, empowerment has a purpose, it is conceived as processes for learning to reflect in order to act and produce change. Not only critical reflexion is valued but also creativity, leadership and other necessary personal and group conditions. A great value is placed on the people’s experience and their capacity for building and conducting proposals for change, for improving their local reality and for developing and managing their own information in the context of a project, a programme or a policy. By developing participatory evaluation processes, groups and communities are empowered on a psychological, a social and a political level with the aim of taking greater control over their own lives and of reflecting on which course to follow, in essence, using evidence to assess options to act upon. Simply put, empowerment is about learning to choose in order to act collectively.

Incidentally, all of this implies organisational changes in the development initiatives, whether they are projects or programs, who switch from offering solutions to facilitating processes that enable options to originate within the communities and grassroots organisations. This means strengthening local decision-making, management and administrative capacity by creating spaces where people, groups and institutions can reflect and communicate using information aimed at improving their practices and quality of life. The idea is that external stakeholders should act as facilitators and provide guidance in the processes of design, data collection, analysis and use of information so that local stakeholders develop their own potential. For this reason, PE uses tools and strategies that are formative and constructivist of knowledge (rather than extractive of information) in order to achieve collective construction of knowledge.

In evaluation practice, this approach represents an essential change. As we know, evaluation was initially vertical and centred around an external evaluator’s judgement, whereas PE is based on collaborative learning and wisdom dialogues to understand, synthesise and theorise from multiple perspectives in specific contexts. Thus, the quality of the relationships or ties and communication becomes a crucial part of a participatory evaluation process. The dialogue processes and the conversations that the evaluator, in their role as facilitator, is able to generate with the organisation, the community or the project team are fundamental. In these spaces for dialogue and collective conversation, an exchange of wisdom, perspectives, experiences and beliefs takes place, in which people speak and listen with an open and respectful attitude. Indeed, the interrelation between different perceptions and interests permits learning. Negotiation and consensus, in turn, generate local capacity, and this all favours empowerment.

By promoting participation through wisdom dialogues and collaborative learning, the aim is to generate in all stakeholders the following capacities and skills, which as a whole, can be described as empowering:

All in all, these abilities are the basis for groups and individuals to develop their own strategies to reach the objectives and attain social sustainability of the impacts.

External evaluators, as well as the technical team of a project or programme, must develop facilitation skills for dialogue and collective conversation, this empowers the profession and thus furthers social use of the recommendations. Knowing how to facilitate this collective process means that every problem that arises will encourage a vast exchange with the participating group during the evaluation process itself. Through dialogue, facilitation incorporates a broad range of viewpoints on the intervention in order to analyse the data, the outcomes, the impacts and the learning produced by the evaluation. This makes it possible to reach a basic consensus about the outcomes of the intervention and the actions to be taken in the future. Bringing about this phenomenon is the goal of the facilitation process in PE.

In conclusion, stakeholder empowerment in PE implies the development and adoption of abilities and skills in problem solving that go beyond a project or programme, they are meant for use and social learning that aim at transforming reality.  Thus, through negotiation and consensus, stakeholders commit themselves to the outcomes, make important decisions and take responsibility for the course of action.

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