by Ann Marie Castleman
I was first introduced to participatory evaluation in Nicaragua. Like many people educated in the United States, I was trained in Western approaches to evaluation and research originating mostly from the social sciences. When I began working in monitoring and evaluation at a small NGO in Managua, it felt as though none of that training was relevant – largely because it was not. I did not fully understand at the time, but I now realize it was because I was trained in an epistemology or way of viewing the world that was largely out of touch with the local culture and context of the remote, rural communities where my team members and I supported health promoters to provide basic medical care in their communities. We used participatory approaches and methods including Photovoice, the Most Significant Change Technique, and Appreciative Inquiry.
Regardless of the data collection method used, I recall my supervisor asked us to follow one principle: data collected from the community stays in the community. This meant that we were to analyze the data and share it back with the community before we left at the end of the week. We did this so that community members could engage in a sensemaking session to interpret the findings in their local context and make an action plan to address any areas they felt needed to change. This approach to evaluation was quite different than how I had been trained and I quickly learned the importance of participatory evaluation for being culturally responsive during the evaluation process, including diverse voices to interpret findings that are grounded in local context and culture, and the importance of creating spaces for community members to raise their voices and exhibit self-determination over their lives and futures.
By involving stakeholders in the evaluation process, they learn about evaluation, develop evaluative thinking, begin to value using data and evidence to improve policies and programs, and raise their voice about issues that matter for their lives. These are skills that are valuable to anyone whether they are an evaluator or not.
This is part of the process of democratizing evaluation by including voices that are often left out, raising consciousness, and giving power to the people most affected by the programs or policies that are meant to serve them in the best way possible. This is what Paulo Freire so brilliantly wrote about over 50 years ago in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), sparking the critical pedagogy movement. This is what liberation theology promoted through Christian base communities in Latin America. This is what Orlando Fals-Borda and others promoted when they founded participatory action research to do research “with” people rather than “on” people. The history of participatory evaluation, the values it promotes, and the transformative potential it holds are what make it unique as an evaluation approach.
Participatory evaluation has been used around the globe, including Latin America and the Caribbean, in a variety of sectors and disciplines. Using this approach can serve two important goals. First, it can serve as a way to strengthen the capacity of program staff, community members, or other stakeholders to use evaluation for decision-making about programs and policies (Cousins & Whitmore, 1998). It can foster evaluative thinking and support problem-solving. Secondly, participatory evaluation can be used in a transformative sense to address social inequities or other injustices in the local context where a program or policy operates (Brisolara, 1998; Chouinard & Milley, 2018). In international development contexts, this is often the motivation behind using participatory evaluation because it serves as a way to include the many voices that are affected by a program or policy (Chouinard & Milley, 2018). Hearing from stakeholders is an important way to be accountable to those most affected by the evaluation findings, but also as a way to learn how to improve the program or policy to be more responsive to local context. Including the voices of those most affected by a program or policy is also an important aspect of ensuring the validity of an evaluation (Kirkhart, 2010). As we know very well in evaluation, context matters. As evaluators, it is not always possible to understand local context without involving those who live it daily in a meaningful manner.
In an increasingly complex world where poverty, social unrest, climate change, and large scale migration never fail to demonstrate the interconnections between these and many other issues, I believe it is more important now than ever to include a variety of voices in evaluation. The diversity of perspectives and areas of disagreement in these perspectives provide opportunities to understand what works for whom, to what extent, and in which contexts. These are important issues that are often missed in evaluations that are not as participatory because some viewpoints are left out. Although implementing participatory evaluations are not without their challenges, the value of them lies precisely in the potential to hear from a variety of perspectives and find solutions to very complex issues that do not have an easy or immediately clear solution. In a world where our existence is increasingly threatened, we have no choice but to be inclusive. Participatory evaluation is an avenue toward that end. These are lessons I learned not through my schooling in the Global North, but through my experience working in Latin America – and I am grateful for the education.