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The Practice of Participatory Evaluation in the Global South: A practical approach or a mere rhetoric?

The Practice of Participatory Evaluation in the Global South: A practical approach or a mere rhetoric?

In past decades, expert knowledge or a top down approach to development processes was the norm. “Local people” had no issue with experts coming in to stir development projects in their communities from start to finish (Fraser et. al 2007). This is partly because they believed experts possess solutions to their problems and they downplayed their own abilities and knowledge. In recent times, the paradigm has shifted in a way that “local people” do not only possess knowledge and skills useful to solving their own problems, but more importantly, they desire to be involved in development processes that concerns them (ibid 2007). Many years of development practice have also confirmed and reveled that “local people” possess valuable information and analytical capacity to assess possible constraints or achievements of development processes (Jackson & Kasem 1998). For this reasons, the kinds of methodology adopted in development interventions have shifted from top-down to bottom –up approaches. This is not different in the field of evaluation; participatory evaluation has been used by Global as well as local institutions in the evaluation of various policies and programmes. This methodology gives room for “co-creation” of knowledge between experts and the people. Participatory Evaluation has been defined in different ways by diverse scholars. The following is a comprehensive definition proposed by Jackson and Kasem: 

Participatory evaluation is a process of self-assessment, collective knowledge production, and cooperative action in which the stakeholders in a development intervention participate substantively in the identification of the evaluation issues, the design of the evaluation, the collection and analysis of data, and action taken as a result of the evaluation findings. By participating in this process, stakeholders also build their own capacity and skills to undertake research and evaluation in other areas and to promote other forms of participatory development. Participatory evaluation seeks to give preferential treatment to the voices and decisions of the least powerful and most affected stakeholder – the local beneficiaries of the intervention. This approach to evaluation employs a wide range of data collection and analysis techniques, both qualitative and quantitative, involving fieldwork, workshops, and movements”.(Jackson & Kassam 1998). 

Participatory evaluation is a very significant methodology because development interventions are done to address the needs and problems of the people. Therefore, to assess the impact of any intervention, it is expected that the people to whom this intervention was done would be involved to understand the extent to which their conditions have changed or otherwise. However, this methodology is faced with many constraints. In this essay, I question the practice of participatory evaluation in the Global South as a practical methodology. Grounding my argument on the basis of the pitfalls surrounding the enactment of development policy as it applies to the global south, I would show among other things how exclusions of the values and culture of people from the global south in policy framework is enough to question the practicality and rationale of the practice of participatory evaluation in the Global south. I would begin the essay with key debates for and against the practice of participatory evaluation. I would highlight some important ideas why participatory evaluation is a significant methodology in the development project. In the next paragraph, I would explore the limitations or constraints that come with the practice of participatory evaluation. I would then provide some ideas to back my argument. I would also highlight some ideas that could present possibilities for participatory development to embrace new spaces for political action. Finally, I would conclude the write up by summarizing key points in the essay. 

Theoretical framework: Concepts and contestations  

Evaluation of any project or programme involves the production of knowledge about the effectiveness, efficiency and impact of the intervention ((Guilt 2014). The beneficial effects of a participatory evaluation process are enormous as described by (Jackson & Kassam 1998). However, there have been some controversies surrounding the practice of participatory evaluation as a methodology. The concept of “empowerment” – the idea that in a participatory process local people are enlightened enough to understand, analyze and contribute their knowledge to solve their own problems (Tarsilla et. al 2012),  forms an integral part of the participatory process. However, this logic has been criticized. Scholars who are against the logic, argue that assessment from local people are too simplistic and therefore lacks important elements necessary for doing a comprehensive analysis of the effectiveness of any development intervention(Guijt 2014). They argue that unless there is considerable facilitation of such assessments, a proper analysis would be impossible. Dee Jupp, an advocate of participatory evaluation countered this argument based on his work with a social movement in Bangladesh: 

“Groups assess themselves using indicators generated earlier through a participatory process: the indicators are many – 132; an elegant method quantifies and aggregates them to show distributions, trends and surprises; local people themselves facilitate group analysis, releasing staff time and avoiding deferential responses; and people enthusiastically give time to assessments because they are important for their own learning, planning and progress” (Jupp et.al 2010 pp 9). 

Aside the fact that local people are often seen as unintelligent and lacking expertise, there have also been concerns about external or field experts being threatened by findings revealed by the local people. This was evident in the study by Jupp who admitted that while donor agencies where initially skeptical about allowing local people to facilitate group analysis, they later welcomed it after experiencing the usefulness of group reflections.  

Again there are those who also believe that within the participatory development framework, “the community” has been somewhat celebrated without a critical analysis. This critique was summarized by Frances Cleaver: 

“Development practitioners excel in perpetuating the myth that communities are capable of anything, that all that is required is sufficient mobilization (through institutions) and the latent capacities of the community will be unleashed in the interests of development (Cleaver 2001:46). 

It is problematic according to this critique, to assume perfection within a community without proper scrutiny to reveal for instance, who is qualified or deserves to participate? 

Significance of participatory Evaluation: Is it a useful methodology and why? 

Advocates and users of a participatory approach to impact evaluation are keen about the value this approach would contribute to the overall evaluation. Therefore a starting point to choosing this process is first asking very crucial questions; if stakeholders must participate, then what purpose will they serve in the evaluation? Identifying whose voice matter, which must be included – whose participation matter? Or when is it feasible to apply a participatory approach? (Eyben et. al 2008). To fully realize the benefits that a participatory approach promises, as a starting point, it is important to address these crucial questions.  

The importance of participatory evaluation could be seen as pragmatic or ethical (Guijt 2014). In pragmatic terms, interventions can be improved because more accurate findings of change would have been gathered with detailed explanations of causalities by the people. It is ethical in the sense that ideally, the people to whom policies are enacted for should be given the opportunity to actively involve themselves in the decisions that affect them. More importantly the impact of any development intervention can only truly come from the people – What constitutes change may not be realistically defined by external evaluators who are not the direct beneficiaries of an intervention. 

If the designing of policy framework is non-participatory, is the practice of participatory evaluation realistic? – Limitations underpinning the practice of participatory evaluation in the Global South. 

There can be no evaluation without a policy. Therefore, to enable me unpack the participatory evaluation process in the Global south, I would briefly look at policy frameworks in the AID sector as it applies to the global south. The limitations of the participatory approach to evaluations in the Global South begin considerably with the ways in which Global policies are enacted (Mosse 2004). As a starting point, Critical questions in the AID sector are therefore worth raising – If a participatory evaluation process is mend to give the people a “voice”, does the voices of the people also considered in enacting policy frameworks? How do the people partake in evaluating a policy or developmental intervention when they did not partake in enacting such policies? To what extent do development interventions reflect the needs of “the people”? Who defines the “good life”?  

To begin with, the Global South have had to deal with many development policies from the North which attempt to solve the so-called problems of the Global south. These policies often project certain conditions of the Global south as problematic without considering what matters most to the people. Pailey described the development project so beautifully: 

“Development has traditionally been about dissecting the political, socio-economic and cultural processes of black, brown and other subjects of color in the so-called global south and finding them regressive, particularly in comparison to the so-called progressive global North” (Pailey 2019 : 1) 

Global policy framework has often reflected the white-gaze – assuming whiteness as a referent point of power, progress and prestige (Santo 2015). AID in development continues to provide modern solutions to communities in the Global south without considering the culture and values of these people (Hulme et. al 2012). A question of what constitutes the “good life”? Who defines the “good life”? Are crucial issues that are often neglected in the enactment of global policies that affect the global South. The living conditions of people from the global south do not necessarily depict poverty – walking by foot or living without electricity does not necessarily depict poverty. “ the people live under very simple conditions but when you compare them to most people living under modern conditions in the global north, there is no evidence to show that they live happier lives than them (Layard 2005). 

Again, to what extent does policy framework reflect the values and culture of the people? In my opinion although Global policies are enacted to accelerate the well-being of the people, in many ways, they have not accommodated the values of societies in the global south. Is it because the values of some societies are superior, good and more appropriate and others inferior, bad and inappropriate? Is it not only ethical that since the policies are for the people they must come from the people?  Therefore, I agree with David Mosse when he questioned the conventional logic of development policy: 

“What if the practices of development are in fact concealed rather than produced by policy? What if, instead of policy producing practice, practices produce policy, in the sense that actors in development devote their energies to maintaining coherent representations regardless of events?” (Mosse 2004:64 

Participation as Politicization 

There have been some claims made about participation as de-politicization (Williams 2004).  However, since the processes involved in enacting Global policies clearly showcase the interplay of power dynamics between the North and South, a participatory approach to doing impact evaluations is definitely not devoid of such power dynamics (ibid 2004). Considering poverty reduction strategies implemented in the global south, AID agencies propose certain indicators according to their own standards, and though local people (beneficiaries) could participate in the evaluation process of such interventions, they are bound by these indicators which often times do not reflect their perceived change. (Eyben 2008). The implementation and evaluations of these policies are expensive by all standards. Therefore Global south depends on AID agencies often from the global North for funding. The dynamics of the haves (Global North) and the haves not (Global south) in terms of funding resources have the potential to alter the very essence of participatory evaluation –given beneficiaries the voice to participate in assessing their own conditions after an intervention. How does the claim of participation as de-politization hold when the pursuit of goals through programs or policy is inherently a political enterprise? (Tarsilla et. al 2012). 

The problem of power dynamics interfering in the participatory process also reveals the issue of agency. If the people are largely dependent on donors for funding, where lies their agency in this process? Agency here goes beyond the opportunity giving to them to participate in the process. Agency also has to do with the freedom to speak their voice in truth about the impact of an intervention. Assessing the intervention according to what “real change” mean for them (Cleaver 2001). Therefore, to argue that a participatory process is unbiased means that everyone’s knowledge or view matters. But do communities in the global south have this agency to freely share their views even if it contradicts the expectations and standards of donors? Given the analysis of the AID sector, the practice of participation is seemingly unrealistic given the lack of agency makes the poor invisible in the development project (Chambers 1983) and consequently hinders the practice of a ‘true sense of participation”.  

So is there a possibility for the practice of a more realistic evaluation of participatory development? At least to succeed in solving the problem of power dynamics as a key interference to the very essence of a participatory approach, the loosening of hierarchical power relations should not be a one-time practice as observed in many accounts of participation. Dealing with political struggles demand the recognition of development projects and the political institutions in which they are associated with, and systematically dealing with them (Williams 2004). Participation and the potential for empowerment should therefore be seen within this framework. 


It is undeniably true that a participatory approach to doing evaluations is in fact a more useful and ethical methodology than top-down approaches. It offers beneficiaries an opportunity to voice out the truth about the impact of a particular intervention in their own perspective. And pragmatically, stakeholders get to learn and can better improve a program or policy. In essence this process has the tendency to bridge the gap created through unequal power relations. However, I have argued that if the practice of participatory evaluation in the global south must work in practical terms, then participation must be seen in the processes involved in the design of policy frameworks. If the designing of policy framework is non-participatory, then the practice of participatory evaluation could be seen as a mere rhetoric and not realistic. I also identified power dynamics as a major limitation in the practice of participation and I suggested that the loosening of hierarchical power relations is possible first of all, by identifying development projects and the political institutions in which they are associated with. 


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