Decolonizing Evaluation Week: Moving Beyond Cultural Competence in Evaluation to Ontological Justice by Jennifer A.H. Billman, Ph.D.

Jennifer A.H. Billman, Ph.D.

I’m Jennifer Billman, a biology professor, internal evaluator, and nonprofit cofounder who—wondering about my place in international evaluation—returned to school mid-career hoping to learn about evaluation in non-western settings. Unfortunately, most of the evaluation texts I read offered little reflection on place and failed to advance my understanding of non-western evaluation theory and practice. 

The 80’s alternative rock band R.E.M. sang,

“Stand in the place where you live . . .

Think about direction, wonder why you haven’t before

Now stand in the place where you work . . .

think about the place where you live

Wonder why you haven’t before

Decolonizing evaluation calls us to wonder about the place we live and work and how our location in it impacts our theory and practice.  

RAD Resource: Not until discovering Dr. Bagele Chilisa’s text Indigenous Research Methodologies did I begin my journey through the wisdom of Indigenous scholars such as Margaret Kovach, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Shawn Wilson. My western training provided me with a fragmented view of reality and the merit, worth, and value judgments that emerge from it (see figure). Whereas Indigenous scholarship provides a holistic framework and embraces empirical, traditional, and spiritual knowledge.

Lesson Learned #1: The western evaluation canon alone does not equip evaluators for work in the majority world.

In her blog post Dr. Sandra Ayoo writes, “The reality is that the international [evaluation] experts from the Global North often lacked knowledge of the local contexts and what counts as truth.”  What counts as truth is grounded in what counts as reality, and for those trained in the west the only reality that counts is material. While western evaluation texts gloss over ontological reflection, favoring methodological prescriptions, Indigenous texts extensively address ontology, speaking to the merit, worth, and value of spiritual knowledge, something western texts avoid altogether.

Turning to the literature and AEA’s Guiding Principles and Cultural Competency statement, I discovered a call for cultural self-awareness, sensitivity, and responsiveness. But mostly I found recommendations for how to employ culturally appropriate methods. Yet, I wondered, does this go far enough to decolonize evaluation? 

Lesson Learned #2: Cultural competence is not a guarantee of ontological competence.

Within a field built upon materialism, cultural competence only takes us so far in our quest to decolonize evaluation. But what if we commit to interrogation of the 3Rs of materialism (reductionism, rationalism, and reason), and embrace the 5Rs of Indigenous knowledge: relationship, respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and reverence? What if we collectively commit to a new standard of justice, Ontological Justice, which calls for the impartial treatment of differing ontological views such that each is acknowledged and conflicts between ontologies lead to ontological synthesis rather than ontological oppression. 

This is the work of Ontological Justice and it begins with each of us thinking deeply about the place where we live and work. For me that place is land stolen from the Shawnee and Susquehannock and a professional field built upon a hegemonic ontology. What about you?


Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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