DRG TIG Week: Closing Civic Spaces and the Decolonization of Aid: What role for program evaluation? by Alysson Akiko Oakley

Hello evaluators! I am Alysson Akiko Oakley, chair of AEA’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) topical interest group, and Global Director of Results and Measurement at Pact.

Our TIG focuses on evaluation that supports programs that aim to build democratic institutions, such as civil society and a free press, among others. Last year our TIG began a series of blogposts during Democracy Week in honor of the United Nation’s International Day of Democracy which takes place annually on September 15.

This year, to reflect on and learn from the tremendous challenges we have seen personally, politically, and professionally, our TIG will explore themes that question assumptions and examine the status quo: the role of evaluation in closing civic spaces and as part of a larger movement of what is commonly termed the “decolonization of aid.” These affect DRG evaluation in both practical and existential ways.

Closing Civic Space

“Closing civic space” is used to describe a context in which there have been attacks or restrictions on the freedom of citizens to organize and express dissent. Civic space has been shrinking for more than a decade, correlated with a 15-year decline in democracy globally. DRG programs are affected by closing civic space: in such contexts, there have been attacks on change agents, policy changes that inhibit freedom of speech, association or representation, and an overall chilling effect on citizens’ ability to express their beliefs and identities. As a result, programs that support civil society, journalists and other change agents must work harder to understand how to mitigate the effects of closing civic space in rapidly shifting contexts, all the while protecting program implementors and their partners at the forefront of the movement for reform.

Program evaluators are challenged in this as well: How should one evaluate a program in which success is often less about progress or expected change, and more about mitigating backsliding? Absent a counterfactual, how should “success” be understood, let alone defined? And, who should decide this and how should programs be held accountable? Amidst these challenges, evaluators must help programs manage expectations, explore complexity-responsive M&E approaches, support evidence-based adaptive management, and constantly learn to improve, all the while working within funding compliance or other operational constraints.

“Decolonization of Aid”

Another challenge to DRG programs and their evaluations is an over-reliance on external donor resources, including funding, personnel, and even programming approaches. This is a feature of the power asymmetry of aid, which is a target of a movement that has come to be termed – for good or ill! – the “decolonization of aid.” Part of the “decolonization of aid” is the idea that those who are the targeted beneficiaries of aid should be involved in decision-making about how that aid is prioritized and delivered. As a result, many funders committed to a timeline to shift funding priorities and provide funding directly to local organizations.

The “decolonization of aid” movement aims to realize a systemic shift in the aid and development industries: how does it affect DRG evaluation practice at the more micro level? DRG is about enabling and empowering voices, and that is exactly how DRG evaluators can help end aid power asymmetries through everyday practice. By promoting the concept of “evaluation as intervention” DRG program evaluation can reinforce the empowerment of beneficiary voices by supporting evaluative thinking, participatory methods that put beneficiaries in charge of their own criteria of success, and program accountability to those beneficiaries. The more that program beneficiaries can be involved in the evaluative process and have a role in programmatic decision-making, the more that program evaluation can contribute in small everyday ways to systemic change in the global aid system.

Hot Tips & Rad Resources

  • Reconsider where accountability lies in program evaluation
    Use approaches like Empowerment Evaluation and Outcome Mapping to empower beneficiaries and reduce the power asymmetry of aid
  • Buildcomplexity-responsive and evidence-based adaptive management systems to work in dynamic contexts

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The American Evaluation Association is hosting Democracy, Human Rights & Governance TIG Week with our colleagues in the Democracy, Human Rights & Governance Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our DRG TIG members. 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. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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