DRG TIG Week: Thinking and Working Politically in the Evidence Movement: Lessons from the DRG Sector by Denise Baer

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Hi fellow evaluators – I am Denise Baer, a political scientist, evaluator and gender expert. 

One advantage that social and behavioral scientists bring to the table is the ability to separate oneself from what one observes, analyzes, and studies. This skill is increasingly salient as evaluation encounters growing challenges between development projects traditionally focused on economic development and newer approaches looking at the human side of change, including greater awareness of values and systems change. The democracy, human rights and governance (DRG) TIG is a community where we are centrally focused on these challenges. Thinking and working politically (TWP) emerged since 2013 as a way to address complex problems where there are multiple unknowns and uncertainty. As Graham Teskey notes in his 2022 review, the idea is to focus on and intentionally include political processes as part of the intervention(s). 

A big misconception is that TWP is partisan. The reality is that politics is infused in everything. The best definition of politics comes from political scientist Harold Lasswell who noted in 1936 that politics is Who Gets What When and How. In other words, politics is power. In TWP, M&E moves beyond accountability to focus on adaptation and learning – also a goal of the evidence movement.

TWP is a useful tool that helps in project design to avoid easy fixes and the “silver bullet” approach where a “good” intervention is implemented thoughtlessly, which then fails to deliver a needed change and may actually do harm by empowering those who oppose change. For example, quotas for women are a mixed bag for change when women are recruited or appointed who reflect existing (male) power bases (e.g., wives or protegees of authoritarian leaders) or who lack grassroots constituencies among women (gender machineries). One of my mentors, the late Cornelius Cotter with his colleague Bernard Hennessey famously termed this “Politics without Power.”

Lessons Learned

  • Institutions matter – DRG works with civil society and private sector capacity building, as well as parliamentary and political party strengthening to promote democratic decisionmaking and support human rights.
  • Collective action matters because civil society and private sector engagement affect both political and public will.
  • Women’s empowerment is inherently political because it seeks to enlarge spheres of public action.

Consider the gender audit – a tool best done when it includes informal power and influence as well as formal structures. This requires using TWP in doing a tailored institutional-specific organizational analysis. Doing a gender audit in an NGO differs from that in a parliamentary body, especially in the development context where most parliaments are a hybrid of the western presidential vs. parliamentary systems, often adopting the worst features of each system.

This matters because actual power is distributed and exercised differently within diverse parliaments and among parliamentarians outside of formal/legal powers. Further, the roles of staff in parliamentary bodies differs from that in hierarchical NGOs (whose CEO reports to a Board of Directors) – unless it is the case that career staff exist and exercise (unaccountable) member-like power. 

Thus, TWP would distinguish between InterAction’s helpful Gender Audit toolkit designed for NGOs that emphasizes internal (staff) perceptions or the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU’s) (the global organization of parliaments) toolkit on Gender Sensitivity which uses self-assessment and emphasizes overall gender quotas and cultural perceptions in formal arenas to instead focus on informal power and agenda setting such as is reflected in the European Institute for Gender Equality’s toolkit on Gender Sensitive Parliaments.

Rad Resources

Monitoring and Evaluation for Thinking and Working Politically

Making Evaluation Sensitive to Gender and Human Rights:  Different Approaches


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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