ICCE TIG Week: Inverting the Power Structure: lessons learned in moving evaluation practice into local communities by Nimisha Poudyal and Becky Findley

Warm greetings, evaluators! We are Nimisha Poudyal and Becky Findley. We are internal evaluators at Unbound, a humanitarian organization working in 19 countries through a cash transfer program with a sponsorship funding model.

Traditional program implementation and funding structures in the nonprofit and development sector utilize evaluation to demonstrate effectiveness to management and donors. A traditional evaluation approach reinforces a centralized or top-down power structure. Money and decision-making flow from the top and community initiatives must prove their value.

At Unbound, we are working towards inverting the structure. Funders and organizational administrators must still understand program outcomes and feel confident that their support makes a difference but the ‘who’ that defines and gives value to the desired change brought about by the program must be program participants and local community staff. The primary users of evaluation are local program leaders and participants, meaning the programs are held accountable to those the program aims to support. Moving evaluation practice from the headquarters to the communities served shifts the power, giving local stakeholders ultimate control and voice in program decision-making.

We have learned that localized evaluations that focus on providing relevant and credible information to the community staff and participants help communities to adapt and innovate in their context. Locally directed evaluations ask questions such as: What is the program accomplishing? How are program participants different now? What could we do better? The program is only of high quality for all stakeholders when it is valuable and effective for the people who are most impacted. At the same time, synthesis and meta-analysis of the localized evaluations has allowed for strengthening of the evidence base for any changes in global program approach as well.

To operationalize this belief and strategy, we are placing greater emphasis on evaluation control at a localized level. Unbound has added dedicated staff, local to each program site, who are rapidly building technical evaluation capacity and integrating evaluation findings into program decisions. Hiring locally, from the communities where the evaluations take place, emphasizes strong cultural competencies for evaluators and defines relevance by prioritizing culturally appropriate and valid practice.

Lessons Learned:

  • Lead with a foundation of mutual trust. Build upon this foundation a culture of evaluative thinking. It is crucial that the organization is a safe environment to ask tough questions and receive difficult answers.
  • Value local expertise. Dedicate staff with local program and cultural knowledge as key leaders in evaluation. As evaluators in headquarters, we act as coaches in the evaluation process. Local evaluators have the full authority and freedom to ask real questions that are important for their program development and improvement. This increases equity and ownership of the programs.
  • Dedicate necessary resources to locally directed evaluation. If appropriate funding and staff support is not made available, evaluation can become just another task on the local team’s ‘to do’ list.
  • Localized evaluation systems increase adaptability of evaluations. During the early months of COVID we saw local program evaluators create local needs assessments and process evaluations as program teams adapted to the quickly evolving needs of program participants and local government mandates. This added to the sustainability and continuity of evaluation work in times of crisis since local experts were able to validate and adapt instruments.
  • Responsive innovation at a global level. In headquarters, we can synthesize the findings from local evaluations to develop global responses and program innovations that best suits the local contexts and provides evidence to global impacts.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting International and Cross-Cultural (ICCE) TIG Week with our colleagues in the International and Cross-Cultural Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our ICCE 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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