Decolonising Evaluation Practice: Is it time for an increased conversation in Europe?

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Disclaimer: the opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Evaluation Society


The concept of colonial rule is usually one which is connected to the past. However, global power structures with roots in colonisation are still prevalent in the west and continue to increase inequality. Although there have been increasing calls for decolonization worldwide, is there a willingness to rethink?

Originally, the term ‘decolonisation’ was used in reference to the process by which a state withdraws from a former colony and leaves it independent. Calls for aid to be “decolonized” are often seen as controversial by policy makers and INGOs, as they imply that aid and international funding structures are a form of continued colonisation. After all, it has been extensively documented that former colonial powers remain heavily involved in countries they once controlled, exerting influence through a variety of economic, political and social channels. In the past century, international aid has been an essential part of the foreign policy toolkit. For former colonial powers it had remained especially popular to spend the majority of their aid budgets on countries that once were part of their empires. However, the term decolonization also holds a secondary meaning referring to the process of deconstruction of colonial ideologies with respect to the superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches. It is this secondary definition which is referred to in modern conversations referencing the idea of ‘decolonising aid.’

It cannot be denied that discussions about power dynamics in the international aid system, or rather the inequality thereof, have increasingly started entering the mainstream. Activists from around the world have been vocal about the ways in which power and resources remain dominated by systems favouring the Global North despite commitments to address the inequities in the system such as that outlined at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Progress remains slow in several sectoral areas, including funding for local organisations, and the manner in which power and control is still being held by a relatively small number of donors and INGOs dominating the decision making structures. As discussed by Arbie Bagouios: “It occurred to me that the way we do project management in the aid sector—not just at the reporting stage, but from proposal, to implementation, to monitoring and evaluation — is problematic. It is not designed with local values, knowledge and experience at the heart of it.”  He posits that in modern project cycles there remains too large a focus on inputs that do not necessarily lead to the organisation’s desired outcomes, and questions if a large organisation’s self appointed authority in choosing the outcome to pursue is right. He is not the only one, as argued by Chilisa (2015, p. 17): “Evaluation is the least indigenized approach dominated by Western evaluation theory and practice. There is, for instance, emphasis on translating evaluation instruments to local languages and indigenizing techniques of gathering data without addressing fundamental questions on worldviews that can inform evaluation theory and practice.” Monitoring and Evaluation research and models appear to remain dominated by Western theory and methods, with questions remaining to their effectiveness in a different context. This idea that M&E policies offer a universal and non-political approach to the development sector is one that needs reimagining.

Brun and Lund (2010) pose the simple question whether decolonising research practices are truly effective or just another example of a perfunctory exercise. Humanitarian organisations working in disaster zones frequently use the words “participation” and “empowerment” to convey the idea that all stakeholders are involved in their work. They are frequently criticised, nevertheless, for lacking participation, being insensitive to the environment, and failing to decolonize their actions (Uyangoda 2005). Before we can consider these arguments as being considered completely out of date, a recent blogpost published on the IIED website by Natalie Lartey suggests that little has changed. She writes that storytelling in the aid and development industries has long been criticised for feeding prejudice and racial stereotypes. This critique has been focused on public affairs content from large brand nonprofit organisations who appear to spend little time on considering whether their storytelling promotes the same historic racialized narratives. SOAS professor Dr Althea-Maria Rivas furthers this by arguing that there appear to be two prevailing assumptions that contribute to the denial of colonial legacy in the practice of development. The first is that development takes place outside of racialized histories and there is no continuity between the historical process and development discourse and practice today. This assumes, often contrary to evidence, a definite break between the cessation of empire and the beginning of development. This leads to a belief that the social construction of race cannot be a factor in the manner in which people relate to each other in development contexts. This is ironic given the fact that one of the clearest manifestations of structural issues and discrimination in the sector is the parallel system for employing staff in the Global South, not only in terms of salaries and benefits offered to Global South staff compared to the Global North counterparts, but also in how skills and experience are devalued in practitioners from the Global South.

This is not to say that nothing has changed. In the past two years, an unprecedented number of organisations based in the Global North have started explicitly naming racism and stating their intentions to examine and reform their relationship with those based in the Global South. The events of the Covid-19 pandemic have prompted collaborations with the aim of imagining a decolonial and anti-racist approach to international development even with restrictions lifting and the possibility for international travel resuming. This includes the idea that there is a need for courageously funding local organisations and staff: the economist Daniel Honig studied 14,000 aid projects, and found that they were more successful when implementation and decision-making were delegated more to local staff. 

The COVID-19 pandemic allowed for a reimagining of what the development sector could look like. It also facilitated a change in global-local relationships, compelling a number of organisations to make new commitments for better collaboration and support local researchers and practitioners. Building trust is vital for support to develop, meaning there must be goodwill by international practitioners to develop their cultural competency including being open to challenge and learning. Longterm, flexible relationships between the global and local will contribute to this. Finally, we must recognise that the events of the past few years have allowed for local actors to take up leadership roles and therefore we must question the idea of normalcy within the development aid sector. To decolonise international development could very well mean that the interest of local communities need to take precedence over those of non-local entities. That the temporary shift we saw during the pandemic away which favoured local research and program implementation may very well become a permanent one. 

Today’s world is a small world. Globalisation has ensured that world concerns have become common conversation topics, and technological innovations of the past few decades have allowed for distant individuals to be ever increasingly linked in real time. This, however, has also posed new challenges for evaluators working in contexts with particular social justice and equity issues. There is a need for evaluation strategies that focus on access to relevant information and localised indigenous perspectives that can exalt the values, beliefs, and worldviews of the beneficiaries in order to create lasting and meaningful change. I think it is time for these notions to also be more openly discussed within European Evaluation settings. If evaluation is primarily about people, then surely it is time to question our beliefs and where they come from. 

References

Aid Re-imagined. (2020, February 18). It’s time to decolonise project management in the aid sector. Retrieved from https://medium.com/aidreimagined/its-time-to-decolonise-project-management-in-the-aid-sector-da1aa30c5eee

A more sustainable and inclusive world. (2021, November 10). Retrieved from https://www.idrc.ca/en/stories/more-sustainable-and-inclusive-world 

Australian Red Cross, Humanitarian Advisory Group and the Institute for Human Security and Social Change, La Trobe University (2022). A window of opportunity: Learning from Covid-19 to progress locally led response and development think piece. Humanitarian Advisory Group. Retrieved from: https://humanitarianadvisorygroup.org/insight/a-window-of-opportunity/ .

Becker, B. (2020). Colonial Legacies in International Aid: Policy Priorities and Actor Constellations. In: Schmitt, C. (eds) From Colonialism to International Aid. Global Dynamics of Social Policy. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-38200-1_7

Brun, C. and Lund, R. (2010) Real-time research: decolonising research practices – or just another spectacle of researcher–practitioner collaboration?, Development in Practice, 20:7, 812-826, https://doi.org/10.1080/09614524.2010.508107

​​Chilisa, B. (2015), A Synthesis Paper on the Made in Africa Evaluation Concept. Commissioned by African Evaluation Association (AfrEA).

Frehiwot, M. (2019). Made in Africa Evaluation: Decolonializing Evaluation in Africa. Evaluation Matters.

Honig, D. (2018). Navigation by judgement: why and when top down management of foreign aid doesn’t work. (N.Y.).

Magendane, K. and Goris, Y. (2020, October 22), A hard look in the mirror: Reflecting on racism and whiteness in the development sector. Retrieved from https://www.thebrokeronline.eu/a-hard-look-in-the-mirror-reflecting-on-racism-and-whiteness-in-the-development-sector/ 

Paige, P. B. (2021, June 17). COVID-19 has shown us how to decolonize international development. Retrieved from https://www.peacedirect.org/decolonizing-international-development/ 

Peace Direct, Adeso, the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security. (2021). Time to Decolonise Aid: Insights and lessons from a global consultation. Peace Direct. Retrieved from https://www.peacedirect.org/publications/timetodecoloniseaid/

Uyangoda, J. (2005). Ethnic conflict, the state and the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 6(3): 341–52, .https://doi.org/10.1080/14649370500169979