A Missing Piece in Local Ownership: Evaluation

Ten years ago, ownership was established as a key principle of aid effectiveness. Although understanding of ownership has evolved since then – most significantly, as something that involves not just governments but all parts of society – today the focus is not on whether ownership is important but on how we can move ownership from principle to practice. To date, these conversations have primarily concerned how to make ownership a reality in program design and implementation. InterAction supports these efforts, but believes they need to go one step further. As we argue in our new briefing paper, the local ownership agenda must extend to all parts of the program cycle – from design all the way through evaluation.

Including those meant to benefit from international assistance (we use the term “participants”) in deciding what should be done and how it should be done is critically important for effectiveness and sustainability. Organizations, and some governments, also increasingly recognize the value of hearing directly from participants and citizens about how well something is being done. This can be seen in the growing use of feedback mechanisms and the establishment of initiatives promoting social accountability. Including participants in evaluation decision making is just as important. Particularly when participants have lacked ownership at other stages of an intervention, evaluation serves as a last opportunity for them to weigh in.

Despite the widespread acceptance of the principle of local ownership, evaluations continue to predominantly respond to the demands of donors, focusing on how funds are spent and the degree to which the results donors or implementers value are achieved. By only taking into consideration the values and interests of some stakeholders (primarily donors and external actors) in evaluations, organizations are missing a critical perspective on an intervention’s results: the views of the very people the intervention was intended to assist.

When participants are involved in evaluation, more often than not they serve as data sources, and perhaps as data collectors. Very rarely do we find examples of participants involved in deciding the questions an evaluation will ask, determining the criteria that will be used for judging an intervention’s success, interpreting results, or shaping recommendations based on evaluation findings.

A concern frequently raised about including participants in evaluation decision making is that their clear stakes in evaluation outcomes and potentially their lack of evaluation capacity could lead to biased and unreliable results. Yet it is important to acknowledge that everyone involved in an evaluation has values, interests, and capacities that affect how they approach an evaluation. Including participants’ voices adds a greater diversity of perspectives to an evaluation and the interpretation of findings, thus reducing bias.

We recognize that the road to local ownership in evaluation is just that: a road, not something that can be achieved instantly or that is possible in all cases. For that reason, we recommend that organizations take an incremental approach to pursuing local ownership in evaluation, focusing on the critical steps that can be taken along the way to increase the role of participants in evaluation processes.

As organizations seek to increase participants’ ownership in evaluation, they must consider:

  • Who to include as co-owners in an evaluation;
  • In which aspects of an evaluation participants need to be involved (we provide a list of possible evaluation activities related to designing the evaluation, collecting and analyzing data, determining findings and recommendations, and disseminating and using evaluation results); and
  • The nature of participants’ involvement (with the goal of moving from informing or consulting participants to including participants as partners in evaluation decision making).

Getting to local ownership in evaluation requires making progress on all three fronts.

Ultimately, all actors along the aid chain – from donors to international NGOs to local partners – must believe in the value of including participants as co-owners in evaluation. Once in place, this commitment must be complemented by investing in staff’s capacity to effectively involve participants in evaluation decision making, and in strengthening participants’ own capacity to engage. As in any other participatory process, participants must also trust that their input will indeed influence policies and practice. Including participants in this way is another way to signal that we truly view them as partners, rather than beneficiaries.

By Laia Grino, Senior Manager for Transparency Accountability and Results, and Carlisle Levine, Ph.D., Senior Advisor, Evaluation (Consultant)