CDI: Placing values back into impact evaluation?

Earlier this week, we held a fascinating CDI event to explore the role of ethics in impact evaluation. This was a smaller event as a first step towards planning a forthcoming Autumn conference… Watch this space!

One of the core themes to emerge from the day was a focus on how to put values (and people) more at the centre of impact evaluation. Over the past decade, impact evaluation, and evaluation more broadly, has become increasingly methodological, analytical and many would argue, more rigorous. And, while the trend away from expert-driven approaches has indeed had many benefits, we may question whether the current stock of method-driven approaches are as ethically robust as they could be?

So, is there now a need to redress the balance between empiricism and judgement in evaluation?

We started the day by considering how varied the current ethical landscape is, ranging from on the one hand, highly formalised approaches (ethical codes, ethics committees, Institutional Review Boards, etc.) with sometimes limited influence on ethical practice; to the other extreme, with situations in which ethical practice is being mostly determined by an individual’s personal or professional conduct. Patricia Rogers neatly summarised this in a comment at the end of a recent BetterEvaluation blog:

“Sometimes they [evaluations] go through our university ethics committee in exactly the same way as a research project, and the commissioning government department is keen for the proposal to have this scrutiny… but sometimes, especially where we are supporting a government agency to re-examine existing data, we argue that it is more like program management activity and an ethics application is not needed, although of course ethical practice always is… but the dividing line between the two is not always clear, and university (or institutional) ethics boards/committees are not always set-up in ways that can provide timely oversight and review of adaptive evaluations”.

With ethical practice being so varied, then the entry point into ethical discussions can be both challenging and for many, rather bewildering. Where do we start? Drawing on the work of Greene (2006), I found it helpful to first think in terms of two categories (to which we added a third):

  • Micro ethical issues: These focus on the internal processes of an evaluation, such as how relationships are established with respondents, and the underlying values around consent, anonymity, transparency, etc. Much of our discussion however centred on disconnects between how ethical theory, principles and procedures, and how these are often inadequately applied in reality.
  • Macro ethical issues: These focus on how evaluation relates to society: to which purpose, and whose interests, should the evaluation serve? We discussed much around how citizens could be involved in the deliberation of evidence, including more democratic approaches to evaluation (something being explored by the EES conference later this year).

During the course of the day, we also added a third category on ‘Development ethics’. Here, there seemed to be a broad consensus that evaluation could usefully perform a role in raising issues, evidence and insights about the ethics of good development. Indeed, as we look towards a post-2015 agenda, and with rapid changes in the architecture of aid cooperation, then perhaps evaluation has much more to contribute to changing the way we do development?

Ethics should not be limited to research and evaluation, but it also matters for what we value and choose as important about development. Could it be that evaluation has yet to contribute as much here as it really should?

Chris Barnett, July 2014