By Raquel Herrera
EvalYouth Costa Rica & ReLAC
This blog delves into the basic concepts and methodology of the Participatory Evaluation model, with the hope that it will lead to an understanding of why this model is a masterstroke for governments in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This model comes from a theoretical background based on the Constructivist and Transformative Paradigms (Mertens, 2005), emphasizing how individuals construct their own understanding of reality through their experiences and specific contexts (i.e., geographical, cultural, social, political, and economic). Acknowledging these multiple perspectives and the nuances in the social construction of knowledge opens the possibility of reflexivity and collaboration to recognize social injustices and power imbalances.
This reflexivity through communal conversations allows stakeholders to build more sophisticated and collective knowledge about specific and general subjects in languages and spaces close to the people involved.
The manual, Sowing and Harvesting by Tapella, Rodriguez, Sanz, Chaves, and Espinoza (2021), available on the EvalParticipativa website, is a fundamental text for those embarking on Participatory Evaluation. It mentions that this model aims for the involvement of all stakeholders in all the different stages of the evaluation, starting with the methodological design of the evaluation until the dissemination of the results.
The SDGs aim to address global challenges and achieve a sustainable and equitable future, “leaving no one behind”. The ideas mentioned above align with Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, as it explicitly states that “74. Follow-up and review processes at all levels will be guided by the following principles:
d. They will be open, inclusive, participatory, and transparent for all people and will support the reporting by all relevant stakeholders.”
The best way to ensure community engagement in achieving the SDGs is to empower the people to have conversations about their issues and promote their involvement in all the stages of the evaluation process. These conversations among and within stakeholders will bring visibility to the main topics and other subtle issues around each SDG. The community ownership of the interventions, involving a participatory approach to decision-making, where community members have a say in how resources are used and in the planning of projects that benefit everyone, will be encouraged by the sense of belonging and involvement in developing strategies for solving local problems. After all, we all want to live better.
The best way to ensure community engagement in achieving the SDGs is to empower the people to have conversations about their issues and promote their involvement in all the stages of the evaluation process.
In order to open participatory spaces for all stakeholders, the evaluation of SDGs must be coherent with equity criteria, local contexts, and local knowledge.
Among the many benefits of this model is that stakeholders can tailor each intervention to meet their needs. Taking ownership of interventions in the communities makes them sustainable primarily through institutional support for initiatives based on community needs. This means that sustainability is not determined by the efforts of public management but rather by the interests, contexts, cultures, and territories of the people involved.
Because of the local interpretation of the problems and the corresponding solutions, Participatory Evaluation can be used to address each SDG in a way that conforms to each community's point of view.
As a result of the community's involvement in the evaluation, the stakeholders develop new capabilities and strengthen the ones they already have, promoting the continuity of the processes because now they have the know-how and the confidence to run a process by themselves. These capabilities remain in the communities, and, as has been seen in practice, these participatory evaluations have an even greater reach by creating local networks with other communities or social groups.
Now, the question is, how can this be done? A peer work process is an effective method for navigating the methodological framework of an evaluation. In participatory evaluations, the evaluator's role takes on a facilitator's nuance. This means that stakeholders decide together what to evaluate, when to assess, and how to evaluate, as well as to analyze the data and communicate the results.
To begin, we can mention seven principles of Participatory Evaluations (Tapella et al., 2021) that have been collectively constructed by a group of Latin American evaluators involved in evaluations of this type.
The principles are:
1. The stakeholders relevant to the intervention or situation being evaluated are actively and consciously incorporated into the evaluation process as subjects of rights.
2. Local knowledge is recognized as valid and essential for evaluation.
3. Institutional representatives work in partnership with local stakeholders in the design, implementation, and interpretation of the evaluation findings.
4. The use of didactic techniques and materials facilitates dialogue by generating spaces and procedures for the collection, analysis, and use of information.
5. The participating stakeholders are accountable for both evaluation processes and results.
6. The evaluation process strengthens local planning and decision-making skills.
7. External evaluators act as facilitators of the evaluation process.
At this point, it is important to highlight two ideas:
1. The role of the evaluator is more of a facilitator. As part of their most fundamental work, evaluators must understand the stakeholders’ context as it determines the calls for participation, the use and application of research instruments, and their systematization.
2. A greater amount of responsibility and foresight is fundamental in the application of the research and evaluation instruments.
While it's true that this model demands a longer development period and relies on the available resources for evaluation, it serves as a critical means to ensure the sustainability of actions aimed at achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
I believe that Participatory Evaluation makes a significant contribution to restoring citizenship, which has been taken from people in many ways. In the present day, political discourse is primarily focused on representative democracy, which, in theory and its purest form, should reflect the visions and voices of the communities it represents. However, in many cases, it provides less opportunity for active citizen participation. The participatory model, on the other hand, empowers people and promotes an environment for active listening between stakeholders. In addition, if the public makes its voice heard, legislators will be required to act on its behalf.
For greater outcomes regarding the SDGs, the Participatory Evaluation model promotes that the achievement of these goals is not so much a matter of political will or ideological positions but rather a cultural change in the way life is understood. This means, understanding life as an integral space of equity, participation and listening, in which the knowledge of all living and non-living beings, as well as the environment as a whole, is taken into consideration.
The participatory approach is a historical debt that governments owe to the public and the environment, whether designing public policies or conducting evaluations. Democratic societies must guarantee communal participatory spaces and secure the link between the institutional ecosystem and society.
Tapella, E., Rodríguez, P., Sanz, J., Chavez, J., Espinosa, J. (2021). Manual Siembra y Cosecha. Instituto Alemán de Evaluación de la Cooperación para el Desarrollo (DEval).
Mertens, D. M. (2005). Research and Evaluation in Education and-Psychology. Sage press.
Raquel Herrera is an emerging evaluator from Costa Rica, holding an undergraduate degree in Social Communication and a Master's degree in Evaluation of Developmental Programs and Projects from the University of Costa Rica. Currently, she is the Chair of the national EvalYouth Costa Rica chapter and a member of the current Executive Committee of ReLAC, the Network for Monitoring, Evaluation, and Systematization of Latin America and the Caribbean. Raquel's work primarily revolves around Participatory, Indigenous, and Decolonizing Evaluation, reflecting her keen interest and extensive involvement in these areas. Raquel can reached at email@example.com.