“Tell me again why you are going to Cameroon?” my wife asked. I paused, searching for an answer. New business? Not really, although that is always welcome. Old connections? I have very few among those currently working in Africa. What should I say? How could I explain?
I decided to confess.
“Because I am curious. There is something exciting going on across Africa. The African Evaluation Association—AfrEA—is playing a critical role. I want to learn more about it. Support it. Maybe be a part of it.”
She found that perfectly reasonable. I suppose that is why I married her.
Then she asked more questions about the conference and how my work might be useful to practitioners in that part of the world. As it turns out, she was curious, too. I believe many are, especially evaluation practitioners.
It takes a certain irrational obsessiveness, however, to fly 32 hours because you are curious.
For those not yet prepared to follow their curiosity to such lengths, I will be blogging about the AfrEA Conference over the next week.
You can find guest posts about the previous AfrEA conference in Ghana two years ago here, here, here, and here.
Check back here for the latest conference news from Youndé, Cameroon.
From Tarek Azzam in Accra, Ghana: Yesterday was the first day of the AfrEA Conference and it was busy. I, along with a group of colleagues, presented a workshop on developing evaluation capacity. It was well attended—almost 60 people—and the discussion was truly inspiring. Much of our conversation related to how development programs are typically evaluated by experts who are not only external to the organization, but external to the country. Out-of-country evaluators typically know a great deal about evaluation, and often they do a fantastic job, but their cultural competencies vary tremendously, severely limiting the utility of their work. When out-of-country evaluators complete their evaluations, they return home and their evaluation expertise leaves with them. Our workshop participants said they wanted to build evaluation capacity in Africa for Africans because it was the best way to strengthen evaluations and programs. So we facilitated a discussion of how to make that happen.
At first, the discussion was limited to what participants believed were the deficits of local African evaluators. This continued until one attendee stood up and passionately described what local evaluators bring to an evaluation that is unique and advantageous. Suddenly, the entire conversation turned around and participants began discussing how a deep understanding of local contexts, governmental systems, and history improves every step of the evaluation process, from the feasibility of designs to the use of results. This placed the deficiencies of local evaluators listed previously—most of which were technical—in crisp perspective. You can greatly advance your understanding of quantitative methods in a few months; you cannot expect to build a deep understanding of a place and its people in the same time.
The next step is to bring the conversation we had in the workshop to the wider AfrEA Conference. I will begin that process in a panel discussion that takes place later today. My objective is to use the panel to develop a list of strategic principles that can guide future evaluation capacity building efforts. If the principles reflect the values, strengths, and knowledge of those who want to develop their capacity, then the principles can be used to design meaningful capacity building efforts. It should be interesting—I will keep you posted.
From Tarek Azzam in Accra, Ghana: The last two days have been hectic on many fronts. Matt and I spent approximately 4 hours on Monday trying to work out technical bugs. Time well spent as it looks like we will be able to stream parts of the conference live. You can find the schedule and links here.
I have had the chance to speak with many conference participants from across Africa at various social events. In almost every conversation the same issue keeps emerging—the disconnect between what donors expect to see on the ground (and expect to be measured) and what grantees are actually seeing on the ground (and do not believe they can measure). Although this is a common issue in the US where I do much of my work, it appears to be more pronounced in the context of development programs.
This tension is a source of frustration for many of the people with whom I speak—they truly believe in the power of evaluation to improve programs, promote self-reflection, and achieve social change. However, demands from donors have pushed them to focus on evaluation questions and measures that are not necessarily useful to their programs or the people their programs benefit. I am interested in speaking with some of the donors attending the conference to get their perspective on this issue. I believe that donors may be looking for impact measures that can be aggregated across multiple grantees, and this may lead to the selection of measures that are less relevant to any single grantee, hence the tension.
I plan on keeping you updated on further conversations and discussions as they occur. Tomorrow I will be helping to conduct a workshop on building evaluation capacity within Africa, and really engaging participants as they help us come up with a list of competencies and capacities that are uniquely relevant to the development/African context. Based on the lively conversations I have had so far, I anticipate a rich and productive exchange of ideas tomorrow. I will share them with you as soon as I can.