Feminist foreign policy and evaluation

DEval, the German Institute for the Evaluation of Development Cooperation, celebrated its 10th anniversary last night. It was a real-life event in a beautiful Berlin location bringing together an impressive crowd, including among others Svenja Schulze, our Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development. One of the topics of her keynote speech was the current federal government’s commitment to feminist development policy. What does that mean for evaluation? Responding to a question by Minister Schulze, Jörg Faust, Director of DEval, came up with four aspects:

  • A Do No Harm/research ethics, e.g., by anonymising data about interviewees
  • Context-sensitive research
  • Evaluation design that ensures a wide spread of people are ‚appropriately heard‘
  • More diverse evaluation teams

While these elements definitely make good ingredients for a feminist approach to evaluation, I wonder what is feminist about it. Shouldn’t any evaluation tick all these boxes?

As the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) puts it, „feminist development policy is centred around all people and tackles the root causes of injustice such as power relations between genders, social norms and role models.“ Let’s set aside this concept of ‚centering around all people‘ – I guess it only means that feminist policy is not for women only. Let’s look at the other half of the sentence. Wouldn’t that mean that evaluations should look into power relations and other (potential) root causes of gendered injustice, or at least examine whether and how projects have attempted to address those root causes? And what does it take for non-male people at the margins of society to be ‚appropriately heard‘? Won’t evaluators need to spend more time listening to more non-male people, in their own languages (btw. Translators without Borders appears to be doing a wonderful job on this)? Shouldn’t we have individual conversations not only with those that hold positions of power in a project, but also with intended ‚ultimate beneficiaries‘ of various backgrounds?

This is an aside, but an aside that is close to my heart. Often, I find it somewhat disrespectful and methodologically dodgy when evaluators organise group discussions for ‚grassroots‘ women to share how a project has changed (or not) aspects of their lives, while more privileged project stakeholders and external specialists are interviewed individually. Wouldn’t a feminist approach have to put this upside down, by inviting powerful people to reflect on project & context issues in focus groups, and organising individual interviews to learn about ‚grassroot women’s‘ personal experience in the project?

And, as evaluators, could we make a bigger effort to speak with women’s and lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) rights groups wherever we go, and generally identify more diverse experts for our key informant interviews? How about involving local/national/regional women’s and broader human rights experts and activists in the development of our data collection tools, in data analysis, and in crafting locally viable recommendations with a potential to transform power relations?

Sounds like this is asking too much? True, many evaluations I have come across (and I have seen many, in many roles) display only modest efforts to integrate gender and equity concerns, even though equity is part of the updated OECD-DAC effectiveness criterion for evaluation. Often, all you learn from such evaluations are the old messages that women and girls are worse off than the rest, and that social norms are to blame for that. Not very satisfying.

But there are evaluations out there, carried out by teams with a keen sense for rights-based work and power analysis, which have made the effort to reveal and test assumptions on gender roles underlying the programm logic. They have shown how a programme logic or theory of change that builds on a mistaken understanding of gender roles contributes to unwanted effects. That is the kind of finding that makes it into the executive summary of an evaluation report, and that is likely to open people’s eyes to the harm a conventional, gender blind approach to development can cause. Let’s not allow ‚feminist evaluation‘ to become a mere buzzword, or an excuse for wishy-washy methodologies. Let’s turn it into something meaningful that will yield new, potentially transformative, insights.

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