Gender & Evaluation led me to the Blue Marble

Earlier this month, I received an announcement from Rituu about a webinar entitled. 'Global Systems Change Design & Eval: Webinar on Blue Marble Evaluation." While that title doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, something about it caught my attention. It must have been the Blue Marble. What's that got to do with evaluation?

While I have yet to assume the mantle of an "evaluator," evaluation and organizational learning, more generally, have become increasingly important parts of my work. My challenges in this work often come from the fact that it is often driven by accountability to funding organizations and is usually project or, at best, program-focused. Both of these characteristics of evaluation can limit its value as a learning exercise, and it is precisely that learning possibility that most excites me in my work. 

Michael Quinn Patton and a group of co-conspirators have begun to construct a global network around the idea of "Blue Marble Evaluation" This project is still very new, but I find that the Blue Marble idea holds the potential for an overdue adaptation of the whole evaluation enterprise to a rapidly changing global environment. What's not to like about that? Why Blue Marble? The name hearkens back to the days of the Apollo space missions and Apollo 17 in 1972, in particular, when an Apollo astronaut became the first earthling to capture a photo of the entire planet from space. The Blue Marblers see this iconic image of earth as the perfect avatar for a network that wants to be more global and holistic in its inspiration. Hence, Blue Marble Evaluators... 

Blue Marble sees that, while  governments and nation-states remain critical sites of policy development and debate, those states increasingly find themselves to be acting to address problems that are regional or global in nature. Climate change is only one such problem. In addressing these problems, states are joined by complex networks of non-state actors, including all kinds of civil society organizations and movements. As those actors have developed networks of connection beyond and around states, a wide range of truly global change initiatives has emerged. Governments are there for sure, but so are all kinds of other actors. As these initiatives unfold, multi-stakeholder “tables” emerge to design their interventions and propel them forward. These platforms are not generally “organizations” in the classic sense of that word, and their interventions aren’t easily understood as “projects” or “programs.” It is not hard to see a role in this complex process for evaluators with a holistic, global vision, and an updated set of tools that include tools to understand how very local processes fit into complex globa...

Having started to engage with some of the tables driving these global change initiatives, the Blue Marble network observes that evaluators are not yet at the table in any meaningful way. In part, this may be a demand question in that the tables do not yet see the need for evaluation in the sense that they understand it. But Quinn Patton and his colleagues insist that it is also a supply problem…that evaluation as a profession has yet to rise to the challenge of engaging with these messy, globalized, multi-stakeholder spaces that might defy logical frameworks.

The mission of Blue Marble is to work with these global change initiatives to explore ways in which holistic, global-minded evaluation might contribute to their success AND to develop a global network of evaluators prepared to take their seat at the table and prove the value of their participation. The Blue Marblers are far from the first to identify this challenge or move to address it, but they have been more thoughtful in analyzing the problem, and more intentional in designing solutions than other initiatives I’ve seen. In part based on the reputation of the person most visible in this process (one supposes), they have also attracted some resources from The McKnight Foundation to help develop their network. This is no small accomplishment.

Is the holistic analysis promoted by the Blue Marblers a gendered analysis of these global initiatives? Who will form part of this emerging Blue Marble team, and will they incorporate the tools and perspectives that gender specialists have brought to evaluation? To be successful in the long run, the Blue Marble must do so, but the webinar was somewhat silent on this issue. It may remain for others in this emerging network to insist that the approach answer this challenge.

In a sense, the Blue Marble initiative is one more global change initiative, itself the very sort of thing it hopes to promote, support and strengthen. In navigating such waters, it will quickly confront the issues of power and inclusion on which many such ambitions have shattered in the past. If Blue Marble is only an effort to expand the "practice" of a small number of people, it will surely not progress. As one clueless listener to a Blue Marble intro webinar, I have no idea how they see such issues. 

The network will also confront the characteristics of the profession in which it is rooted and whose principles guide its core vision. The Blue Marblers propose to challenge many of the cherished assumptions of the evaluation trade. For example, the evaluators they envision at these global tables may well have to break out of the box of being “back end” operators, content to explore and describe results. Blue Marble Evaluators will be asked to engage with the entire learning cycle, including “up front” interventions, based on emerging shared design principles. That's an exciting transformation of the role, but when does an “evaluator” become something else, or does the baggage associated with that term get in the way of the necessary transformation? 

The task that this fledgling operation has identified for itself is enormous, and there is every reason to be skeptical about the prospects for success. At the same time, Blue Marble has taken on a challenge that is very real in the current global context, and they have some highly experienced and creative people thinking about how to address that challenge. They also seem aware that a task of this scope will require energy and ideas that may not be in their current networks of connection. I, for one, will throw my name into the hat to see, what, if anything, I can contribute. If your curiosity is similarly piqued, check out the Blue Marble website or join one of their webinars or other events, and see for yourself.

A version of this post has also appeared in the blog, 'Just Solutions'

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Comment by Rituu B Nanda on January 26, 2019 at 23:56

Dear Kevin,

Thanks for sharing your experience on blue marble. i could not attend the webinar but here i get a beautiful gift from you!

I too am very drawn to L in MEAL and enjoy facilitating collective reflection. I am currently involved in systemic Participatory action research and the idea of  of evaluating human response to global systems change interesting. I have filled up a survey Blue Marble team.

As a moderator of this community I appreciate your blog very much because it has your experiential knowledge. Additionally you have added  links for further reading. how was your experience of writing a blog? 

I look forward to many more blogs from you.

Rituu

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