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Why Evaluation Matters for Gender-Equality

Despite the progress made over the last two decades, women still lag behind men when it comes to economic opportunity, education, employment and participation in decision-making. Gender disparities persist in many countries  – which goes to show that bringing about greater gender equality is a tough job. The issues of gender equality have a lot to do with behavior. These behaviors are determined by mindsets, which in turn are formed by longstanding traditions and cultural factors. Influencing these norms is hard enough without a critical voice that reminds us that results have not (yet) been achieved, or things could have been done better. That’s where evaluation comes in.

Evaluation can strengthen our ability to achieve gender equality in three important ways. First, it can enables us  to take a critical look at existing norms, to look at existing programs and ask whether we are doing the right things. Secondly, evaluation allows us to review operational results in order to understand what has worked and why. And third, it provides a window through which we can compare results across the world in order to foster knowledge sharing.

All this sounds like standard fare for evaluation. But, here is what is different: gender roles and relations are rooted in deeply held, often subconscious norms, which define what success looks like; and in rather diverse ways across the globe. Achieving gender equality challenges us to put these norms to the test and calls for evaluations to demonstrate whether and why they change, and how these changes affect the well-being of men and women, girls and boys, and progress and prosperity of communities and countries. It also creates an imperative for evaluators to innovate and rise to another level of evaluation practice.

Shifting the Yardstick

Evaluating whether things have gone according to plan assumes benchmarks that tell us what’s right and wrong. Evaluations undertaken in this way ask whether objectives set at the beginning were achieved.  

An equally or maybe even more important question for gender equality is whether the underlying assumptions of an intervention were right. In the first instance, that means evaluating whether a project was a good fit with government policy. Many evaluations tend to stop at assessing relevance. But, they don’t have to, as another important question that evaluation needs to answer is whether an intervention is “fit for purpose.” This second question requires probing the values embedded in both the context and intervention to unpack overt and hidden assumptions about gender roles, how they are changing, and the role that interventions play in that process.

Such an approach challenges the evaluation practice to query the values it uses – explicitly and implicitly – in its assessment, as each judgment presupposes value systems against which to norm results and performance. Unpacking these norms as part of an evaluation process with the participation of stakeholders can create the space to share and listen to each other’s underlying assumptions and value systems. Valuable in itself, such exercise might lead to shifting the yardstick for defining what success looks like.

In this way, evaluation complements research that informs normative evaluation work with insights into underlying values, changes to them that occur as a deliberate or unintended consequence of interventions, and the way in which we view success and failure. Such insights will contribute to dialogue and facilitate the difficult process of transforming gender balance.

Creating Positive Incentives for Change

Research has shown that gender-equality, while desirable in itself, also positively impacts growth. Projects need to translate this promise into operational reality. Evaluation can help illustrate which interventions worked and give us a sense why and under which circumstances that has been so.

Once more, sounds rather run-of-the-mill evaluation practice!

Development and evaluation practices very often use rather broad brushstrokes for various stakeholders: policy-makers, decision-makers, public sector, private sector, beneficiaries, non-government organizations, as if they were monolithic without differentiation. When it comes to people affected by interventions – from changes to policies to programs and projects – very few differentiate within stakeholder groups, even less among women and men, boys and girls.

Unless, of course these are targeted programs, say for increasing girls’ school enrollment rates or improving maternal health. But, then there are many others that may affect female and male parts of the population, community, and household in different ways; and that positively or negatively, deliberately or unintentionally.

While research shows us what can happen, evaluation tells us what actually has happened and why, and what are the consequences. When people can see how measures to strengthen gender equality affect their lives, their communities, and prosperity, it becomes easier to accept and implement them.

It is when programs go on for too long while having negative effects that harm is done and reputations are damaged. Not when a justified critical reflection signals early on how to do better.

But it will take changing the discourse, the language in which leadership, management and staff speak about evaluation, and attitudes to get to that place. And it will take for evaluation to prove that it can deliver; not positive program outcomes, but positive incentives for change.

Creating Multiplier Effects for Transformational Outcomes

The pursuit of gender equality received a further boost with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in September this year. Gender equality is a standalone goal and also embedded in many of the other goals. Partnership is one of the five pillars on which successful implementation of the 2030 agenda rests.

As much as we recognize the importance of partnerships, it is no secret that it takes time and resources to do things together, often negotiating difficult arrangements, contrary views to arrive at hard won compromises.

How can evaluation help in such a difficult undertaking?

In a first instance, evaluation can help us understand better how well partnerships have worked and how they affected program efficiency.

But, more importantly, evidence from evaluation can help translate collective action into transformational outcomes. As with governments, communities, and people, it will require active engagement and convincing evidence to bring partners along in embedding gender equality in their work. Creating a greater collective understanding of the effects of values and norms, of operational realities and practices, and of results will help rally efforts, and resources around the shared goals and practical actions.

Evaluators at development institutions like the UN, World Bank, and other institutions can play a leading role in bringing partners together to continuously develop better methods and practices. It is a tough challenge but one that will differentiate evaluators. They must be able to  demonstrate with hard evidence how the world can be a better place when both genders enjoy equal opportunities and may serve as an example for those who are dedicated to serving other disadvantaged, excluded groups.

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Comment by LOYE Alexis Salvador on January 9, 2016 at 16:45

Thanks Caroline for this analysis. People are in agreement with gender-responsive evaluations. The main problem is how to do and how could we demonstrate causality effects of the projects/programs on gender equality? About the « How to do», there are of course materials provided by experts and networks like AGDEN (Africa Gender and Development Evaluators Network) but  those need to be contextualized. Concerning the «How could we demonstrate causality effects...», there is a big challenge: missing data. Even if using RCT gives good fits, such methods cannot be use for all the project, regardless to hypothesis...

Comment by NDIPONDJOU TIAGUE Evelyne on January 8, 2016 at 16:06

Many thanks for this article. As gender experts, the most important opportunity is the fact that all international organizations are leading gender and developement approach as one of the key success of their programs and projects. That should enable us to be more creative while evaluating gender specific projects or any other programs.

Comment by Florence Etta on January 8, 2016 at 13:37

This piece eloquently makes the case for AGDEN's and similar approaches to evaluation which is now popularly called gender responsive evaluation. AGDEN stands for Africa Gender & Development Evaluators Network - a continent wide network of evaluators engaging in researching, preaching, teaching and practising gender and human rights  responsive evaluation since its creation in 2002 by UN Women and the African Evaluation Association.   

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