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A democratic culture supports evaluation, as enabling factors such a transparency and accountability create a demand for evaluation. In the same manner, although difficult, the pursuit of evaluation in non-democratic cultures may help to introduce important elements of reflection, transparency and accountability. Whilst evaluation is unlikely to bring about democracy, it can contribute to a democratic ethos.
The heralding of democracy in South Africa, and the memories and strong rejection of censorship helped to develop an evaluation culture in the country. Here evaluation is viewed not only as a technical exercise focused on program improvement; it is also seen as transformational.
The constitutional entrenchment of oversight bodies such as the Public Service Commission that has the express purpose of investigating, monitoring and evaluating the public service in line with nine values and principles of public administration – which intersect with democratic principles – has helped with agenda setting.
In this context, evaluation has been used to test policy relevance by assessing benefits from the perspectives of the beneficiaries; assist in civil service reform; and advance the values and principles of sound administration – efficiency, effectiveness, participation, transparency – all of which resonate and intersect with the OECD/DAC principles and general thrust of accountability for results.
Engaging with evaluation in the new democratic South Africa
I recollect how difficult it was, shortly after joining the newly mandated Department of Land Affairs in 1995 as head of M&E, to entrench ideals of free speech in one of the most historically repressive Ministries that was notorious for its role in implementing the repressive apartheid land regime. The new mandate of the department was now to conduct land reform as part of the transformation agenda. The negotiated settlement meant that this was to be a planned process in the form of the negotiated land reform program. It would rely upon economic models.
My task was to assess progress and provide analysis of the programme – at a time when free speech was still being embedded in society, government bureaucracies remained hierarchical, and candid inputs from a new M&E unit were difficult to absorb.
At that time M&E was largely absent in government and in Ministries. Donors dominated the evaluation agenda, and saw evaluation as a reporting obligation to their capitals on how their contributions were used. Capacity building was never defined or systematically pursued. Local evaluators were used in less important roles; the enigma of the “international expert” persisted. It was touted that for purposes of credibility the foreign expert was needed, and any engagement in the evaluation process by the evaluand would purportedly undermine the process. Ministries that had donor funding had to endure time-consuming and largely disempowering evaluations for small investments.
The position taken by South Africa in not accepting large World Bank loans reflected an ethos of not being too dependent on foreign aid and accompanying influence, and helped affirm the existing capacity to develop relevant approaches to evaluation.
Evaluation says Africa matters, and links development and democracy
From the Abidjan conference in 1998, when a small group gathered to engage on evaluation capacity development, until today when the continent and countries within it have hosted many successful events, evaluation in Africa has been closely linked to a transformation agenda.
In particular, the Third Conference of the African Evaluation Association (AfrEA) held in Cape Town in 2004 – one of the most successful to date by content and country participation – confirmed that Africa must lead in its own development.
This conference was a collaborative effort between AfrEA and the Public Service Commission of South Africa, a first between such parties on the continent. With the theme, Africa Matters, Evaluation Matters – Joining forces for Democracy and Development, it helped to codify the relationship between evaluation, democracy and development. With more than 500 participants from 56 countries, the conference gave impetus to those who were beginning to embed M&E programs in their own governments, including in South Africa. The intraregional networks built then and at other events persist today, and Africa as a continent signaled that the values of transparency and accountability were as important on the continent as elsewhere.
Evaluation in support of transformation
Evaluation has the potential to allow for more equal engagement between nations. It provides performance evidence and can even decrease reliance on international “league tables” and institutions that use what they call “evaluative evidence” to influence funding flows for development.
In such contexts, evaluation is seen as a means to sustain newly realized freedoms of expression. It is also seen as transformational, and as a means to speak truth to power. Evaluation as understood today was virtually non-existent in government prior to 1994, yet two decades later South Africa has managed to build one of the strongest country evaluation associations globally (SAMEA) with an active membership and M&E functions in most tiers of government. It has delivered thought leadership on how credible evaluation can influence public policy, and raised the issue that the key use of evaluation is to give voice and build the bridge between citizens and policy makers.
In conducting evaluation there needs to be sensitivity about the historical and political context, and recognition that evaluation is a very political activity that requires sound policy for its legitimacy and protection, as well as ongoing capacity building. The use of local networks and capacity have the potential to deliver more sustainable and meaningful evaluation, which may help the ideal of bringing together evaluation for democracy and development. It is a political, but worthy pursuit for the profession.