Pyae Phyo Maung argues that stand-alone evaluations of programs can often miss the most important lessons.
For a program working to improve people’s sexual health, things are a bit clearer.
Through activities such as health education, counselling and testing for infections and providing treatment it might be easy to say that the support makes changes in behaviour and sexual health.
But even in these kinds of programs, understanding how change happens is complex.
In such a program, although the activities may be great, change (in behaviour or sexual health) depends on other factors such as culture, people’s educational background, or social status.
Even if change does happen, improvement in sexual health in the community could be due to other factors. For example, the program cycle might coincide with a nation wide campaign on reproductive health. There could be through mass media campaigns, or local awareness raising initiatives. There are still questions about ‘contribution’ versus ‘attribution’.
So what about more complex programs like an advocacy program working to achieve policy and practice change? What about work in political areas such as responsible investment, human rights, or land rights?
In these programs, change happens in far more complex ways. This is due to involvement of multiple actors and donors, and operating in very dynamic and unpredictable environment.
External factors like civil society’s role in advocacy, willingness and commitment of politicians to listen and respond, the power of private sector in influencing the political sphere, the fairness of media, technical pressure from experts, all play a crucial role in shaping the advocacy results.
Although understanding change (outcomes) in community development is complex, it is worth investing due to the need for accountability and learning.
Particularly for change in complex political issues, a comprehensive understanding - about ‘What is change? How does it happen? Who involved in the process? And what are the factors that enable or disable the occurrence of the result? - is crucial.
It will have very high learning potential for everyone involved in the process – and could help to make strategic improvements.
Programs often conduct stand-alone evaluations – run by single donor or a development program. But these can only show a fraction of the story.
To holistically understand complex advocacy outcomes conducting joint evaluations and special studies between NGOs, communities and donors may be a better way.