Both evaluation and research are important and have their place. But they are not the same thing. Not so long ago I posted a link to a really good blog on what evaluation is and is not; and its worth pointing you in that direction again.
Just last week I was reviewing terms of reference for a tender call that had conflated the ideas of evaluation and research and had picked out elements of each to be fulfilled in the tender requirements. Not only was it a poorly constructed terms of reference (and I’ve talked about how important the terms of reference are before), but it was clear that the person who had put the ToR together didn’t know what evaluation (or research for that matter) really is.
There does appear to be a growing trend for researchers to muscle in on evaluation, mistaking it for a rich seam of research opportunities, rather than the independent validation and assessment process it actually is. Not only does this do the researchers a disservice, but it also does not provide NGOs with evaluations that are useful and accurate.
Research is incredibly important and necessary in international development to identify new knowledge and test new approaches, and I am not saying that NGOs should not engage in research. It certainly has a place in the sector. But don’t mistake it for a process that is designed to make judgements and recommendations for practical development of interventions in the immediate term, or to inform longer-term strategic development. Evaluation is an entirely different process.
There are similarities between the two processes, most notably in some data collection processes. But the similarity should really end there.
Recently the growing focus on randomised control trials (RTC) and non-randomised control trials as a golden standard for determining impact of a programme has become a subject of some debate with reasonable arguments either way. NGOs can get starry-eyed over the use of more complex tools such as RTC, believing that the results will be incontrovertible proof of success. But this is to miss the point of RTCs and to ignore the reasonable arguments against their use. Most importantly however using such complex tools in evaluation moves the control of the process away from the NGO in a way that is unhelpful. Although evaluations have to be independent, NGOs should be able to understand and facilitate the process and the tools used in order to get the most benefit out of the evaluation. Disempowering NGOs for the sake of research does not benefit anyone.
Good evaluations done well provide NGOs with an honest, accurate and useful assessment of success and failure for multiple stakeholders, which can be used to improve practical interventions and strategy. Good research done well can identify new and disruptive technologies, solutions and interventions that can help to drive forward development and improve quality of life for all. Used appropriately research and evaluation is a powerful combination. Used inappropriately, research and evaluation will achieve nothing.
What do you think? Have you used both research and evaluation in your NGO? How confident are you managing the evaluation process and the research process?