Development impact evaluations have gained renewed attention in the wake of development effectiveness debates and the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations. These emphasize the importance of “leaving no one behind” and reaching the ultra-poor in development interventions. This article in the American Journal of Evaluation presents the principles and findings of a new Participatory Assessment of Development (PADev) evaluation approach that was co-designed with Dutch nongovernmental organizations and Northern and African research institutes in the context of rural development in Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Although participatory approaches in development evaluations have become widely accepted since the 1990s, the PADev approach is different by taking holism and local knowledge as its methodological starting points. This enables PADev to assess the differentiated effects of development interventions across different sub-groups in a community through inter-subjectivity. Instead of validation through subjectivity, which most participatory approaches do, PADev validates through inter-subjectivity.
Not only is the causal object of the assessment in PADev determined by community workshop participants. But also, are the self-reported changes the outcome of negotiated analyses and reconstructions of causal events and interventions. In a three-day, nine-exercises setting (see PADev Guidebook), five sub-groups in a community (e.g. elderly men, elderly women, young men, young women, community leaders) recall positive and negative changes in their community over the past 20-30 years, unprompted. The assessed changes are organized according to six types of capitals and capabilities (module 2). Later on, participants are asked which interventions contributed to the major positive changes, and which interventions helped to mitigate the major negative changes (module 6).
For example, in Tô, Burkina Faso, workshop participants attributed a change in human capital to a school-building project:
“The school building in Tô did not help to build the knowledge of the very poor when it first came, since they simply did not send their children to school as they thought the school was not even meant for them. But when the rains were too heavy and their house leaked, they would sleep on the veranda of the building and find shelter there. They still do this, but some of them now also send their children to school.”
Pure subjectivity is hereby replaced by inter-subjectivity. Bringing together different community sub-group reports of important life changes is not without flaws. However, when similar mechanisms behind between interventions and effects are identified across these different sub-groups, this increases the likelihood of a causal relationship to exist. Insofar the causal reconstructions refer to the social domain, they are also powerful self-fulfilling prophecies: people acting as if the causal relation between an intervention and an outcome is true do actually help it to become true. Discovering the complex interactions and multiple causal relations between the different dimensions in the development process (actors, interventions, livelihood domains, socio-economic categories of people and time) shows the limitations of evaluation approaches that single out one specific intervention amongst many and according to self-defined criteria. The PADev approach shows that the ceteris paribus conditions in the real world are complex, multi-fold, and inter-related to other interventions and they are factors that require in-depth understanding rather than controlling.
Taken all things together, the article positions PADev as a variant of ‘Participatory’ approaches (according to the typology of Stern, 2012, Table 3.3), but with overlaps to the ‘Synthesis studies’. As such, it can function as a community-level complement to single-intervention, quantitative impact evaluations, as a follow-up or predecessor, so unravel measured relationships, or come up with new questions and relationships to be explored further. The article concludes that if PADev is taken-up by multiple stakeholders, including development beneficiaries and stakeholders, it can contribute to a process of local history writing, knowledge sharing, capacity development and providing input into community action plans and the strategies of CBOs and NGOs.