Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Presenting and discussing our findings

On 1 July 2014, we – Michaela Raab and Wolfgang Stuppert – presented the findings of our review at the DFID office in Whitehall (London). Some 30 participants from DFID and external organisations – representing chiefly NGOs and consulting firms working on violence against women and girls - attended the 2-hour event, including DFID staff outside Whitehall (who joined us via videoconference). After our presentation (slides available via this link), Sam Coope from DFID in Zimbabwe and Asmita Naik, an independent consultant, reported about their experience in VAWG-related evaluation.

The discussion that followed drew from the participants’ rich and diverse programming and research experience. We would like to flag a few points
that we have found particularly interesting. Those who have been in the meeting will notice that we have added a couple  of extra thoughts.

Do we want to have evaluation without high quality data? If you put it that way, no. And if, in our review, you don’t see “compelling evidence” in most paths to evaluation effectiveness, that does not mean that good data is superfluous. If your evaluation is going to be influential, you better make sure you base it on accurate data.

However, there are evaluations that do not need to collect data according to social science standards. For instance, one evaluation we examined traced the history of a long-term programme on the basis of interviews and group discussions with key staff only. The commissioner found it effective because it made a previously implicit theory of change more explicit, and helped the organisation to further develop its strategies. Arguably, this type of participatory sense-making exercise does not require any particularly rigorous data collection.

Choice of qualitative or quantitative approach: We did not discover any pattern that would link a certain evaluation approach to a certain type of intervention. It is commonly assumed that qualitative approaches work particularly well with formative evaluation, while in impact evaluation, quantitative research or a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches can yield robust evidence. 

Every so often we run into people who believe that the only rigorous evidence you can get is quantitative. That is wrong. Poor qualitative research yields poor data, and so does poor quantitative research. Good research of any kind tries to prevent bias through appropriate sampling and questions design; it gathers data from different perspectives, and is transparent about the tools it uses and their limitations.

Many impact evaluations happen too early to make sense, for instance if the theory of change of an intervention is still emerging, or if it is applied inconsistently or incompletely. There are programmes that start without a clear idea of the outcomes they want to achieve and how exactly they intend to get there. Where a programme is still searching its form, it makes no sense to spend money on rigorous impact evaluation – it won’t yield any evidence that can be used elsewhere. Better go for some different form of research and reflection, possibly something that involves substantive participation and sensitivity to VAWG-related issues, to improve the programme.

There seems to be a divide between evidence generated by academic research and evidence generated through evaluations. Lori Heise (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) noted that she could not see any overlap between the research-based publications on VAWG her team worked on, and the evaluation reports our review was based on. She advocated for tearing down the “Chinese Wall” between research and programming.

One could argue that the primary purpose of academic research is to generate knowledge (generalisable answers), while the primary purpose of evaluation is to improve programmes and to assess their effectiveness (specific answers). VAWG programming is mainly about improving women’s and girls’ lives – not necessarily about increasing knowledge.

Where a programme strives to produce scientific evidence, researchers should be involved in the programme starting from its design phase, to ensure a good match between programme implementation and the conditions for research. Our review report describes an excellent example for such work, Julia Kim’s evaluation of the Refentse Model of Post-Rape Care (2009; summarised on pages 30-33 of our review).

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