Lessons from the African Evaluation Conference in Yaoundé

I spent the early part of March in Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon participating in the 7th international conference of the African Evaluation Association (AfrEA). Central to my role at this conference was the promotion of activities of a learning community of practice (Climate-Eval) which is my main job in the Independent Evaluation Office of the Global Environment Facility (GEF IEO).

According to AfrEA, more than 400 development evaluation practitioners from around the world attended the event. Like previous conferences of AfrEA, there was great excitement on issues that matter most to the competencies of evaluators such as methodology, approaches, tools, and capacity development.

As a journalist transitioning into evaluation, I arrived at the Yaoundé conference also excited particularly about the prospect of meeting members of my community with whom we mostly interact online but also slightly intimidated by the never ending learning curve ahead of me in this new professional journey of mine. I suspect no one noticed – just kidding. However, I was resolved on seizing all available learning opportunities to improve my understanding of existing and emerging evaluation theories and paradigms.

As expected, the conference was rife with substantive debates centered on evaluations in health, education, agriculture, food security, gender and what have you. Francophone evaluators met in conclaves, linkages between evaluation and policy were explored and new strategies were identified to strengthen voluntary organizations of professional evaluators (VOPEs). Evaluation geeks expertly and eloquently shared their knowledge and predictions of the future direction of evaluation in the 21st century very much to the admiration of younger evaluators. But the buzz around issues of methodology revealed only one part of the story.

The other part of the story is the daunting development environment that these evaluators left in their home countries before traveling to Yaoundé to learn new skills and make new contacts. I am talking specifically about the development challenges facing the local, national and regional governments in Africa with sometimes fewer or no solutions. Among these is the climate conundrum and the urgent need to tackle it in ways that result in the eradication of poverty and the achievement of the much needed sustainable development.

Why Climate Change Evaluation is Key to These Efforts of Poverty Reduction

The elevation of climate change to a standalone stream of work at this conference as opposed to previous ones was in part recognition by organizers of the urgent need to address the devastating impacts already hitting the livelihoods of local communities across Africa -- but also recognition of the urgency to reflect over creative and innovative ways to tackle climate change evaluation.As I learned from evaluators particularly young ones operating on the ground, new tools are essential to tackle emerging challenges but that it is also possible to arrive at credible conclusions using simple and existing frameworks. For example, budding Senegalese evaluator, Diop Ndeye Fatou described how she used a mix of focus groups, observations and interviews to gather both qualitative and quantitative data in her evaluation of the Great Green Wall, an environment project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by the World Bank to halt the advancing Sahara Desert along the Sahelien Belt of Africa. For interpretation and analysis, she used Thematic Analysis to analyze the qualitative data and SPSS to analyze quantitative data. In all, I sat through four panel discussions on climate change and environment with many experiences on climate change evaluations. I came away convinced that the future of the practice on the continent is bright. However work is needed especially as we now know the threats posed to livelihoods and ecosystems of Sub-Sahara Africa by the changing climate.As you can see from the key findings below from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all development actors in Africa including evaluators of climate change have their hands full. With a HIGH LEVEL OF CONFIDENCE, the IPCC found in its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) issued recently that:

  1. Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and climate variability, a situation aggravated by the interaction of ‘multiple stresses’, occurring at various levels, and low adaptive capacity.
  2. African farmers have developed several adaptation options to cope with current climate variability, but such adaptations may not be sufficient for future changes of climate.
  3. Agricultural production and food security (including access to food) in many African countries and regions are likely to be severely compromised by climate change and climate variability.

These findings confirm the interconnectedness between climate change and other development areas such as agriculture, food security and natural resources management in general. While development experts have increasingly argued for an integrated approach to these problems, the basic reality is that there are few examples and best practices to demonstrate how this works well. Policy makers at local, national, regional and global levels have received the summary report of the IPCC to guide in policy formulation. It is expected that questions will arise from this report on how best to design climate change and development interventions. In the case of Africa, the discourse is alive. Policy makers and evaluators alike are seeking solutions to design development interventions that can lift people out of poverty. This explains why climate change and development evaluation practice will be key to the overall quest for poverty eradication in years and decades to come on the continent.A ‘Different’ kind of capacity development needed to address emerging challengesA two hours plenary on the current landscape and future opportunities of capacity development in Africa gave me a panoramic view of current thinking at least within the donor community. Development agencies have heavily invested in all sorts of causes in Africa during the past 50 years. These organizations including UNDP, African Development Bank, GEF IEO, UN Women, USAID and the Finish Ministry of Foreign Affairs took turns to provide their perspectives on how local evaluation capacity can be nurtured to generate a new body of evidence required to package development solutionsDespite all the controversies around capacity development, I found out it is still essential to the development process in Africa. But the difference this time around is that unlike previous capacity development efforts sometimes hatched out of simplistic understanding of the environment in which practitioners operate, the ‘political economy’ should be central to these efforts. A 2013 study by the Centre for Learning on Evaluation and Results Anglophone Africa (CLEAR AA) found that the political economy of a country conditions the opportunities for evaluation to be used in policy processes. In addition, CLEAR AA concluded that while it may be important to build the technical capacity of evaluators, emphasis also needs to be on developing the capacities of policy makers who demand and use evaluations.This recognition of the political economy reminds me of another theme that was echoed over and over during the conference known as “made-in-Africa” evaluation. I am not going to get into the meaning of the word because of its contentious character.But I recently talked to the new president of the African Association (AfrEA), Mr Adam Suleiman of Nigeria who has positioned “Made-in-Africa” at the center of his governing platform. I wanted an African perspective of this concept. Adam explains that “Made-in-Africa evaluation is the growing use of African evaluation capacity for evaluation in Africa rather than the overly emphasized building of that capacity. It simply means also a two way learning loop for evaluators working in Africa and/or on Africa to learn about the workable practices, tools, politics, and norms that help shape evaluation results and are critical to applying evaluation recommendations.”In conclusion, capacity development programs stand to benefit if they are conceived and packaged in keeping to this emerging realities.Were you in Yaoundé and have thoughts on this blog or other experiences around these issues, please go ahead and share your views here.

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