Participatory evaluation guide - Understanding the context

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Understanding the context for the project

Once a friendly environment has been established, with enough trust to speak openly, we have found it more effective and useful to talk around rights, and the issues with which the project is dealing, rather than moving straight to direct talk about the project itself. This helps to overcome the problem of respondents telling you what they think you want to hear, or trying to get a specific, pre-formed message across to you. It also helps to understand the context in which the project is happening, the trends in and contributions to social change in relation to the project objectives, giving important information and perspectives for good design of future work towards them.

For example, when evaluating a project working on young people's sexual rights in a small town in Kenya, Hannah ran a workshop with 12 young people aged 14-24, involved in project activities. The first day we talked about rights, what they are and how they are lived. They looked at the conflict between their own rights and their responsibilities, cultural expectations of behaviour and power relations. Authoritarian and hierarchical structures in the family and society, poverty and strong religious moral judgements all influenced their access to rights. We talked about their attitudes to and experiences of sex and sexuality. They talked about sexual rights, as learned from involvement in project activities, but also demonstrated much confusion and conflict with some of their traditional and religious beliefs: Is masturbation OK or bad? Sex outside of marriage is wrong, but even church elders are having mistresses... I want and am physically drawn to sexual activity, but I know it is wrong... am I bad? If a girl can't afford soap and sanitary towels, is it any wonder she wants to have sex with an older boy who can give her some money? And perhaps most controversially - whose rights take precedence - the wife's right to say no to sex, or her husband's conjugal rights? Sometimes these contradictions were described directly, other times it was up to me to point out inconsistencies in what was being said to allow further exploration of how their attitudes to sex were developed. However, understanding this messy reality did help with understanding why some strategies to improve for sexual rights and health were falling flat. After all it was an area with one of the highest prevalence rates for HIV and AIDS, yet even young people who had lost their own parents to the disease were reluctant to accept education about using condoms.

In another case, developing a case study for an evaluation of a women's rights and governance project in The Gambia, 12 grassroots women activists came together to discuss the project. We spent the first day looking at the rights they have in the personal, household and public spheres, and the differences in their lives from their own grandmothers. When we came the following day to discuss the project, we had a strong basis for understanding the significance of the changes we were discussing. In both cases, this background was very much appreciated by the implementing partners' management teams. One Executive Director explained that this type of information was never reported and yet was so valuable to properly explain what they do, why they do it, and the impact it has.

Useful Tools and Activities

There are several types of activities that can be used to set the environment and facilitate groups to describe aspects of their social, cultural, political and physical environment, important to understand the significance of changes taking place. These include:

Rough Guide and Mapping Activities to get a sense of the physical environment, and important spaces and places to the participant groups. This can be a good guide to further exploration and selection of issues and changes to explore.

[How rights are lived]: different exercises can be used to explore what participants know about rights in theory and how they experience them in practice, and spark debate on the power and social issues which impact on their access to rights.

Mapping rights of the body, household and community

Timeline to explore how people's lives, and specific cultural, social or policy issues, have changed over time.

Role play can be used for participants to illustrate some of the issues or dynamics related to accessing specific rights. For example a parent and child, teacher and pupil relationship, or a working or citizen / government relationship.