Racism in the field of evaluation

Racism in the field of evaluation
5 contributions

Racism in the field of evaluation

Being in New York during the COVID pandemic and witnessing the recent Black Lives Movement rallies made me reflect more on racism. I find it comforting that EvalForward is a safe space where we can discuss ideas openly.

I have been thinking about these evaluation questions: 

  • Is there systemic racism in the field and practice of evaluation? 
  • How comfortable are we as evaluators, in talking about racism in our field?
  • How do we know where we stand in this issue? What can we do about it?

I want to begin by saying that I am not an expert on this issue. I am curious and I want to understand. In our office’s last town hall meeting, it was mentioned that racism, in its various forms, is a personal experience that if you are not in the receiving end, it would be hard to put the experience into words. I believe this is true.  The topic of racism makes many people cringe, feel uncomfortable, and feel defensive -and it should (I am one of those). The Black-Lives-Matter movement is not new. It’s always been there, and every now and then, a breaking point is reached that reignites the spark which becomes into a large flame. The tide of the BLM exposes other discriminatory behavior, may it be about women, gender-based discrimination, LGBTQ, subtle racism, regionalism, etc.

As evaluators, we pride ourselves on our skills to unpack complex problems, reflect on issues, make our findings, conclusion, and recommendation.  It is within this momentum of BLM that we could reflect as evaluators, in our offices, in our practices – how do we contribute to the issue – positive and/or negative? Are we enablers of discrimination? Are we passive observers? Are we active participants providing solutions? Or are we not aware of where we stand?

Do we recognize that often there is an inherent gap in capacities (including expertise in evaluation) that exist in the global north vs. global south; as a result of various reasons. This gap could be a result of generational poverty as a result of countries coming out of colonial rules and/or civil war, or simply because national capacities are only just emerging because these are new countries. It is essential to be reminded that some states have only had less than 50 years to develop, some countries have not even reached 20 years of independence (i.e., South Sudan, Kosovo, Serbia, Timor -Leste). This generational differences are reflected in the institutions in the countries, which translates to the national capacities. As evaluation commissioners, do we often expect that the “qualifications” and experiences (often we seek international experiences) from applicants coming from the global north and global south are the same?  When, in fact, the global south is already starting at a disadvantage? Are we using the right tools to assess what “qualifications” against the backdrop of capacity and experience gaps? What are we doing to reach out and resolve these gaps and make the field of evaluation even for everyone? Are we embedding opportunities for evaluation capacity in our evaluation?

In our evaluation offices, are we promoting diversity? Are we making sure that the evaluators/evaluation commissioners that are tasked in assessing and writing the story of development are from different backgrounds? Are we in danger of telling a single story? This TED talk is one of my favorites.  https://www.ted.com/search?q=The+danger+of+a+single+story.

I will leave it here.  It would be amazing to hear your perspective.


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  • Greeting!

    Quite a few instances of 'racism' in evaluation have been presented in this discussion. However, I find it hard to understand just how this awareness could enable one to deal with it. Of course, one could compile a long document on such examples and make it widely available. Even so, how is that going to help?

    My next point is that the term 'racism' is not well chosen. What it does is to confine a certain sub-type of discrimination to the differences in skin colour. There are many instances of such discrimination even within groups of same skin colour.

    For instance, say among people of X coloured skin, this kind of discrimination may occur across the following barriers:

       1. Urban and rural divide.

       2. What school/university one attended.

       3. Religion.

       4. Sex.

       5. Caste/social class.

       6. Nepotism and corruption.

    Discrimination of the kind under discussion can be motivated by any one or more of the six reasons given above within a group having the same skin colour. I believe that it would be unsound to ignore those, but to avoid excluding them, one has to view the problem as an instance of discrimination rather than racism.

    As for how to resolve this problem, it must be noted that it is a social issue arising from lack of ethical standards. Please note I am speaking of secular ethics which I prefer to call standards of common decency. It would be naïve to believe that legal measures could be of any help because there is a huge difference between having the 'right laws' on a country's statute books, signing of international conventions on one hand, and their actual enforcement on the other. So, I believe it would take some time to deal with this problem and it would require public education now and the incorporation of personal ethics into school education. Much learned talk may give one a sense of having done something, but that would hardly address the problem in the real world.

    Best wishes!

  • Thank you for this conversation. In fact, the same discussion had been started on Twitter by Tom Archibald (https://twitter.com/tgarchibald) with very fascinating points coming out. He also shared this. https://t.co/ynI88BlvZp?amp=1

    Well, in evaluation, unfortunately, racism is present.

    Looking at the Evaluations conducted in African countries, you realize most consultancies are given to a consultant from the global north even one with less experience or one just starting. The more experienced evaluator from the south is given an opportunity as a data collector (in some instances), and this is only because of existing protocols, or language barrier and terrain challenges. And this goes for Evaluations conducted in the global North too, the opportunity is still given to the same evaluators again, hence very minimal chances of the global south evaluators.

    Payment is also not the same. If we hold all factors constant, the consultant from the global North is highly remunerated as opposed to one from the south. This is in addition to the already incurred expenses, of bringing them into the country, expensive accommodation, and DSAs.

    Some of the donor-funded programs and international NGOs, bring in the consultants from their own country to conduct evaluations for the projects in the global South.

    As an evaluator, I once looked at an Evaluation report of a program conducted by a consultant from the global North and was surprised. The report did not highlight any Evaluation criteria or methodology. Some of the contents in the report included complains about an officer who arrived late and another who got sick during the evaluation process and also expressed anger that at a certain point, an FGD Interviewee mentioned the word mzungu (Mzungu is a Swahili name for a “white person”).

    On another instance, the organization simply brought a photographer from the global North, to take pictures to include in the report, but the person ended submitting our pictures taken via our smartphones, which we were sharing on the WhatsApp group that we had created to communicate when in the field for data collection. And to make it worse, he labeled his name. 

    I could go on and on but racism in Evaluation is present and it’s deep too, but those most affected are the Evaluators in the global South.


  • Dear Harvey,

    Good reflections! I believe that locally our fellow citizens who are not indigenous and have ancestry traced to European donor countries get priority treatment and higher pay. Even within the diversity promoting foreign governments' aid and UN agencies that talk a veneer of equality and equity, there is a seemingly a skeleton of racism. I notice groupings sometimes during major stakeholders' meetings on racial basis. Indigenous locals as beneficiaries (if representatives of beneficiaries from the grassroot have been invited) may usually be in the outer (4th) ring, followed in the inner (3rd) ring by junior government officials, then a  (2nd) ring of local employees of external aid agencies (wanting to be seen to be higher in status than public servants and and ordinary local civil society employees) and the inner (1st) ring of local descendants of Europeans (usually contractors of mixed race or one race), top management of donor and government agencies. Zambia is a multi racial state. Though, we should have ended racism 56 years ago at independence, sometimes it shows up in our national affairs. I wish to point out that some of the local descendants of Europeans do not engage in double dipping based on race and prefer to sit in the indigenous corner. Double dipping here I mean gaining as a Zambian and also from white privileges. The former Vice President of Zambia is a Zambian of Scottish descent. He has criticised some of the foreign development consultancy practices and the calibre of foreign consultants that get paid more than locals. 

    I also blame ourselves for not fighting to end systematic racism in our profession; especially leaders of evaluation associations, development agencies and leading academics. Even where team leaders for country evaluations may be an indigenous evaluator, I see the Obama frontage. This is because nothing much changes for the rest of the indigenous evaluators. National evaluation capacity does not develop at the pace that it should as the drivers are mostly external. Most employees of development agencies and dealing with evaluation development are globetrotters. They do not stay long enough in one country to see the good or problems they create for countries. When they leave, if they were the ones leading capacity development, the gap they leave is not easily filled up. However, local specialists even if they  emigrate will always have ties to their motherland. Zambia even 56 years after independence is struggling to build evaluation capacity. 

    In my opinion, what is seemingly adversely affecting evaluation capacity development is also the attitude of the leaders of the profession in Africa. Those who have been admitted into the inner ring do not demand what is good for their countries, continent and the rest of the indigenous evaluators but is good for themselves as individuals. Much of it is about promoting an individual self (CV) and being paid. Some fight to ascend to leadership of associations to get more assignments or to pinch from their coffers. Yes, we have one or two leaders who are selfless and have the passion to serve the profession and humanity. I humbly kneel to them. However, they are very few. We need more of them. So we have ended up with highly accredited academics or evaluators that sometimes accept assignments for peanuts. They will be reporting to less experienced expatriates and will happily sign off reports to up the quantity of their evaluation assignments for the sake of their CVs but not quality. What we end up with is the consultancy rate being lowered. If a commissioner can hire a University Professor who is prepared to be paid $250 or lower a day, how does he/she hire an emerging evaluator who shall ask for that amount?

    Kind regards,

    John T. Njovu


  • Dear Harvey,

    I hail from India in the global south and have been in the development sector for about 30 years now. I would like to briefly highlight my experiences in the field of evaluations in response to your concerns:

    Yes,  systemic racism is there in the field and practice of evaluation. In fact, it exists everywhere; even in the high offices of the  diversity and inclusion advocates; including EU & UN.

    In my experience, the victims of racism are equally uncomfortable as evaluators, in talking about racism in our field as they would not like to offend the commissioners of the evaluations and in the process being sidelined and losing their assignments and jobs.

    Rapid surveys, online surveys or detailed studies may be carried out in case  someone is seriously interested in understanding as  where we stand on this issue. Actions speak louder than words and therefore just keeping and making everyone sign on diversity and inclusion policies wouldn't deliver. The senior management need to practice it at every level to gradually change the equations if they really intend to change the scene in favour of the lesser privileged communities- be it black, brown yellow, tribal or any other such marginalized communities who have been on the receiving end of the discriminatory practices.

    Yes, The Black-Lives-Matter movement is not new. It’s always been there, this time it caught the attention of the high and mighty due to multiple reasons...US impending election being just one of them. In fact, I have a black colleague from Kenya who is really disturbed by the attention given by media to BLM in US & Europe and not highlighting the real issues of Blacks in Africa and gender based violence is one that was mentioned by him on 11 June 2020...in his words " Mercy Cherono was Tied and Dragged on a motorcycle while a police beats her...for 10kms till her clothes got tattered on the road, she was half naked. But sorry we are busy protesting in the US ." I am sharing a news clip of that incident with you for your reference.

    As evaluators, I would say we try to be enablers and would like to play an active role in the fields and also provide solutions. Unfortunately, in commissioned evaluations, our recommendations are hardly integrated in real practice as race comes into play at several levels. To begin with, a global north evaluator is generally preferred and the decision makers are aware of the reasons behind their choice.  As far as "Qualifications & Experiences " are concerned ,the global south is already starting at a disadvantage. The inherent gap in capacities (including expertise in evaluation) of  the global north vs. global south is going to stay as a result of various reasons and systemic discriminatory practices layered under fine prints. One obvious reason that I strongly oppose is candidates inability to prove any overseas experience As far as I am concerned, being an Indian; for the past three decades; I am generally assigned monitoring and evaluations assignments by the international agencies in India and have limited experience in neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh. Unless, one is given a chance to undertake overseas assignments; one is never ever going to have that experience and this vicious cycle can never be broken and the gaps in skills, capacities, wealth, gender, assets, power equation  etc. are going to stay forever. The Big Development Players are more interested in projecting the image that they have Diversity and Inclusion Policies in place in Black & White and never ever sincerely care to practice it to bring the lesser mortals at par with them.

    Archana Sharma

    Director, BINDU