African theories of change: lost in translation?
The word ‘evaluation’ has several different meanings in African languages. In the Yoruba language, evaluation is often associated with ‘ayewo’ which means ‘investigation’. The meaning ties in with the cultural concept of evaluation. Many African societies have ‘evaluation’ rooted in their traditions in that they undertake all kinds of ‘investigations’ before they embark on a major project – farming, marriage, travel, assessment of causes and sources of illness.
How important then are ‘traditional’ cultural concepts to ‘modern’ thinking on evaluation? “Very important” was the predominant feeling at the recent African Evaluation Association (AfrEA) conference in Accra, Ghana. There was a strong call for using African evaluation methods and African-based theories of change.
But what does ‘Africa-based theory of change’ really mean? The theory-based approach to impact evaluation is one that maps out the causal chain of a development intervention, from inputs to outcomes to impacts. It tests the underlying assumptions to answer the crucial question of ‘why’ a development programme should have an impact. An important aspect in a theory-based approach is a deep understanding of the context (White, 2009). What this means from the African perspective, is that each theory of change needs to be adapted to the specific local context.
Participants at the AfrEA conference explored how African-based theories of change differ from western concepts. The answer lies in the understanding of the context. The ‘investigations’ conducted in many African societies are much like ‘ex-ante’ evaluative processes. They are based on traditional knowledge, societal norms, history, cosmology, and the long-term aspirations of people. The evaluators/investigators are elders and priests who are the custodians of traditional knowledge. Their analysis is usually based on animated group discussions about the quality of life to which people aspire.
The outcomes they look for are usually dignity, societal acceptance, conformity with societal norms. A ‘rich’ person is therefore defined not in terms of his wealth but in terms of the values shared with others as part of a cohesive community. Factoring in this subjective concept of who is ‘rich’ is therefore quite significant while creating indicators for impact evaluations.
While it is important to build local knowledge into impact evaluations, we need to reflect a bit more on how we could do this. African evaluators favouring this approach should propose many more explicit examples of Africa-based theories of change. They need to explain how these differ from Western-based theories. Africa-based theories of change should be examined critically vis-à-vis current theories of change. They should be carefully tested in impact evaluations, and combined with other African evaluation methods. This is the only way we can unravel and explicate the concept of Africa-based theories of change.
Dr. Sulley Gariba is the Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Alternatives (IPA) and is a Policy Advisor to the Vice-President of Ghana.