The Empowering Potential of Evaluation Practices

Every month on a Thursday morning a multicultural group of development workers gathers in the heart of Phnom Penh to discuss learning and experiences. They named themselves the WOMEN’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) Interest Group’ and their forum is open to men and women, locals and expats. The agenda varies every month, but it never drifts away from gender theories and practices. Academics, researchers and practitioners engage in an informal debate, creating a space where everyone can feel comfortable asking questions and expressing doubts about the sector.

Last month the topic of discussion was Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E), with a particular focus on gender-aware approaches and gender-sensitive participatory methods and indicators. Measuring change and impact is often considered a necessity, but many organisations find it difficult to create a highly inclusive process that incorporates both quantitative and qualitative data. Donors put enormous pressure onFUNDED organisations to produce quarterly or annual reports that outline growth and achievements with concrete figures. Many organisations lack the time and resources to conduct an appropriate evaluation. As a result, their outputs often resemble a simple review rather than a comprehensive M&E strategy.

Overwhelmed by external events and imposed bureaucratic practices, many institutions do not have the opportunity to take a step back and consider every single factor necessary to gain a holistic view of the program. Evaluation per se entails a judgement – aCALCULATION of the quality, importance, and value of something. Hence, measuring change and impact in development projects (which is often considered to be a technical exercise), can become controversial. For instance, in some cases the choice itself of what to measure can reflect the priorities of a very specific group of individuals or institutions, which in turn can positively or negatively affect those intended to benefit from the project (Demetriades, 2007). When it comes to gender theories the task becomes even more complex as political and social bias are involved.

Kampot evaluationIn the villages around Kampot, Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Michela Magni.

In Cambodia gender-based approaches in M&E are considered very challenging since gender inequality is a contentious issue that is deeply rooted in society. Unemployment levels are extremely high. Although more than 80% ofWOMEN and girls over the age of 15 participate in the Cambodian workforce, 82% of these jobs are informal, andWOMEN earn about 70% of men’s wages. Cambodia’s most significant challenge over the next decade will be fashioning an economic environment in which the private sector can create enough jobs to handle the demographic imbalance.

Cambodia has experienced strong economic growth over the last decade, with the tourism, garment, construction, real estate and agriculture sectors playing a big part. Yet it remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, plagued by endemic corruption, limited educational opportunities, high-income inequality and poor job prospects. Given the growing inequality rates that Cambodia has been facing in the last decade and the futility of the government’s policies on this issue, there is a pressing need for organisations and institutions to provide women with opportunities for employment and training while challenging cultural biases and creating a more equal system.

There are several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are committed to providing the Khmer (Cambodian) population with better opportunities. Yet, although many of these do create prospects of employment, they often do not challenge the underlying gender stereotypes that contribute to the inequalityWOMEN experience in the job market.

The barriers that WOMEN face are not only related to education, but also to professional information and networks. Men usually gain higher levels of education, which aids them in finding the best sources of information and interpreting it. Men are also more able to engage in business networking, as it is more culturally appropriate for them to engage in activities held in the evening. Family responsibilities are usually delegated to women, who are considered solely responsible for family care. In such a male-dominated system women struggle to gain access to supporting services and to sources of information they need to effectively contribute to the Cambodian economy.

interviewee evaluationAn interviewee part of SHE’s Pilot Program evaluation, who runs her own micro-business. Photo taken in a village in Siem Reap Province, courtesy of Michela Magni.

It is also important to acknowledge the impact that gender inequality has on men. Not only are men themselves victims of gender-based stereotypes, but also they have the potential to play a crucial role in overcoming gender inequality. While conducting an evaluation for the SHE Investments Pilot Program the importance of husbands’ support for their partners emerged as a key criteria to guarantee the positive impact of the project on WOMEN and their household. Making men understand the importance of equal opportunities for women is an imperative condition for the longer-term success of a gender-driven program.

Gender, in fact, should be understood as a process rather than a category; the focus must be on challenging the stereotypes, norms and judgements related to masculinity and femininity rather than on “man” and “woman” as roles per se (Connell, 2012). Looking at the bigger picture would free us to understand and conceptualise gender as a process that affects poverty and recognise the urgency of ADDRESSING this issue.

“Gender affects everyone, all of the time. Gender affects the way we see each other, the way we interact, the institutions we create, the ways in which those institutions operate, and who benefits or suffers as a result of this” (Gillian Fletcher, 2015)

Space and time should be made for proper evaluations that take into consideration both quantitative and qualitative data. Qualitative data has the potential to provide a more nuanced analysis and reduce the possibility of distorted findings. It is also more likely to be gathered through participatory approaches, which enriches the program with the insights of its beneficiaries and stakeholders. In essence, there is an urgent need to forge a system that provides organisations with enough time to conduct their evaluations rigorously – a system that is patient.

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