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02 Aug 2012

Whose Development Results Count? By Fred Carden

By Fred Carden, IDRC.

“It is not about your project; it is about my country”.

© J. Strecker

This comment was made by a Mauritanian evaluator in response to a vigorous methodological debate between two expert evaluators who were exploring what methods should be used to evaluate development programming.

What the quote points out is that we often ignore the fundamental questions around,

  • Whose development and whose results matter?
  • Whose values are important?
  • How do we define progress?

My position is that development results are not about the project or program being implemented (the aid agenda) but about the change that is taking place on the ground.  The unit of analysis should not be the aid program or aid effectiveness, but development that is improving the lives of all people in a society and doing so in as equitable a manner as possible. This is a fundamental challenge to the aid effectiveness agenda which tends to focus on the direct connections between an aid package and improvements in a particular country.

All social science, including evaluation, is conducted in contested environments where the science must dance with the values and politics of those who use the science.  The science must contend with human volition and decision processes with all their uncertainties and indecision.  What is most important here is to be clear on whose values and beliefs are included and whose are excluded.

Building this shift calls for changes in how we think about methods for measuring development results.  To get to this, we need to rethink evaluation for development to shift our focus and priority away from the project or program and its funding to development effects on the ground. The political agenda has already moved here with the Paris Declaration.  Practice is lagging. We need to reshape evaluation to take the local setting not the project or program as its unit of analysis. And we need to reform development and evaluation practice to directly address the asymmetries and inequities in North-South dialogue. (see a collaborative paper I wrote on this)

These changes require strong leadership, both at the top and in the evaluation community.  But we can never forget that method alone does not protect knowledge claims.  We must learn and track the values and socio-political interests of those who make decisions and those who live with the consequences of decisions taken. Evaluation should contribute to change.  So it is not only about project evaluation or even program evaluation, but about development evaluation.  To reiterate the quote I started with, we must never forget that, “it is not about your project; it is about my country”.


Fred Carden is Director of the Evaluation Unit at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa. Email:

The views expressed are those of the author. The blog draws on a longer working paper, Development is not an Intervention. An earlier version of this piece first appeared in NORRAG NEWS Value for Money in International Education: A New World of Results, Impacts and Outcomes, No.47, April 2012, pp. 59-60.

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