By Chris Barnett

Those of us who undertake evaluations know what if feels like to be in a contested space, sometimes all too painfully! There are funders who push back on findings, project staff who want conclusions to appear less severe, or competing perspectives from different review groups and committees. If handled well – and with adequate protection of the evaluator’s independence – this contestation and deliberation can be a valuable process for improving quality.

Yet, evaluations are also political, and we should expect them to be challenging. After all, they take place in an organisational or project context where stakeholders should have a ‘stake’ in the findings. If timely and relevant, evaluation findings should have implications for future priorities, plans and resource use – and there will be winners and losers. All too often however, these different political interests are conflated with quality or other concerns, or the least powerful have no voice in the evaluation at all.

If we regard ethics as being about right and wrong behaviour, and the values that underpin such behaviour, then it could have something to contribute to this space. The challenge is to find ways for ethical theory and practice to inform not only, how stakeholders are included, but who is included and excluded throughout the evaluation process, as well as how evidence, knowledge and values can be better debated and deliberated (and by whom) to achieve greater social progress.

In a special editorial on ‘ethics and evaluation' for the Journal of Development Effectiveness, Laura Camfield and I explore some of these issues. We argue that the wholesale borrowing of research ethics is often too narrow as it focuses almost exclusively on a one way researcher–respondent (human subject) relationship, with little regard for other stakeholders in the evaluation process (or involvement of the most marginalised). While the typical ethical focus on gaining informed consent or ensuring respondent confidentiality is very important, they tend to be preoccupied with just one prime (largely extractive) relationship. In reality, power, values and norms underpin all relationships, even if these are often hidden or ignored.

We explore this further through three papers. The first paper, by Leslie Groves Williams, provides an overview from a recent review of ethical principles, guidance, and practice as currently applied in international development. The second paper, by Caitlin Scott, offers a commissioner’s perspective and begins to explore the political and economic background to the challenges identified by Groves Williams. The third paper, by Peter O’Flynn (et al), completes the picture by offering an evaluator’s perspective, arguing that the ethical scrutiny offered by both formal institutional review boards and individual professionalism are not sufficient to address the range of ethical issues faced by evaluators.

Ethics has a broader role to play in helping evaluators (and all stakeholders) to be more explicit and deliberate in whose values and rights are included – and even excluded. We put forward a couple of proposals in this direction: one that considers the various trade-offs between methodological rigour and inclusion (participation) at each stage of an evaluation, and the other that views evaluation as one form of knowledge to be deliberated, not just by policy-makers (the powerful) but citizens more generally. Both are only suggestions, but attempt to find common ground in tackling unbalanced (and implicit) relationships within an evaluation – and in a way that is more transparent and deliberate about their ethical and political underpinnings.

Partner(s): Itad, Institute of Development Studies, University of East Anglia