The Evaluation of Empowerment, why is it so challenging?

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is considered one of the greatest contributors to the development of evaluation policies and guidelines in the field of international development initiatives. According to the OECD, evaluation is a systemic and objective assessment, of an ongoing or completed project, programme or policy, its design, implementation and results. The goal of this undertaking is to
“determine the relevance and fulfilment of objectives, developmental efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability. An evaluation should provide information that is credible and useful, enabling the incorporation of lessons learned into the decision-making process of both recipients and donors” (OECD, 1991,p.5).

Evaluating what happened during and after the delivery of a development programme aims to observe if empowerment has been achieved. This involves tracking changes in relationships. However, due to the dynamic, complex and contextual nature of empowerment, “these changes are not simple cause and effect changes in which a ‘single event’ outcome can be attributed to a set of inputs and outputs” (Holland & Ruedin, 2012). Hence, evaluation of development programmes, that aim at empowering its recipients,  are viewed as the litmus test for empowerment, reporting back whether poor and subordinate groups have effectively advanced their particular interests through their own choices and actions or not  (Walton, 2003).

Evaluation of empowerment might cause tension in relationships. On the ground programme managers are accountable to their own constituents (parliaments, managers, tax payers….) as well as to the programme beneficiaries. To satisfy the first group, they need to provide measurable outcomes, which come sometimes at the expense of empowering processes that are usually complex and difficult-to-predict. (Guijt, 2007). This means the process of evaluating someone else’s empowerment is potentially disempowering. Taylor (2000) cautioned evaluators that “the measurement of empowerment must not be allowed to become something that the more powerful do to the less powerful” (p.12.) . Majoux (2003) explained that this ‘wrong-doing’ is mostly due to the selection of a particular set of indicators which are based on underlying theoretical, and often political, understanding of what types of impacts are important to the recipients.