Case Study: Project Evaluation Ethics

When you think about doing evaluation, what comes to mind? I think most often we first consider gathering the data needed to understand whether the project has been a success and why (or why not). This is reasonable and logical and is often the purpose of evaluation. But, there are other aspects of evaluation, which must also be considered, including the ethics of how the evaluation is conducted. Evaluation is essentially social research and almost always involves people. As such, there is an entire school of thought devoted to conducting social research with people in a way that is ethical: that gathers valid, reliable data while also protecting an individual or group’s right to privacy and anonymity.

This is extremely relevant in developing country contexts. Development projects are about change. They seek to change health outcomes, education results, political transparency, human rights, etc., for the better. Most development projects have at their root good intentions. However, project implementation and related project evaluation can also dig up those forces that may resist this change.

For example, I once conducted an evaluation of an education project that sought to create parent-teacher councils in schools. The fundamental theory behind the project was that if parents and teachers work together, education (both in terms of resources available and the teaching itself) will improve. The project was largely a success. However, when conducting the evaluation, we had to be very careful about protecting the participants’ and respondents’ anonymity. The project was political in the sense that parents in this society had a traditionally low level of involvement in schools. Thus, their increased presence was sometimes seen as a threat by the school Director and some teachers. Given that the results of the evaluation were to be shared with the entire school community, we needed to be very careful about maintaining, as much as possible, the anonymity of those participating in the evaluation. We also wanted to limit the incidence of adverse consequences to participation. This enabled respondents to be open and honest with us about what worked and what didn’t. People could talk to us without fearing that there would be reprisals from the Directors we knew didn’t fully support the project. We also wanted to speak with some of the students, but had to make sure that we had parental authorization and an additional adult present when doing so.

So how do we get a handle on these ethical considerations? A good starting place is the set of standards created by the American Evaluation Association. This set of standards lays out the basics. But, it is often not enough to simply understand the standards. One of my favorite practical thinkers on this topic is an evaluator by the name of Jane Ritchie. Her book, Qualitative Research Practice, includes an excellent chapter on how to deal with issues such as informed consent, avoiding adverse consequences, confidentiality, and generally developing an ethical conscience. A number of other organizations have created guidelines specifically for evaluators in developing country contexts, such as this one by the Australian Council for International Development.

Of course, this topic is also covered in American University’s Graduate Certificate in Project Monitoring and Evaluation. Students are required to complete an online introduction to “Human Subjects Research” and will incorporate ethical considerations into all projects completed for their certificate.

About the Author
Leslie Sherriff has worked since 1996 in the international relief and development field. Her experience includes nine years with Catholic Relief Services, one of the largest relief and development organizations in the United States. During that time, Ms. Sherriff helped design the CRS Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) social housing program, which has been recognized as a leader in its field, prompting real legislative change in BiH and subsequent funding from a variety of donors. Ms. Sherriff holds a Master of Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh in the USA and a Master of Evaluation and Social Research from London Metropolitan University in London, England.

To learn more about American University’s online Graduate Certificate in Project Monitoring and Evaluation, request more information or call us toll free at 855-725-7614.