Evaluation begins with dialogue

When I was working at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), I began to learn evaluation theory by working on evaluating development assistance projects with people from overseas aid agencies. There are various types of evaluations, such as personnel evaluations, organizational evaluations, and project evaluations. Here, I discuss the evaluation of social interventions (called programs, projects or the like) to solve social issues.

The term evaluation can be translated as hyoka, but the word has a slightly different meaning from the sense of hyoka in Japanese, which is mostly grading and control.

For example, I was involved in the work of evaluating a JICA-supported project which aimed to improve the lives of people living in slums in Kenya, Africa.

Since it was an evaluation, some kind of measurement was necessary, but how can we measure how much the lives of slum people have improved? You may think that it is good enough to score by a general index that is easy to measure, but it is not.

For example, if you are Japanese, you might imagine that improving your life means getting rich economically. If so, if you look at how much people’s incomes have gone up, you can evaluate the project.

However, when we did the research in the field, the first thing they wanted to do in a tough environment was to send their children to school, to be able to eat twice a day, and to be able to start something on their own.

If we do not understand the current situation and evaluate the project only with the indicators that are easy to measure, we will miss the point.

It is important for the evaluator to confirm the significance and value of the project implementation through dialogue with people involved in the project, and to proceed with the evaluation while confirming whether the value is being generated.

In other words, the first step in evaluation is to share with stakeholders what the project is for and what value it is aiming to achieve. This approach to evaluation with stakeholders is called collaborative evaluation or participatory evaluation. I think this is an effective evaluation in a project involving many stakeholders.

If we think this way, we see that evaluation is not just about inquiring after achievements or results. In a project that works on solving social issues, I believe that it is more important than evaluating the results to have the perspective of what strategies are appropriate for creating socially good things, and to review and revise the activities based on the evaluation during the implementation.

Because if the evaluation is not used for improvement, it puts pressure on people who are sweating in the field to be graded, and it can reduce the challenging spirit of the field.

Of course, measuring project results and achievements is also important. There may be income data in the measurement. However, it only provides the fact or evidence to judge the value of the project. The data itself is neutral. Valuing that is evaluation.

Evaluation is the act of drawing the value out and discovering it as the Latin “e” (out) and “value” are the etymology. Collaborative evaluation requires a value judgment that can convince the stakeholders.

Collaborative evaluation utilized in corporate activities for a sustainable society

These evaluation mechanisms are effective in promoting projects and programs because they create a platform for dialogue that discusses and shares what the projects and programs are being implemented for and what value is being created, in which better methods and structures can be discovered and strategies can be considered emergently.

For example, one of the evaluations works I am currently involved in is a local program to address the issue of child poverty.

Many organizations and people are involved in various activities to solve the issue. There are NPOs that support children’s learning, community members who run children’s cafeterias, and high school and university students who volunteer for various activities to support children. Naturally, there are involvements of local governments.

Although we are working toward the common goal to solve the issue of child poverty, each person who carries out the activity has a different position and a different perspective. In addition, each person’s experience in the field is different, and such experience will become practical knowledge. It is a valuable thing, but in many cases, it tends to be that person’s own skill as tacit knowledge.

However, by providing a place for dialogue where related parties can gather and interact with while bringing in as objective data as possible, opinions can be exchanged from various positions and perspectives. In that process, tacit knowledge can be transferred to explicit knowledge, being visualized in a language. What happens there is awareness and mutual learning.

Furthermore, we can newly adopt more effective methods and strategies to create value for our intervention, and we can also change the way we do things. This whole activity is evaluation.

In recent years, such evaluation methods have been incorporated into corporate activities. An approach called social impact evaluation is attracting attention as a way to evaluate the achievements of social impact investments and ESG investments.

Since the 1990s, environmental issues, referred to as a global issue, and other issues such as widening disparities and poverty that can be described as the negative effects of neoliberal global capitalism have been spreading around the world. The idea that a company should fulfill its responsibility for these global issues has led to corporate activities called CSR.

Since then, along with the movement of SDGs and others, it has also led to the activities of institutional investors and to the expansion of social impact investment for companies that directly tackle social issues, and ESG investment for companies that consider social and environmental issues in every aspect of their business.

Behind this is the shift in value from traditional shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism. It can also be seen as a reflection of the sense of crisis that the sustainability of the company itself cannot be expected in a society with global issues.

Stakeholder capitalism is an economic concept where literally not only investors but all of the stakeholders involved in the company are convinced, in other words, mutually benefited.

The question, then, was how to identify the social returns that would contribute to solving social issues in investment activities, which had traditionally focused on evaluating investment risks and economic returns.

A social impact evaluation is an evaluation that aims to visualize and verify the social value of a business, leading to learning and improvement by the company itself and accountability to stakeholders such as funders, including investors. In order to create a business model that satisfies all of these stakeholders, collaborative evaluation that generates consensus through dialogue with evidence is effective.

In addition, it is necessary to share with the people concerned what the purpose is and what social value aims to be created in performing corporate activities. Moreover, keeping up dialogue during the performance and always updating the activities is required. It is really an evaluation activity.

In order to restore dialogue to Japanese society

In the first place, dialogue cannot be established without different opinions. It is fun to chat with people of the same opinion, but it is hard to make something new out of it.

We can create new things only through dialogue with various opinions, information, and practical knowledge.

However, in Japanese society, it is difficult to express one’s true feelings or different opinions. It may be because there is a culture of avoiding conflict as much as possible and better to bend than to break. But it will be difficult to make new moves to solve social issues.

A place for dialogue is a platform that brings about intersubjectivity among participants and creates new value for the business. The social change created as such is also a place for the emerging knowledge, in which existing knowledge, such as data and tacit knowledge, is connected to new values through new interpersonal relationships.

I think that we need to pause before diverse and complex social issues and think about what we can do and what kind of value we can create by talking with people who have various opinions, viewpoints, practical knowledge and tacit knowledge, even if it takes time. That is what will make our society sustainable.

When it comes to sustainability and solving social issues, some people may think that these are not issues that are familiar to them and that they have nothing to do with them.

Now, when you hear news about child poverty or environmental issues, think about why this is happening.

Like children, keep asking why on various things that you tend to ignore when you are grown up. Thinking about it in your own way will help you to develop empathy for people in different positions.

This will broaden the scope of dialogue and lead to a search for points of agreement through mutual learning and some compromise. We need a culture of enjoying dialogue where we respect and listen to people who have different opinions so that our ideas can be expanded.

I think the dialogue starts with thinking “why” by yourself. Asking is the basis of evaluation. If we continue to ask whether this effort is appropriate, whether it is creating the social value that we aim for, and if not, what kind of improvement is necessary, that might lead to a sustainable society – a dynamic society that continues to pursue a sustainable state, not an attainment point.

* The information contained herein is current as of April 2022.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.