Reimagining Evaluation: Putting Equity At The Center as Global Peacebuilding Comes To The United States

03/2022 | Michelle Garred

When it comes to how peacebuilders evaluate our work, equity has often not been at the forefront. And, as we know, both what and how we measure matters. But change is in the air, and much of it is good. As a white American evaluator, I am both thrilled and challenged by the possibilities. I am wrestling with questions such as: What would it look like to center equity when evaluating programs with peacebuilding goals?

In exploring this question, one of the best sources of inspiration and guidance is the Equitable Evaluation Initiative (EEI). Through it’s Equitable Evaluation Framework(EEF) the EEI is challenging US philanthropic donors to “reimagine the purpose and practice of evaluation ​​and expand notions of validity, objectivity, and rigor while embracing complexity.” EEI points out that US culture has traditionally valued “whiteness, patriarchy, simplicity, and capitalism” [1] and from those values arise some implicit orthodoxies influencing evaluation. Chief among them are that:

      • Donors define what success looks like
      • Donors are the primary users of evaluation products; 
      • Grantees and their programs are subject to evaluation processes, but the donor is not; and 
      • Evaluators are objective experts, selected for their traditional expertise, and they alone can decide what is good practice or qualifies as impact. 

These same outdated orthodoxies of evaluation are present within the global peacebuilding field. Additionally, we have traditionally valued ‘expatriate-ness’ in ways that generated a persistent perceived distinction between ‘conflict countries’ and ‘stable countries,’ and between ‘donors’ and ‘recipients.’ The donors tend to represent contexts that are whiter, more male, and more financially wealthy than the contexts of the recipients. So it is no surprise that many grantees experience evaluation as a method of hierarchical control rather than a pathway to better programming, face barriers to participating in evaluation processes, or fear for their reputations throughout the process. It is time to challenge the orthodoxies by placing equity at the center of peacebuilding evaluation.

This post speculates on what it might look like to consider the principles of the EEF within the peacebuilding field, both global peacebuilding at large, and the current trend of American global peacebuilders increasing their work in the USA. It assumes that most of us desire to do better. This echoes the EEI learning, reflected in their Theory of Change, that “hearts and minds are primed to advance equity within evaluation practice, but behaviors and structures are not.” It acknowledges the key role of donors as essential in shifting the system while insisting that practitioners – including peacebuilding evaluators, evaluation commissioners and evaluation users – must also push for change within their spheres of influence. This brief exploration does not contain all the answers. The hope is to help prod us all, including myself, to become more assertive in asking questions that aid practical learning and fully honor human dignity. 

The Equitable Evaluation Framework™ in Global Peacebuilding 

Global peacebuilding is already feeling the welcome influence of the locally-led peacebuilding movement and the new Racial Equity Index of global development. Donors and practitioners are beginning to respond, particularly by addressing ‘who’ questions. For example, what are the demographics, are the right people in the right roles, and are they treated equitably within our organizational systems? This work is starting strong, though it still has a very long way to go. 

At the same time, Racial Equity Index data also points out that many colleagues – particularly colleagues in the Global South – are also highly concerned about the effects of programming decisions and of fund allocations & grantmaking principles.[2] These might be called ‘what’ questions, because they point to the nature and substance of the work itself. The question of what we evaluate powerfully shapes  how we think, program and implement. The root word of evaluation is ‘value,’ meaning that evaluation informs our perception of what is good. Applying the principles of the EEF™ to the ‘what’ questions could have far-reaching implications for re-defining success, re-envisioning accountability and broadening our ways of knowing.

Re-defining success: We could amend the industry standard OECD-DAC evaluation criteria to include the consideration of a program’s contribution toward equity, whether directly through the program aims or indirectly through the way it operates. Only the donor countries that comprise the OECD-DAC can officially change the criteria – but even they also encourage evaluation commissioners and evaluators to think critically about how to select and adapt the criteria within their own context.[3]  For example, the Faith Matters guide to design, monitoring and evaluation adapts the OECD-DAC criteria to the work of inter-religious action for peacebuilding by adding a new criterion called ‘consistency with values.’ While it is possible to bring values into evaluation without modifying the criteria, it is quite important in some contexts to see consistency with values explicitly prioritized. 

Re-envisioning accountability: We could make our conflict analysis big enough to recognize our own complicity in the global drivers that fuel conflict in the countries where we donate and serve. Climate change is a tangible example of how a problem created in the Global North is exacerbating conflict in parts of the Global South. Other examples include the transnational trade in conflict minerals, the Northern origins of capitalist inequality, and the US-led War on Terror as a leading cause of displacement. We must disrupt the notion that violent conflict comes from within a country and the resources to resolve it come from outside. We are all part of both the conflict and the solution, and so accountability must be mutual.  We are aware of this truth, and yet it almost never shows up in evaluation. For example, why can’t a peacebuilding evaluation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo inquire about whether the donor has addressed conflict minerals within their own supply chains?

Broadening ways of knowing: We could center more program evaluations around the felt needs of the implementers and participants. This would mean placing practitioner questions at the center of the inquiry, and prioritizing locally usable findings over broadly generalizable lessons. It would also mean expanding our conceptual options for defining success, and determining when success has been achieved. Our current default is empirical positivism, in which a focus on evidence and linear logic brings both benefits and blind spots. Positivism can be useful, but it should not be our only conceptual option. Among the alternatives, the practices of culturally responsive and indigenous approaches to evaluation[4] in North America demonstrate how to embrace diverse ways of thinking, knowing, and working with data. Drawing on such practices, we can insist on evaluations that are relevant to the lived realities of program implementers and participants, even if they challenge our own notions of what rigor looks like. 

Global Peacebuilding Comes to the USA  

Returning the focus to North America, the fact that so many North American evaluators are doing things differently is a powerful message to people like me. By ‘people like me,’ I mean the growing number of US American peacebuilding evaluators, evaluation commissioners and evaluation users who have built their reputations working outside the USA, and now seek to contribute within the US context. We are both individuals and organizations, including some large organizations now beginning to develop and sub-grant programs in the USA. We are shifting our attention toward home in response to the events of the past few years – including the threats to democracy, the increase in identity-related hate crimes and the breakthrough progress of racial justice movements – which have laid bare longstanding polarization and created new opportunities for change. It is a good and necessary step for American global peacebuilders to address the USA as a ‘conflict country,’  accepting our responsibility to engage here at home. 

Re-engaging in the US flips our script, requiring us to re-learn how to act as insiders that are responsible for co-creating the future.

However, are we fully ready to play our role constructively? The reality is that most of us American global peacebuilders are white – so I speak here primarily to fellow white people. We are cross-culturally experienced and highly attuned to diversity and inclusion. Yet when it comes to understanding the depth of inequity in the USA, we face several challenges. We are all somewhat blinded by the racial privilege that white Americans enjoy, and many of us are also embedded in elitist and patriarchal networks. We may not grasp how significantly US inter-group relations have shifted while our attention was focused elsewhere. Additionally, we have been shaped by the culture of the global peacebuilding field, including both its beauty and its dysfunctions. We have spent years operating as outsiders in contexts where other people are the main peace and conflict actors. Re-engaging in the US flips our script, requiring us to re-learn how to act as insiders that are responsible for co-creating the future.

Our challenges in grasping inequity pose the risk that our deeply held good intentions may not automatically translate into behaviors, programs and systems that are contextually appropriate and helpful in the US context. We may unintentionally reinforce the same brokenness that we seek to repair. Most of us sense this, leading to slow but steady progress on the ‘who’ questions, even as the ‘what’ questions remain largely unaddressed. Here again, evaluation is a powerful lever for influencing how we think, program and implement. I draw on the principles of the EEF™ to explore what it might mean to equitably re-define success, re-envision accountability and broaden our ways of knowing as American global peacebuilding practitioners, evaluation users and evaluators who are re-engaging within the USA.

Re-defining success: The OECD-DAC criteria are not widely known in the USA, where evaluation criteria are more fluid, creating some helpful space for contextualized thinking. The idea of a social justice criterion holds real value in the US context – and it may be particularly important in programs developed by American global peacebuilders. The explicit promotion of equity is not one of our strengths. We are told as much by domestic US-centered practitioners who often say that global peacebuilding does not give enough attention to social justice. This echoes our familiar dialogue with colleagues in the international human rights field, in which we question why peace work and rights work are so often troublingly disconnected.

We find this feedback difficult to absorb, because our peacebuilding theory does include both social justice and conciliation, as well as the creative tension that exists between them. However our peacebuilding practice is less balanced, with a well-deserved reputation for leaning towards conciliation, as exemplified in our dialogue, mediation and people-to-people approaches. Conciliation is an important and necessary skill set, yet conciliation alone is inadequate for transforming systemic injustice  in the USA. US peacebuilding programs could be evaluated based in part on their direct or indirect contributions to transforming racism, classism and/or patriarchy. American global peacebuilders should be first in line to adopt this social justice criterion, because it will help mitigate our own limitations.

Re-envisioning accountability: Let’s return to those domestic US-centered practitioners mentioned in the previous paragraph. They are primarily social justice activists and organizers. Their demographics are decidedly blacker and browner than those of American global peacebuilders, and their focus is on shifting power and changing oppressive systems. We may not immediately recognize them as peacebuilders because their methods look different from ours. Similarly, they may not immediately recognize us as allies because they don’t see us explicitly emphasizing equity. Those genuine differences, combined with global peacebuilding’s habit of sidelining local leadership, may cause returning American global peacebuilders to overlook the obvious: there are peacebuilders already here.

US peacebuilding started long before we arrived, led by people on the receiving end of oppression. The appropriate first step is not to tout our technocratic tools and standards, but rather to learn by making ourselves accountable to US social justice activists. The future ideal is mutual collaboration in which both domestic and global peacebuilders contribute their respective strengths[5] – but such collaboration will develop only if global peacebuilders practice humility.  To encourage such progress, program evaluations could examine the levels of accountability and interdependence between American global peacebuilders and their domestic counterparts. Evaluation teams could be formed by pairing global and domestic evaluators together, and supported by a co-led community of practice. Where American global peacebuilding organizations hold the purse-strings, we must be doubly sure that evaluation serves not only on donor interests but also the interests of implementers, participants and their communities. 

Broadening ways of knowing:  If you are a white American global peacebuilding practitioner, evaluation user or evaluator now shifting your attention towards work in the USA, you are embarking on a transformative process that should challenge your ways of knowing about your own professional self and your organization. This is not an optional extra; it is a central aspect of the work. As you grapple with your positioning within America’s unjust systems, you will probably re-assess your own perceptions, motives, roles, skills, ethics and/or aspirations.  I have been in this transition longer than most, and I confess it is more difficult than I ever thought possible. At the outset, I was confident of my readiness to contribute here within the USA. I now question my readiness every day which is, paradoxically, a sign of being much closer to fit for service. 

Finally, as we apply the principles of the EEF to our own evaluation systems, structures and behaviors, it can be deeply disorienting to realize that we are not necessarily in a good position to assess our own progress. I have contextual blind spots, so I am painfully aware that I need consistent feedback. I am an equity ally if and when people on the receiving end of inequity consistently say that I am an equity ally. If I’m not measuring up, then I need to experience limits on my own roles until such a time as I do measure up. American global peacebuilding evaluators, evaluation commissioners and evaluation users can add a great deal of genuine value in the US context – if and when we put equity at the center, and leave our outdated baggage at the door.  If we can realize these counter-cultural changes within the US context, we will also be helping to put the worldwide peacebuilding field on a path toward a more equitable future. 


[1] Jara Dean-Coffey. 2017. Equitable Evaluation Framework™ web page. Equitable Evaluation Initiative.

[2]  Racial Equity Index. 2021. Global Mapping Survey Full Data Release, Second Edition. p.37.

[3] OECD-DAC. 2021. Applying Evaluation Criteria Thoughtfully.

[4] There is no single definitive source for learning about these approaches, but excellent starting points include the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment and the scholarship of Bowman Performance Consulting

[5] For a deep dive into this type of collaborative vision, see Lisa Schirch. 2021. Transforming the Colour of US Peacebuilding. Toda Institute Policy Brief 114.

Photo Credits: Photo 1 – Juno Jo on Unsplash  Photo 2 – Clay Banks on Unsplash

About this article

This blog was written for the ‘CDA Perspectives blog’. It is a series intended to share reflections, present information and provoke debate and conversation. Our authors share personal experiences of working towards improving impacts of interventions in contexts of conflict and fragility, and findings from collaborative learning projects. In most cases, we discuss issues related to CDA’s practice areas: accountability and feedback loops, Do No Harm, peacebuilding effectiveness, and responsible business operations. In addition to our staff contributors, we invite colleagues and partners to share their experiences, and host blog post series.

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About the author

Sarah Cechvala

Michelle Garred, PhD, a former CDA Senior Advisor, is now the Founder and Principal at Ripple Peace Research & Consulting LLC, which provides strategy, evaluation and learning services for the work of ‘just peace.’ She is an applied researcher with two decades of experience advising changemakers on effective engagement in contexts of conflict and injustice. Michelle is a highly skilled facilitator of participatory learning processes, known for expertise on the roles of faith and identity in intergroup peace and social change.