Photovoice: a participatory action research methodology

By Research

Photovoice is a participatory action research methodology that has the potential for empowering participants. It has been used successfully for gender empowerment and holds potential as a methodology for research and evaluation within the social justice evaluation branch and the transformative paradigm.

Photovoice can be used in research and evaluations which aims to make the voices of any marginalized group heard. How the COVID-19 Crisis Shows We Need More Feminist Evaluation. The infographic below provides a summary of the important features of Photovoice and highlights the importance of implementing the method systematically if the desired results of empowerment and social change are to be achieved.

Origins of Photovoice

It’s founded in a history of photographic approaches to auto-ethnography and activism. Photovoice blends a grassroots approach to photography and social action. It builds on Paulo Freire’s methods of empowerment education.



It’s Participatory Action Research…

RESEARCH is aimed at answering QUESTIONS…

Photovoice inquiry is guided by over-arching FRAMING QUESTIONS that focuses the inquiry…

Key Characteristics of Photovoice

  • Active participation by those who would be “research subjects” in traditional research
  • Power relations between researchers and “research subjects” are totally different
  • Ideal for co-creation
  • Makes it possible for beneficiaries or programme implementers to tell their stories through their own experiences
  • Enables people to record and reflect on community strengths and concerns  
  • Honours and values the subjective experiences of people
  • Provides an opportunity for a “community” (e.g. a beneficiary group or work team) to reflect back to themselves
  • Facilitate analytical discussion of social conditions / programme benefits
  • Promote knowledge and critical dialogue about community issues and their impact on individuals

Reach and inform policy makers to bring about change.

Effective PAR requires that all four elements are present. It comes together like this: “Participation by stakeholders in a process aimed at the advancement of knowledge through a systematic research process that results in action for social change on the part of the stakeholders” (Chevalier & Buckles, 2013 in Liebenberg, 2018).

(Source: Liebenberg, 2018: 2)

Photovoice can be used for feminist evaluation – in fact, it was inspired by feminism. It can be empowering, but using Photovoice is not a guarantee for empowerment.

To make Photovoice meaningful, it is essential to follow a systematic process that does not end with the collection of rich narrative data, but which goes further than focusing on discourse. Photovoice goes into “the realm of perception, experience and spatial and embodied ways of knowing the world” (Gubrium & Harper, 2013, p. 71in Liebenberg, 2018 ).

Photovoice process

Source: Liebenberg, 2018: 4

What do you need to do Photovoicing?

Photovoice draws on mechanisms such as photography and collaborative discussion of meaning, that have the potential to face in-depth exploration of lived experience that is often taken for granted.


When doing Photovoice, provide an explanation to participants on HOW photovoice works:

  • What is Photovoice and how does it work?
  • Why are we using this methodology?
  • How will be using the story?
  • Who will be doing it?
  • How will it be done?

The relationship between Photovoice and Social Change

The SHOWED diagram illustrates the relationship between knowledge development and social change:


By Fia van Rensburg


Budig, K., Diez, J., Conde, P. et al. Photovoice and empowerment: evaluating the transformative potential of a participatory action research project. BMC Public Health 18, 432 (2018).

FLIPHLIPHTML5. (n.d.) Activity. Photovoices.

Hannes, K., Parylo, O. 2014. Ethical Considerations from Participants in a Photovoice Research Project. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. Volume 13 Issue 1, February 2014 page(s): 255-274.

Liebenberg, L. 2018. Thinking Critically About Photovoice: Achieving Empowerment and Social Change. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. Volume 17, Issue 1, February 2018.

Simmonds, S., Roux, C., ter Avest, I. 2017. Blurring the Boundaries between Photovoice and Narrative Inquiry: A Narrative-Photovoice Methodology for Gender-Based Research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. Volume: 14 issue: 3, 2017, page(s): 33-49

Appreciative inquiry value

The Value of Appreciative Inquiry in the Monitoring & Evaluation, Reporting and Learning Space

By Evaluation, Research, Workshop

The evaluation space can be a tricky one to navigate, especially considering that making evidence-based judgements about the merit or worth of programmes, what works and what does not work, is an integral part of the evaluation.

Development Works Changemakers (DWC) has been providing Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) support and capacity development to a non-profit organisation working in the basic education space since 2018. This organisation wanted to expand its M&E system to also incorporate reporting and learning.

We recently introduced Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to assist them to build on the positive core of their existing reporting practice and to track and magnify that into an improving reporting practice in 2020, as part of moving from a traditional monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system, to a monitoring, evaluation reporting and learning (MERL) system.

Understanding Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is a useful and interesting approach to create positive energy regarding reporting, by focusing on what works. The methodology focuses on what works best, but also identifies areas that need attention, or could be improved.

It can’t be used in every circumstance – but it is a great tool that can be very useful in certain situations. DWC has used AI to activate organisational change processes related to MERL (as in the example provided above);  to supplement Theory of Change (ToC) workshops, and to elicit data from different perspectives during evaluation processes.

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

AI is an action-research methodology that enables organisations to co-construct their desired future, and which focuses on the positive qualities of an organization. These positive qualities are leveraged to enhance the organization. AI is founded on 8 key principles, namely:

  1. Constructionist – Understanding a reality that is socially constructed through language and conversations
  2. Simultaneity – Inquiries create an intervention and initiate change
  3. Poetic – Organizations are an endless source of study and learning which constantly shapes the world as we know it
  4. Anticipatory – Using a hopeful image to inspire action
  5. Positive  – Believing that positive questions lead to positive change
  6. Wholeness – Bringing out the best in people and organizations to stimulate creativity and build collective capacity
  7. Enactment – Starting the process of positive change with self as a living model of the future
  8. Free choice – Believing that free choice liberates power and brings about enhanced results

Source of principles: Sideways Thoughts

Using AI in evaluations

AI was developed as an organizational change methodology but has been adapted to be used in evaluations. In the evaluation community, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is at best not widely accepted, and is sometimes even frowned upon. However, it does offer a different approach that adds a unique value.

What evaluators have been doing for the past few decades is to focus on the judgment aspect of evaluation. What distinguishes evaluation from other applied social research is that it has to make a judgment on the merit or worth of programmes and projects.

Each case is unique and AI is not suitable for use in all evaluations.  Care must be given to the nature of the task at hand, and what other methodologies are being used in conjunction.

It should also be noted that AI is not an evaluation approach, and does not feature as an evaluation theory. It is merely a tool that can be used for data collection and process facilitation.

When does Appreciative Inquiry work?

As mentioned above, AI can work where energy is required to move processes forward. It could also be used in evaluations. AI works well in a context where a project or programme is not working so well. In such situations, project or programme stakeholders may become defensive when evaluators are appointed, as they anticipate negative judgement. The idea that our questions have the power to shape reality may be a frightening thought, but one worth exploring.

This may impede the openness of stakeholders, which makes it difficult to learn from failures or challenges. AI provides a non-threatening environment in which stakeholders can discuss a project without fear of judgement. By starting off with the identification of what works, a safe environment is provided to also discuss what does not work so well.

Understanding the approach

The underlying philosophy for AI is that what we focus our attention on in the social world will grow and develop. If we focus on the positive, the positive will grow and multiply, but if we focus on the negative, that will thrive instead.

This means that if we follow a problem-centred approach, we get stuck in the misfortune of the problem. The more we try to fix it, the more it grows.

Well, let’s be fair – sometimes problem-solving works, but how many problems did development initiatives (mostly based on a problem or deficit analysis) manage to solve over the past 50 or more years?

There are some conflicting opinions that speculate that you can’t just look at the positives – what about the negatives? In many ways, this concern is valid, and in others, it highlights how AI can be misunderstood.

AI does look at the negatives but in a different way so that it doesn’t dominate the conversation. The negatives/challenges get lifted out but in a more constructive way without pulling the energy down.

Steps in the AI process

In the monitoring and evaluation space, AI could be used as a fully-fledged AI process, or part of it could be used. The AI process is described in terms of the 4-D or the 5-D or 5-I models. These models can also be linked up to a planning process, which consists of some elements of the traditional SWOT planning process. SWOT planning looks at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The SOAR process considers strengths and opportunities, and works with that, to develop aspirations, and articulate desired results.

Evidence that supports AI

Through a remarkable body of research, neuroscience has established that we affect people either positively or negatively by the way in which we engage with them and the way they perceive us (also as evaluators).

Prominent neuroscientist Evan Gordon (2000) reminds us that the “avoid danger and maximize reward” principle is an over-arching organizing principle in the brain, and translates in the approach-avoid response.

When our brain tags a stimulus as “good,” we engage in the stimulus (approach), and when our brain tags a stimulus as “bad,” we will disengage from it (avoid). Translated into the evaluation space, this means that if our evaluation processes are perceived as threatening by stakeholders, they may well disengage.

We also know that when people are “seen, heard and loved”, the associated surge in brain chemicals enable them to think better and creatively (connecting behaviour, or approach). Conversely, when people feel that they are criticized, judged and dismissed, their brains literally shut down, as they go into flight mode (avoiding behaviour, or disengagement).

The power of AI

There is a wealth of evidence that shows the power of our words. When athletes use positive imaging and words to tap into their potential to perform at their best, we think it is extraordinary. Why then, do we hesitate to use the same approach to propel our projects and organisations to perform at their best?

Can we as evaluators find a way of using generative questions to tap into what works, so that we can learn from it and amplify it?

The power of questions is aptly described by Browne (2008) who pointed out that every question has a direction, and because of the direction of the question it either carries generative or destructive energy.

AI is interested in generative questions – those that “build a bridge” or “turn on a light”. The rationale for AI is that if we pose provocative questions that discover the positive core of a project or programme, we can multiply and magnify what works.

By doing this tracking and fanning, we focus our energy on what works, and this creates the energy for the programme to grow in that positive direction.

Final Thoughts

Essentially AI promises a lot of potential, especially when used appropriately. When you identify what works and amplify it, great changes can be implemented.

AI is underpinned by a relational and conversational approach to human systems. This approach pays attention to the patterns in the system and the expressive relationship between the elements of the system.

Human systems are living systems, and in these systems patterns of belief; communication; action and reaction; sense-making and emotion; are important – these are the things that “give life” to the system.

At DWC, we specialize in a variety of methodologies and creative approaches. We will adjust and customise each approach depending on each organization’s specific needs, expectations and other contextual factors.  To find out more about how we can help your organization to measure, evaluate, shape and create positive change in a powerful way, contact Lindy Briginshaw (

By Fia van Rensburg

mobile survey

Using mobile survey technology for data collection

By Evaluation, Research

Development Works Changemakers always strives to innovate and optimise the use of technology, especially in research processes and evaluation studies.  One way of improving efficiencies and data quality, whilst maximising time in the field is to use mobile survey technology.

Paper-based data collection / paper-based pencil interviewing (PAPI) has been the standard method for decades. However, errors are frequent, printing, transport and storage costs are prohibitive, and the chance of double data entry are higher.

The development of electronic methods

Electronic methods of data collection have been developed in order to merge the process of data collection and data entry. In 2017, more than 90 per cent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa were covered by 2G networks. But more advanced networks are now beginning to take hold.

South Africa leads the continent in mobile penetration with 153 mobile cellular prescriptions per 100 populations. Use of mobile phones is widespread even in remote areas of rural South Africa.

Computer-Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI)

One example is Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) which our team have used as a method of data collection for an evaluation of upgrading of informal settlements programme.

The evaluation aimed to assess the outcome of the upgrading of informal settlements. The extent to which the programme had enhanced the security of tenure, improved healthy and secure living environments, and reduced social and economic exclusions, with the aim of identifying strengths, challenges and lessons for future strategy planning.

A mixed-method summative evaluation design using the Lot Quality Assurance Sampling (LQAS) methodology was used to assess the outcomes of the programme in designated areas of the Western Cape.

The methods of data collection employed were key informant interviews, focus group discussions and a beneficiary survey.

Our researchers employed a CAPI software application that was uploaded onto a mobile phone. The software allows for access to a survey, which takes the mobile phone user through the survey step-by-step. The data was saved and uploaded when the mobile phone was next within network range.

The process and application

With extensive training, the fieldwork research team found the whole process of creating and uploading the survey to be very user-friendly. Typically the application takes the fieldworker through the survey, question-by-question.

Fieldworkers are required to select options in example questions shown above. Including multiple-choice questions, qualitative or open-ended questions and tick-box questions.

Additionally, the application has prompted to ensure the validity of answers captured by the fieldworkers. Thereby forcing them to answer a question or give a valid answer. This avoids skipping questions.

Once in the field, the research team were able to use the phones with ease. Fieldworker Monalisa Guzana shared, “Using mobile survey technology was tricky when we first began, in terms of learning the questions on the phone and how they were formatted, charging the phones every night – we had to get used to these aspects not present with paper-based surveys. Once we had systemised our way of working, the application and tool made our work simple and quick.”

After the fieldworker had completed a survey, the results were uploaded from the phone once within network range.  Fieldworker Tarryn had this to say about capturing data electronically for the first time, “CAPI is the future… Conducting surveys/questionnaires via cellphone simplifies the process of capturing the data. No paper, no fuss. It is convenient and easy to use. It was such a delight to use in the field.”

The benefits

A key feature of mobile survey technology is that the system provides a fieldwork management spreadsheet showing the number of surveys captured by each agent, when they were uploaded and how long the survey implementation took.

This information is vital for an evaluation. It streamlines the process of fieldworker and survey management. It also allows project managers to see where each fieldworker is reporting from and how long each survey takes to complete.

Researcher Paul shared his insight, “CAPI is an innovative tool that not only improves efficiency in the research process but also secures data. Using the software also requires adequate training, an aspect, which should not be undermined.

Nevertheless, with appropriate skill and technical know-how, designing the surveys within the software online and actual execution of the survey and analysis of results thereof will become an exceptionally manageable time and cost-saving.”

data collection

Tips for using CAPI/mobile survey technology:

After using the technology ourselves, we’ve put together a list of tips to help with the effective use of CAPI technology.

1. Maximise on the input/support around the design and functionality of your survey 

Firstly, the initial navigation of learning how to design and create your CAPI survey can be quite daunting. Ensure sufficient time and budget is allocated for this crucial stage.

2. Train your fieldwork staff thoroughly

It is imperative to provide thorough training for fieldworkers who will be collecting data. When fieldworkers are comfortable using a new form of technology before embarking on data collection, it will create fewer problems once they are in the field. Run through your phone survey in the training!

3.     Pilot your survey, analyse the results and give yourself the necessary time to make any adjustments needed

Piloting your tools before entering the field is an essential component of any research process. When using a new form of data collection, it is advisable to give yourself enough time to analyse the results and make necessary adjustments. Practice, practice, pilot!

4.     Regularly check your data as it comes in

The CAPI web console allows you to access and manage data in real-time. This is particularly helpful as it allows you to monitor data as it is coming through. You are able to keep track of progress and identify any problems early-up. Project managers can keep track of fieldworkers and surveys online, in real-time!

5.     Regularly check up on your data bundles to ensure that your surveys are captured

A pay-as-you-go method for data collection with purchasing credit for mobile phones helps to monitor credit usage and ensure surveys are being captured optimally!

Our DWC portfolio highlights our years of experience in data collection and fieldwork. If you need effective data collection for any project, programme, research study or assignment, please do contact the Lindy Briginshaw at

In conclusion, for a detailed comparison between CAPI and PAPI visit Survey CTO’s link here. Survey CTO is a highly reliable mobile data collection platform. Our team of researchers and evaluators have used it often when working in offline settings.

Africa's illegal drug trade

Africa’s illegal drug epidemic fuelled by organised crime and ineffective policy

By Community, Current Affairs, Research

Over time, there has been a huge rise in the illegal drug trade in Africa. The number of drug users is estimated to increase to a total of 14 million drug users by 2050. 

ENACT, a project that builds knowledge and skills to enhance Africa’s response to transnational organised crime, recently published a press release that explores the causes of this epidemic. 

From organised crime and weak governmental policies, Africa’s drug trade is expanding at a rapid rate. 

Overview of the drug trade in Africa

While Africa was previously only considered as a transit region for drug trafficking, today the continent is increasingly becoming a consumer and destination market for all forms of drug abuse.

The distribution of individuals using illicit drugs in African regions during 2018 was as follows:

  • West Africa – 55% – 5.7 million
  • Eastern Africa – 19% – 1.9 million
  • Southern Africa – 12% – 1.3 million
  • Northern Africa – 8% – 0.8 million
  • Central Africa – 6% – 0.6 million

ENACT shares that, “In the past few decades alone, the number of people in West Africa who use illegal drugs or prescription opioids for a non-medical purpose has more than tripled from an estimated 1.6 million in 1990 to 5.7 million in 2018.” 

“In the next 30 years, sub-Saharan Africa will see the world’s biggest surge in illicit drug users, with its share of global drug consumption projected to double.”

Reasons for the rise of the drug trade

The rise of the presence of illicit drugs in Africa is due to far more than just addiction. In areas where organised gangs and corrupt politicians run the show, the drug trade has free reign. 

Organised crime

Africa has a reputation for it’s organised crime that has spread on a global scale. These groups work in syndicates to trade all sorts of illegal produce. This poses a threat to the environment, health and safety of individuals, and to the escalation of the drug trade.

From the illegal trade of pangolins and perlemoen, to cross border arms trafficking. These organised crime groups are causing environmental damage and fuelling national conflict. These trade routes are well established – and greatly feared – making the movement of illicit drugs both convenient and lucrative. 

ENACT quotes, “West Africa’s role has also expanded as a global trafficking hub for drugs, particularly cocaine. An underground economy has developed around the production and distribution of methamphetamines, particularly in Nigeria. A growing heroin economy has emerged from the international drug smuggling route down the East Coast of Africa for shipment to international markets.”

Weak policies

Sadly, organised crime has found loopholes in the system. By taking advantage of weak policies and partnering up with corrupt government officials. The African drug market is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Criminals take advantage of secure innovations to further their business. Such as blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and various trading platforms on the dark web. 

Criminal governance systems are facilitating drug trafficking along various routes, such as the East African coast which has become a frequented route for heroin trade. The heroin trade in this area “plays a significant role in local and national politics in countries along the eastern seaboard of Africa”. 

This lucrative trade becomes attractive for corrupt officials, making the epidemic even more challenging to counter. 

“Participation in drug trafficking offers political, security and business leaders windfall profits, says Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s Mark Shaw, an organised crime expert. ‘They can conduct electoral and security campaigns, feed patronage systems, or take a fast track to wealth and power. In turn, politicians and security leaders can offer traffickers protection or even assistance.”

Recommended solutions

The African drug trade and the politics that they are attached to are complex and controversial. When criminals hold as much power as they do then various communities are put at risk when these groups are challenged. 

There needs to be an intention and proactivity in creating sustainable drug intervention programmes. The response to the demand for the drug trade in Africa needs to be supported with strategy, evaluation and research. 

The drug trade fuels crime and violence, with drug proliferation leading to increased levels of crime and violence in communities. This heightens safety risks.  Over the years, Development Works Changemakers (DWC) has been involved in several projects relating to the crime and safety sector. These include research into various crime and safety aspects and evaluations of projects designed to reduce crime and create safer communities. These projects include, but are not limited to: 

  • Midterm evaluation of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s five-year strategic implementation plan
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime baseline, endline and impact assessment of the Line Up Live Up Programme in South Africa
  • Implementation and evaluation of substance abuse programmes for the Western Cape Provincial Government, Department of Social Development
  • Implementation and evaluation of the youth safety and partnership programme for the Western Cape Provincial Government, Department of Community Safety

The drug trade cannot be eradicated – but a deeper understanding of the causes and effects is imperative. Greater efforts, alliances and commitments are required to fund, resource, plan, prioritise and implement policies, strategies and programs to better deal with this epidemic and the negative and damaging impact on communities.

For more information on best practices in the crime and safety sector, if you need help to design a new programme, or evaluate an existing programme, please contact Lindy Briginshaw on

drug trade route

data literacy importance

Data Literacy – a language that speaks louder than protest action

By Research, Workshop

The South African Cities Network (SACN) hosted a “Municipal Finance Data Storytelling Workshop” on 5 November 2019 at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education at Tshimologong in Johannesburg.   Participants practically engaged with data through data storytelling and data journalism. 

Data storytelling and data journalism

Experts gave the following presentations : 

  • Overview of the State of the City Finances Report – Danga Mughogho, SA Cities Network 
  • The South African Cities Open Data Almanac (SCODA) and digital data stories – Jonathan Wilson, SA Cities Network; Richard Gevers, OpenData Durban
  • Data Journalism approaches to telling stories with data – Asanda Ngoasheng
  • Poster walk: Govtech innovations and Civil Society Stories  – Kirsten Pearson

data storytelling quote

The combination of background information, practical examples, links to key municipal finance information, sources and municipal finance data analysis tools, and a poster exhibition of recent initiatives to facilitate citizens’ access to key municipal data and the development of the capacity of citizens to engage with data and to hold municipalities accountable was an enlightening experience amidst the flood of dismal messages in the media following the Public Enterprises Minister’s recent announcement that Municipalities owe Eskom R23,5 billion.        

The most obvious valuable takeaway from the workshop was the opportunity to get down and practical. This is done by creating a data story in a group activity, guided by a data story template. This tool, and the skill of data storytelling, is not only useful to journalists but can be helpful to evaluators too. 

Data literacy

Another benefit of this workshop was the realisation of just how important data literacy is. Development Works Changemakers recently did an evaluation of a school-based software coding programme. It highlighted the importance of digital literacy, and specifically coding of a future form of literacy was highlighted.

In the not so distant future, the ability to code will be an imperative skill. Not only for software developers but in all fields. The South African Education Department is already implementing related initiatives and has intensified planning for future programmes. This is given the realisation that there is a vital need to capacitate teachers and to prepare learners for a data-driven world. 

These initiatives are often still pitched as relevant to certain career fields. Such as Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), engineering. Gradually the value beyond direct technical application is realised. This is expressed by Minister Angie Motshekga who said “This will not only develop STEM skills, but also contribute to effectively developing children’s creativity, critical thinking, design thinking, and digital skills. This will ensure that South Africa develops learners who are makers and inventors who will contribute to building an innovative culture in South Africa”.  

It is imperative that this intention shared by Minister Motshekga is acted on. There needs to be a follow-through by the Department of Education and key decision-makers.  This is only meaningful if these statements are translated into tangible action. This is to ensure access to quality education is enjoyed by all South Africans.

Active citizenship and accountable government

Critical thinking and digital skills are not only relevant to coding, but also relate to how we engage with data that is available in our everyday lives. It also influences the extent to which active citizenship is possible and effective. The Cities Network Workshop demonstrated how data literacy could enable ordinary citizens to engage actively and effectively with government at all levels. As well as how citizens can contribute to strengthening democracy. This goes beyond just participating in elections, and can hold government accountable in a constructive way. 

data literacy

Data literacy already is, and will become increasingly important, to enable citizens to play a more active role in ensuring that public finances are spent responsibly, and where needed most, for the best benefit of society.

The most compelling example of how data literacy can assist citizens to play an active role in communicating their needs and holding government accountable was found in the EU-funded Accounting for Basic Services (ABS) project.  This initiative which was implemented at local government level in selected communities through a partnership between various development stakeholders. The ABS project strengthened community engagement with local government to ensure “equitable, just and effective use of municipal funds”.

Through the project, the use of budget analysis and social accountability tools were promoted to engage communities. In addition it encourages responsive governance and emphasises accountability. The project demonstrated that communities and their organisations have the ability to understand and engage with municipal finances. The ABS project assisted communities to understand where and on what money is being spent; assess if government’s priorities and projects sufficiently address their needs; voice their concerns and needs, and keep government accountable.

Constructive and empowered participation

data literacy quote

This type of initiative may be key to constructively channel aspirations. It needs a strong sense of agency and involvement amongst ordinary people in initiatives. This helps make their voices heard clearly, and effectively. With higher levels of data literacy and active, empowered participation, it may be possible to find a language that speaks louder than protest action. It has the potential to ensure timely attention to pressing issues that could defuse the intense levels of frustration that frequently lead to confrontation and destruction of infrastructure. 

This project provides a glimpse of hope amidst many challenges by showing what is needed and what is possible. Imagine a future where data literate South African citizens are active participants in governing our country for the benefit of all?  

By Fia van Rensburg

gold standard in evaluation

A new ‘Gold Standard’ in evaluation design

By Evaluation, Research

The word ‘gold standard’ is a contentious word when speaking about evaluation designs. Often, it refers to randomised control trials (RCTs). These are evaluation designs that replicate the experimental design in physical and biological sciences that help us to make causal claims. Some claim that this is the strongest and most robust evaluation design.

The new gold standard

However, as evaluators who provide evaluation services in the development sector, when asked what the best evaluation design is for a specific intervention off the bat, you’re likely to have the ambiguous response “it depends”. Because interventions don’t work like neat and tidy laboratory experiments. 

Interventions should be bold and innovative and conceptualised to perform a specific function. Although this is great for social and human development it can be challenging for evaluators.

A landscape of interventions

In a landscape of interventions of all shapes and sizes, evaluators are presented with the task of being an educator, advocate, technician, and sometimes even a magician. At the core of an evaluator’s response to an evaluation should be ‘what is the purpose of this evaluation’.

More often than not, commissioners of evaluations are interested in outcomes and impact. But, as a result of various factors, an RCT becomes unfeasible. Factors can include programme design at conceptualisation and the time at which the evaluation is commissioned. It is at this point that evaluators need to do the best they can with what they have.

Let’s use the analogy of travelling from point A to point B. The best possible vehicle is not the Rolls Royce envisioned, but rather a dirt bike.

Some work still needs to be done in shaking off the stigma of not producing an evaluation design using the often elusive ‘gold standard’ in the hope that what will become the ‘gold standard’ of evaluation will be what is fit-for-purpose.

evaluation techniques

ethics in researach

Ethics in research and how to handle socio-economic challenges in fieldwork

By Ethics, Evaluation, Research

It is imperative for researchers to abide by clear research ethics in order to conduct their work in a professional and ethical manner. Simply put, ethics are a set of rules that distinguish between “right” and “wrong” and “bad” and “good” in any situation. Ethics are about the norms for conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in society.

Ethics in research

In research with human subjects, maintaining sound ethics is crucial at every stage. Be it in the research design, fieldwork or writing up and sharing of findings. At the most basic level, research ethics are informed by the principle of “do no harm”. Most of the codes of ethics used in research today were developed for the medical field, where trials/research on human subjects are common.

Many of the principles developed in these codes apply to social/development research and evaluation, including “do no harm”, and the need to bear in mind the power differentials between the researcher and the research subjects. Ethical characteristics, therefore, include honesty, objectivity, integrity, carefulness, openness, respect, and confidentiality.

One of the most important aspects of any research ethics code is informed consent. A participant has a right to understand fully the purpose of the research and the risks and benefits of participation. They have the right to anonymity, and to withdraw from the research at any point, or refuse to answer any question.

Vulnerable groups

When research is being conducted with vulnerable groups or individuals, such as children, refugees, people who are abused or ill, minorities etc. these principles take on even greater importance due to the power differential in the research relationship. The risk of harm to the participant, either during the research process or as a result of the publication of findings. Research design should thus include ways to reduce or minimise the risk of harm.

However, conducting social research is often challenging and throws up complex scenarios that are not ethically straightforward. Successful and ethical research outcomes require properly trained and well-prepared researchers. Research plans and proposed methodologies in certain cases (e.g. research with children or other vulnerable subjects) need to be submitted to a recognised research ethics committee for approval and guidance before any fieldwork can commence. It is also imperative that research abides by the various laws that apply in any country regarding research generally, and with vulnerable populations.

Overcoming challenges

At Development Works Changemakers (DWC) we take research ethics very seriously in all our research and evaluation activities. All of our senior research staff hold postgraduate degrees, have taken courses in research ethics, and have conducted advanced research requiring ethics clearance. They are thus in a position to lead fieldwork teams in ethical research practice. DWC also raises ethical issues from the outset with every partner or client. We also factor research ethics clearance into our proposed budgets and project timeframes.

Training fieldworkers

DWC works with an extensive network of trusted associates and freelancers on repeat assignments. This allows trust to be established over time and our ethical approach to be embedded. Our team is also rigorous with recruiting and managing new fieldworkers to ensure quality standards are always adhered to. Fieldworkers are provided with a detailed contextual understanding and briefing. Ideally, we work with researchers who are located from the community where the research is taking place. This ensures ownership and a deep sense of community connection, understanding and networks.

Fieldworkers go through a detailed training programme before a fieldwork intervention. We focus on the local context, research, ethics, requirements and expectations, study objectives, methodology and tools to be used.

Risk mitigation

The team also roleplays and discusses different possible risks and challenges that may arise through scenario planning and how best to mitigate any problems or challenges that may be experienced in the field.  Technical training is also provided on data gathering using tablets and mobile phones. Research teams are always fully prepared and well-oriented to carry out their fieldwork assignments as optimally and successfully as possible.

Given challenging socioeconomic conditions, risks do materialise whilst in the field. This includes security risks such as crime and safety of fieldworkers and equipment.  No research study is worth risking the safety of a team member. At all times ethical behaviour guides all decisions we make whilst running challenging research and evaluation assignments. Especially in under-resourced communities where risks are high.

People are unpredictable and sometimes community dynamics and political contexts are complicated. No matter how well-trained fieldworkers may be, working with communities can bring about unexpected challenges when they respond in different or unpredictable ways.

Understand the circumstances

It is important to be appreciative of participants’ time and input. However, a balance is needed in respect of any material payment or gift offered in return for participation. Airtime, a snack or small meal may be provided in return for a person’s participation in an interview. Our team shows gratitude and appreciation, in line with good research ethical practice and guidelines.

Fieldworkers always need to be trained in handling unexpected situations in a professional and ethical manner. If in doubt, there is always a senior member of staff to guide them in such situations. Treating people with respect, dignity and tact, and explaining the project objectives and terms carefully helps ensure mutual respect, good research practice and positive results.

Our DWC portfolio is a testament to how we practice ethics and understanding in the workplace. We’d love to work with you.