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Evaluation - Local Knowledge

posted 4 Jan 2015, 20:21 by Fiona Cram   [ updated 17 Feb 2015, 01:14 ]

This initial post first appeared in 2012 as part of the American Evaluation Association's Thought Leaders discussions. It's reproduced here to set the scene for a planned series of posts during 2015 on the value of local knowledge and how we can take this into account and value it within evaluations of services and programmes.

Let me tell you first what’s been occupying my thoughts lately and then give you some background about why. I’ve been thinking about what needs to be taken into account from the local context when evaluative recommendations are made about programme scalability, transferability, and/or sustainability. For example, are there aspects of organisational capacity that are pivotal to decisions about scalability? What start-up lessons are important for organisations to experience to ensure the successful transfer of a programme to another local context? How important is the local legitimacy of an organisation for sustainability?

Now some background...

In 1990 I took a job teaching social psychology at the University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. My background was in experimental social and developmental psychology and quantitative methods, but my horizons were soon widened in three interwoven ways. First, students requested that I advocate for the Psychology Department to become more responsive to, and welcoming of Māori (Indigenous New Zealand) students. Second, this advocacy brought me into contact with Graham and Linda Smith who were promoting a Kaupapa Māori (literally a Māori / Indigenous way) theory that was closely tied to Māori immersion education initiatives such as Kōhanga Reo (Māori pre-school language nests). Third, I began to pursue an interest in qualitative research methods. The link between these three was a questioning of whose knowledge and ways of knowing were valued, by whom.

I then became involved in my first evaluation, which was of a Māori programme aimed at preventing domestic violence. This was a time when research was a dirty word in Māori communities, understanding of Kaupapa Māori research and evaluation was in its infancy, and the evaluation of Māori initiatives by Māori evaluators was very rare. As evaluators working within this context we assessed and translated the value of Māori services so that government funder accountability requirements could be met. Our evaluation work needed to be proscribed in cultural terms, acknowledge context, location and history, and facilitate the reflection, adaptation and growth of those providing services and programmes within their communities.

In the 1990s Māori-delivered services were also newly possible because of legislative changes. Many Māori therefore took the opportunity to provide services that, in their view, their communities were not receiving from mainstream (whole-of-population) services. These Māori services embodied cultural values and practices, and operated on a platform of kinship and non-kinship relationships that Māori organizations had within their communities. This is what David Turnbull describes as performativity; that is, cultural knowledge and locality combine to co-produce bottom-up, grassroots services to meet local needs.

Now, twenty years later, there is more understanding about evaluation within Māori organizations and communities. Our context is still one of entrenched Māori inequalities although there is more governmental support for Māori services that assist Māori families to identify and address their own needs, and achieve their own goals. The evaluations I’ve been involved in have confirmed for me that Māori knowledge is performative and local. There are implications of this for the scalability, and transferability and sustainability of Māori services and programmes that I think we’re only just beginning to touch upon. Over the course of the coming year I'll be giving this issue some thought and writing commentaries that I hope will provoke some interesting conversations.