52 Weeks of BetterEvaluation: Week 38: Ubuntu in evaluation

Benita Williams's picture 17th September 2013 by Benita Williams

The South Africa Monitoring and Evaluation Association conference starts on Wednesday in Johannesburg this week, with the theme ‘Improving use and results’. On Thursday, the programme includes a session called ‘Made in Africa: evaluation for development’, exploring values and diversity in development evaluation. To kick off discussion, we asked Benita Williams, an evaluator from Pretoria, South Africa, about how her values affect her evaluation work. 

Benita, why do you think it’s so important to consider your own value system, as well as that of the community you are working with?

I think this was well expressed by Jennifer Greene when she said:

Like culture, evaluation is inherently imbued with values. Our work as evaluators intrinsically involves the process of valuing, as our charge is to make judgments about the “goodness” or the quality, merit or worth of a program.

When I think about my values as an African and an evaluator, I often think about the philosophy of Ubuntu and how it translates into values which affect my dealings as an evaluator. 

What is Ubuntu?

The Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, explained it like this:
"A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity."
There is a Zulu saying: “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which means: "a person is a person through (other) persons” which is very different from “Cogito ergo sum” or "I think, therefore I am".  

What influence do you think the values of Ubuntu could have for evaluators?

I think there at least five possible ways of applying these ideas to evaluation:

  • You need to be very aware of your role and the role of others as representatives of a bigger collective. Mutual respect is of the utmost importance. This “respect” will affect the way in which you ask questions, and you must interpret people’s answers in this context. Do not be surprised if you have to go to great lengths to get people to provide constructive criticism.  
  • When you share evaluation feedback, affirmation is very important. When you share negative findings, it must never be humiliating for an individual or a group of people.
  • As an evaluator, you are part of the bigger picture. You have an important role to play in a system of interconnected people, organizations and stories. If you try to be the “know-it-all external evaluation specialist” you will hit a wall. Listening and conversing, allowing people to participate in the meaning creation process, is essential.
  • There are many opportunities for “being generous”: If you evaluate a community based organization that takes time to answer your questions and provide you with some of their truly South-African hospitality, you might as well provide something in return. Writing up the evaluation findings in a form that they (not only the donor) can understand and use is one way. Sharing some of your technical knowledge (e.g. how to organize data, where to find a budget template, contact details of other people who work in the same field and could assist) is another way. Sometimes you might even share your evaluation tools and templates with people who did not pay for this “intellectual property”.
  • You have a responsibility to give back. Taking an inexperienced evaluator under your wing or volunteering your time for a good cause shows that you recognize you are where you are because others were willing to share with you. It is not uncommon for people who stay in abject poverty to share the little that they have with each other. Those who have more, probably have a responsibility to share more.


These conclusions are drawn from Benita’s personal understanding of her value system and give us an insight into one style of approach to ‘African evaluation’.

What values have driven the evaluations you have undertaken? And which values should you be particularly aware when working across cultures?

This blog is adapted from the original available at: http://mandeblog.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/values-and-evaluation.html

Useful links

Determine what 'success' looks like

A key task in any evaluation is to agree on the criteria and standards for evaluation a program, policy or project.  This task page on the BetterEvaluation site sets out different ways of identifying and negotiating the values that should be used in an evaluation.

Read more.

Review evaluation (do meta-evaluation)

Another important task is to evaluate the evaluation itself,  Different principles and standards for evaluation can be found on this task page on BetterEvaluation.

Read more.


South African Monitoring and Evaluation Association

Read more.

SAMEA 2013 conference

Information about the 2013 conference of SAMEA, being held in Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Read more.

Image credit: Ubuntu, on Flickr

52 Weeks of BetterEvaluation. Click here to view past features

A special thanks to this page's contributors
Consultant, Benita Williams Evaluation Consultants.
Pretoria, South Africa.


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