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Ethics and Evaluation

11th April 2010

Few of us involved in the practice of development evaluation have had the opportunity to study ethics. Indeed, the word "ethics" can sometimes invoke a Pandora's box of issues that threaten to further complicate the already complex business of determing impact.

But evaluators are, by nature, involved in a moral pursuit.  
Development ultimately derives it's legitimacy from action, not talk.  
So it stands to reason that bringing about more and better impact - the main occupation of evaluation - is ethical. Right?

This reasoning has seemed good enough for most evaluation up until now. After all, there seem to be limited opportunities for causing much ethical damage with key informant interviews and aggregating management numbers. In recent times, however, the quest for evidence has taken a different turn. Several significant actors in development evaluation are looking more and more at the type of evidence generated by clinical-style randomised evaluations.

Control trials change the ethical game. Suddenly there are claims of serious unethical consequences from the process of evaluation. Pitted against this is the claim that these randomised approaches will result in more money reaching more people in more beneficial ways. Few of us are well equipped to grapple with this conundrum.

We wanted to understand the issue of ethics in randomisation better, not so that we could decide which side of the debate is right, but to get a feeling for whether real life development organsiations have the capability to handle these new demands.

To achieve this we had to start by building an analytical framework that would let us to understand how ethics and evaluation interact in development organisations. This framework turned out to be a useful tool for demystifying different organisational cultures around ethics in evaluation.

We present this framework in our first learning product on the issue of ethics in evaluation. A forthcoming complementary piece will then look deeper at what we found when we used this framework to look at two major users of development evaluation.