Minga Blog: Evaluation—How we know when we’re contributing to social change

The world of development is lush with evaluation, a jungle of metrics and indicators meant to show how well the work is going and yet how much more we have to do. From dusk to dawn, the development worker must navigate this jungle, crafting monitoring and evaluation plans in project proposals, holding themselves accountable in weekly team meetings, tallying progress in interim reports, proudly reporting (or massaging) the numbers in final project documents, and then spinning it all into the perfect pitch in advertisements to potential donors.

This is a paradise for the bean-counting technocrats who thrive in this rich ecosystem of numbers, from basic inputs (the number of bed nets distributed, the number of nutritionally balanced meals donated, the number of refugees housed, the number of workshops run and the total participants) to complex outcomes (microbusinesses started and maintained for five years, families “lifted” out of food insecurity, increases in GDP or HDI).

And yet the rest of us might be forgiven if, tripping through this gnarly thicket of simple, observable, and measurable “indicators,” we ask, “but how are you actually making peoples lives better?” Or we say, “I know you’ve done a lot. And I know that x action led to y and z outcomes. But what really changed?” Because at the end of the day we do not aim to create a world full of bed nets or workshops or microbusinesses or high GDPs. We aim for a world that is changed, a world that is so radically changed that poverty, ill health, food insecurity, and exploitation cannot be created in the first place.

At Minga, we express this vision quite clearly in our mission: to build capacity for health and social change. But how do you evaluate that?

 Measuring whether we improve health is pretty straightforward. Tally the problems before and after, adjust for other influences, and there you go. So in our early work in Ecuador, for example, we can look at the extraordinarily high rates of malaria infection in the region of El Páramo before we began, the near-zero rates of malaria today, and we can be fairly confident that our efforts to distribute bed nets, provide local lab testing, secure access to treatment, and conduct culturally appropriate1 health education had a significant impact.

To some extent, it’s not much harder to evaluate whether we are building capacity for health. Just look at the infrastructure that we’ve put in place: health centers, laboratories, and medical staff; trained community health workers; boreholes and piping to ensure access to clean water; community gardens to enhance food security; etc. But capacity for health entails more than just the existence of health infrastructure. It also includes the ability of individuals and communities to identify risks, develop solutions, mobilize resources, secure assistance, etc. These more subtle impacts require much more nuanced evaluation. One way that we assess these more subtle aspects of community capacity for health is by examining changes in the ways that our partners describe their work, challenges, and goals. Did their analysis of community assets, problems, and responses change from the initial proposal to their final report? Did their experience with a Minga-funded project provide them with clear lessons? And are they putting these lessons into practice via new funding proposals, changes to their projects, revisions to their mission, etc.?

And that brings us to the most complex, but arguably the most important, aspect of our work—to build capacity for social change. Here we are talking not just measurable project outcomes, nor even lessons for health programming, but rather about developing forms of community power that actually challenge local patterns of exploitation and marginalization. To evaluate these impacts requires that we first understand what historical, cultural, political, and economic factors actually contribute to people’s marginalization. And then we have to look for changes.

Our work with BUVAD in Uganda provides a great example. As in many places, the small farmers of the Kayunga District are multiply marginalized. Their wellbeing and stability is affected by economic factors (small land holdings, limited ownership of agricultural technologies, and a low place on the commodity chain) and biological factors (limited access to clean water, in part because of colonial and post-colonial land use policies; thus long trips to wells and high burdens of water-borne illnesses). Addressing these issues—as most development work attempts to do—matters a great deal, but that alone is not sufficient to facilitate social change. We therefore also try to attend to socio-political factors (low levels of political influence, little attention from public servants, poor representation in policy realms). Thus, in our work with BUVAD and its fantastic executive director, Stephen, we not only provided funding for new wells but also set in motion a range of initiatives to change Kayunga’s political marginalization.

How do we know? These are some of the indicators we see:

  1. Increases in solidarity and a collective voice: Minga made a modest contribution to building national solidarity by bringing BUVAD into UWASNET, a network of NGOs working on water and sanitation issues. BUVAD is also building solidarity and self-governance at the local level via well governance committees.
  2. Increased influence over local policy: Experience with our project helped Stephen get onto the Kayunga District Water and Sanitation Committee, bolstering grassroots voices in local policy making.
  3. Access to data and education to support community demands and reduce stereotyping and the dismissal of “poor” rural people: Monitoring and evaluation work for our project equipped BUVAD with hard data that they can now bring to government officials to strengthen their demands for the fulfillment of basic infrastructure rights.
  4. Increasing autonomy so communities can not only affect the powerful but also thrive independently of them: Since working with us, Stephen has written successful grants to simultaneously boost local autonomy from those government officials and other outsiders via training for a local well mechanic and the installation of passive rainwater harvesting infrastructure.

These are all small changes, but collectively they begin to shift the dynamics that lead to people’s disempowerment in the first place. At Minga, we believe that the most significant and positive transformations will come when standard development is accompanied by this deeper socio-political work. That’s why, in each of our projects, we’re trying to figure out which factors really do build community capacity for social change—not to prove we’re great or insist that we’re still needed, but to figure out how to do this work better. We’ll continue to keep you posted!

1 – In this case, “culturally appropriate” is not just a “buzzword or fuzzword,” to quote Andrea Cornwall. Members of Minga (then Foundation Human Nature) and their international counterparts learned that people in El Páramo were not seeking biomedical attention for malaria because evil eye manifested with similar symptoms and, it was believed, consulting a medical doctor for evil eye could kill you. By carefully studying the differences in symptoms, our team was able to discern a difference in the timing of a malarial fever compared to an evil eye fever, and by teaching people to see the difference we helped get over this barrier to medical attention.

Men, Masculinity & Violence

In this short piece, reprinted from the Society for Applied Anthropology newsletter,  Minga Foundation board member Karin Friederic and undergraduate student Adriana Cordova reflect on lessons learned while conducting workshops on gender violence in rural Ecuador last summer. They discuss both the successes and the limitations of educational interventions such as workshops on family relations and gender violence. These workshops were part of a broader project called “A Multipronged Approach to Combating Intimate-Partner Violence in Rural Coastal Ecuador” funded by the Feminist Review Trust.

“Si no le preparas comida a tu esposo, te pega, diga?”

“If you don’t cook food for your husband, he hits you, right?”

While spending two months in rural coastal Ecuador this summer, my student Adriana and I were asked this question on a couple different occasions by a precocious five-year old named Jeni. The little girl had noticed that I preferred cleaning dishes to preparing dinner. After many years of hearing these kinds of comments, I took the question in stride and responded that, no, my husband would not hit me because we always split the tasks of washing and cooking. But Adriana remained troubled, especially when Jeni asked her another time. She was especially concerned that Jeni might have learned this from watching her father beat her mother. Adriana got along really well with Jeni’s father, and could not imagine that he would lay a hand on his wife.

Though community members sometimes report that “violence no longer exists” and “all women here have rights now,” after fifteen years of conducting research on gender, violence, and community development in this region, I have grown accustomed to the slippages, contradictions, and the persistent ways that violence remains etched in everyday relations between men, women, and children (Friederic 2009, 2012). I didn’t actually think that Jeni’s father beat his wife. To be fair, I just didn’t know in this case. But I did know that narratives and threats of violence continue to be central to the making of masculinities and femininities in the region. I also knew that these messages were often circulated by women themselves, especially when they were raising and socializing their children. As it turns out, this is precisely how Jeni had learned this “truth.” Her mother later told Adriana that, even if not cooking might not result in violence in her household, it is well-known that cooking food for your husband is a wife’s moral duty. If a wife falters, she might get hit. Little girls should know this so they can prepare themselves accordingly and prevent problems in their future homes.

Adriana, a rising junior at Wake Forest University, accompanied me to rural Ecuador this summer to assist me with an intervention into gender violence and to conduct independent research on sexual health education in the local elementary and high schools. In this column, we reflect on the ways that we had to consistently remind ourselves and our interlocutors to challenge (and not reproduce) normalized assumptions about masculinity, sexuality, and violence, and the links between them. Adriana’s research revealed strictly-defined, naturalized gender norms that inadvertently shaped how she conducted her research. In my own project, workshops that I helped organize sometimes tended to reproduce the idea that men are inherently violent, leaving little room for the development of alternative masculinities.

Adriana’s Project: Health Education & Family Relations in Rural Ecuador

During the five weeks that I, Adriana, spent in rural coastal Ecuador this summer, I set out to find how parents and teachers in Ecuador perceive the quality and value of health education in public schools. At first, I had planned to ask about what people knew about health education, the curriculum, and how it should be improved. But soon after my arrival, I began to see how rigid gender norms were. When I recognized that there was severe gender inequality, I decided to make changes to my research. In the eleven interviews I conducted, I incorporated more questions to learn about how people perceived that sexual education should be different for young men and young women, and who they thought was responsible for doing the educating.

In these interviews, I often heard parents and teachers reproduce particular ideas about the differences between boys and girls and their roles, which corresponded to how they should learn about sex. According to most of the people I interviewed, girls should learn about sex from their mothers and boys should learn about sex from their fathers. But it also became clear that the way that girls and boys were meant to learn, and the ways that fathers and mothers were expected to teach them, was very different. For example, in many cases, boys learned about sex from their fathers by going to brothels, whereas girls would learn about sex through conversations with their mothers. But speaking about sex was a tricky issue. Mothers explained that they should talk openly to their children, yet at the same time, they thought that speaking about sex would automatically encourage girls, in particular, to start having sex. Teachers often told me that the reason why it was important to teach sexual education in school was because girls were running off and getting pregnant. Teachers and mothers knew that sexual education was important, but the mode of education was perceived differently. Both teachers and parents seemed much more concerned about girls than boys having sex at an early age.

Therefore, I noticed not only a strict division of labor between genders, but also sets of very different standards and expectations. As we saw with Jeni, this division begins at a very young age; girls like Jeni learn both by observing different gender norms in the household and by being told this is what happens. In a lot of the talk about health and sex education, it was implied that men were more violent and more sexual, and women were more passive. In one instance, one of the mothers I was friends with told me that STD’s were becoming more common. She said that if her husband was sleeping with other women, he better not get any STD’s and give them to her. She said this in a very serious tone. Not once did she say if this happened she would leave her husband, nor did she say it was bad for him to be sleeping with other women. It seemed that it was accepted that men have sexual needs and therefore they have the right to sleep around. The wife just didn’t want to get stuck with an STD, so it was up to her to take precautions. Because it is considered natural that men will more often act on their sexual motivations as compared to women, there are distinct norms and expectations for men and women which are evident even in the ways that young boys and girls are taught about sexual education. Girls and boys were taught about sexual education differently because it is thought that each have different relationships to their own sexuality: men have to learn to indulge their sexuality with the least harm possible, and women have to learn to protect themselves from men’s inherently sexual and violent natures. These ideas are not just reproduced through how sexual education is taught but also through the types of messages parents communicate with their kids that are based in gendered assumptions that link masculinity, sexuality and violence, for example. I discovered links with Karin’s intimate partner violence research in ways I had not thought about before starting this research. Looking back, I also realize that I would have approached my research differently had I recognized more clearly how these gender norms become naturalized. From the beginning, I decided to interview only mothers because people told me that fathers were not involved with their children’s education. Reflecting upon this now, I should have considered or given the men a chance to share their opinions and insight about sexual education in the household. I myself fell into believing and reproducing normalized assumptions about masculinity, associating them with work outside the home, rather than with their role as fathers, involved in their children’s lives.

Karin’s Project: Intimate Partner Violence in Rural Coastal Ecuador

In rural coastal Ecuador, human rights campaigns against domestic violence have introduced new ideas about gender, sexuality, and health over the last fifteen years. As I, Karin, have written about elsewhere, recent advances in knowledge of rights and access to state-based justice have offered powerful opportunities for some women in the region, but the empowering potential of these efforts is limited (and often squandered) by women’s continued social and economic vulnerability (Friederic 2012, 2013).  Many suffer from increased violence or attempt suicide when their newly discovered right to live free from violence conflicts with the lack of means to change their circumstances.

For this reason, in conjunction with my research on gender violence, I sought out and received funding from the Feminist Review Trust to implement a small-scale intervention to mitigate some of these effects. This multifaceted project involves educational, micro-economic, and infrastructure initiatives to encourage a more supportive and sustainable socioeconomic environment for men and women seeking to diminish intimate partner violence. For one component, I partnered with in-country gender specialists with experience working with men on questions of violence to conduct intensive full-day workshops on household communication, gender equality, and gender violence. With their help, my field assistants and I coordinated a series of full-day workshops with activities such as community mapping, mini-lectures, socio-dramas, children’s activities, and group painting and drawing. Over 120 people attended, and the workshops were hailed a great success. Participants reported that they accomplished important self-reflective work, learned practical take-home lessons, and had lots of fun at the same time.

After my field assistants, including Adriana, and I decompressed from the first of the workshops, we discussed how the facilitators did a fantastic job honing participants’ awareness of and sensitivity to how gender organizes and unfairly structures daily life by pointing out women’s invisible labor, for example. They were also successful at eliciting gender norms and people’s discomfort with the strictness of these norms. However, one aspect of these workshops left us uncomfortable. The workshop discussions had only allowed for the existence of one kind of man: an aggressive, violent, hyper-sexual, “machista” male. And our communal goal was to get rid of him. But, the problem was how. There was little room created in these conversations for acknowledging and exploring alternative masculinities that could replace the ubiquitous “machista” male.

The concept of “machismo” played a central role in the workshop discussions, but the idea itself was never placed under scrutiny, even if it was mentioned constantly by participants and facilitators as “the problem” that we needed to overcome. In this local context, “machismo” usually refers to a panoply of masculine behaviors (physical, psychological, social, and economic) that serve to demean and control women. But during the workshops, “machismo” seemed to stand in for the most egregious of these behaviors: wife-beating. And all men seemed to be referred to as machos.

At one point, various participants noted themselves that not all men are machista, and you could sense some resentment that all men were being painted with a single brush. While this wasn’t the facilitators intent (as they later assured us), the conversation tended to continually re-direct and re-construct the figure of men as perpetrators of various forms of violence against women. Thankfully, we were able to discuss this openly with the facilitators, and the next series of workshops improved. But it left me thinking about all the ways that we might also invariably reproduce the idea that men are inherently and “naturally” violent, even when we are seeking to destabilize this very norm. In my own workshops and conversations, I have used the figure of the “macho” to break the ice, poke fun, and register my solidarity with women who disapprove of these behaviors, while also demonstrating my knowledge of local cultural norms. And while these tactics might work well for raising awareness and encouraging conversation, as applied anthropologists it is especially important that we also incorporate strategies, or at least the space, for the building of alternative gendered identities. For example, I learned that I needed to pay closer attention to the fissures and cracks where these stereotypes broke down, the moments when men embodied contradictory postures in their lives, and use these to encourage new ideas of self and masculinity.

Conclusion

In this column, Adriana and I reflect not only on what we have learned about the links between gender, sexuality, and violence during this past summer’s research, but also on how we must take care to not reproduce certain norms even as we allow local cues to guide our research. Adriana only interviewed mothers about health education because everyone told her that mothers are the only family members who would know about their children’s experience learning about health and sexuality. She now acknowledges that perhaps she didn’t give men enough of a chance to demonstrate their involvement in their children’s lives. It is assumed by all that women “naturally” know their children better. On the other hand, Karin recognized that, in her workshops, continual references to men as machistas who beat their wives run the risk of overly associating masculinity with violence. If not addressed, this elision between masculinity and violence may result in either “emasculating” non-violent men on the one hand, or it might lead to false claims that “violence no longer exists” simply because men aren’t as machista (i.e. engaged in regular wife-beating) as they used to be. So, while Jeni’s father may not beat his wife, this does not imply that gender violence is over. Violence, whether physical, psychological or economic, continues to structure and shape gender relations. Jeni is becoming a woman who perhaps does not deserve to put up with male violence, but she is also learning how to be responsible and accountable for avoiding it. In this line-of-thinking, if men are naturally and helplessly hypersexual and violent, then women must spend their time learning how to protect themselves lest they be cast as irresponsible women who were “asking for it,” a phenomenon of unfair gendered accountability that has unfortunate parallels worldwide.

Authors: Karin Friederic (Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Wake Forest University) and Adriana Córdova (Undergraduate Student, Class of 2017, Wake Forest University)

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Welcome to Our Blog!

Since this is our first blogpost, an introduction is in order. The Minga Foundation is a nonprofit organization with current projects in Ecuador, Malawi, and Uganda. Although Minga came into existence in 2010, its organizational predecessor Foundation Human Nature USA was founded in 2003. Many of us have been working together for over 10 years, and this is fitting. Why? Because Minga is about more than any of our individual projects; it’s about a set of ideals, friendships, and experiences that span all of our work and all of our time together.

For all of us Minga is about making idealism a way of life. Beyond implementing concrete projects in our partner communities, we also generate ideas of what a better world might look like, and concrete strategies to make these ideas real. How to achieve long-term sustainability in our projects? How to partner as equals with the communities in which we work? How to promote a culture of progressive activism rather than reactive ‘slacktivism’? How to create the conditions in which international aid is no longer necessary, i.e. how to put ourselves out of business? We wrestle with these questions in our Board meetings, in the classrooms where we teach, in the communities where we live, and now on this blog. Stay tuned.

That said, our idealism and the purpose of this blog goes beyond intellectual debates on international aid and economic development. Minga itself is a Quichua term which means ‘collective action towards a common goal’; a process by which individuals come together and invest their individual time and energy towards a shared goal or resource. Community participation and collective action are at the core of all of our individual projects. They are also at the core of who we are as a team and an organization.

We truly are a unique group with a unique model. We’ve grown over the past 11 years as an all volunteer board without physical office space or any of the overhead costs incurred by most non-profits. This is only possible because each of us as individuals is willing to give freely of our time and energy. This generosity applies also to our families, as well. Our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins have all at some point made donations, organized publicity campaigns, and hosted annual retreats. They’ve served as accountants, consultants, fundraisers, and cheerleaders, even when Minga work and responsibilities made our lives more complicated. Our board members and their extended families constitute a living, breathing example of individuals devoting time and energy to a larger, shared cause.

You might ask, what is that cause? What is the shared resource generated by all of these individual efforts? The first and most obvious answer is the satisfaction of improving people’s daily lives. Eliminating malaria in El Paramo region of Ecuador; providing access to clean water in Kayunga County, Uganda; improving education outcomes in Kabadula, Malawi. These are results which all of us are proud of and which in and of themselves merit the above-described investments of time and energy.

However, the truth is that all of us get more from Minga than the satisfaction of doing good work. We’ve been with each other through the thick and thin; through moves and job changes, through personal accomplishments and personal crises. Laughter and smiles can be a scarce commodity in life, but every year we leave our organizational retreat with side pains from late night games of Charades and Balderdash. We are always there for each other, and the friendships and commitments we’ve developed go well beyond our work in international development.

There is nothing more idealistic than creating lasting friendships from a shared commitment to making the world a better place. So, you ask, what do we get from our investments of time and energy? Perhaps most importantly, we get each other; and for that reason this blog will also be about us. It will be about our jobs, our pass-times, our cities, and our pets. It will be about the people who make Minga possible. Check in with us to learn about our projects and our ideas, but also about our team and our experiences.

We are Minga. Minga is family. Come Minga with us!

-Dan Kselman, President, The Minga Foundation