Thursday 25 December 2014

Moral judgment

It is somewhat late in the year to share observations from the 11th Biennial Conference of the European Evaluation Society which took place in early September. Apologies! This year has been a bit breathless for me - more on that in a different, future post.

Meanwhile, one particularly gripping topic at the EES conference was moral judgment, and the question whether evaluators should exercise it even if the evaluation terms of reference were only about, say, value for money. As one speaker put it, “you’re going to crash into [ethics] in the course of your normal trafficking around as an evaluator”. Not only because you need to do your best to avoid hurting anyone’s rights or anyone’s safety, but also because you are bound to bump into things that are bad, or that you might find bad.

Examples abound.
I remember 'my' first external evaluation, early in this century in a West African country. Three of us traveled in a minivan: a driver, a senior manager of the organisation whose project I evaluated, and me. On our way back to the capital city, the manager had the driver stop several times to buy bags upon bags of charcoal, apparently cheaper there than in the city, and pile up those bags on the roof of the minivan. Upon our return to the city, the driver stopped at the manager's home and spent about an hour carrying all those bags into her compound. Back in the car, he did nothing to hide his anger: no charcoal for him!  That was bad, but what I found even worse was the manager's brazen abuse of her organisation’s resources (the car, and the driver's time, force and clean clothes). All that in the presence of an external evaluator! I wondered whether I would take up the issue in my report. I didn’t, in the end, because it was not my job to assess staff conduct, I thought, and, after all, those kinds of things happened everywhere, anyway, didn't they? I still regret my decision. The evaluation had been commissioned by a value-based organisation funded by people who expected their donations to be used to end poverty - not to facilitate corrupt managers' fuel shopping. Closing my eyes on brazen misconduct could have encouraged corruption.

The example mentioned at the EES Conference was quite a different one. It came in the middle of a sentence and was preceded by a brief silence. Then the word was uttered, “abortion”. As in, you are evaluating health services and you realise that some services carry out [pause] abortions. (This quote is very approximate and from memory. What I remember most clearly is my surprise at the chosen example. And that pause.) Subsequently, the speaker, a man with no known track record in women's reproductive rights work, went into a longer argument concluding that it was an evaluators’ duty to reflect explicitly on the values underlying or linked to the evaluated intervention. I think that such an attitude is fine as long as it is exercised with modesty. After all, as a prominent member of the audience has interjected, moral philosophy is a discipline that most evaluators are not specialised in.

But, having registered that pregnant silence before the word “abortion”, my mind went off on a tangent. Why would abortion (or rather, its existence as a legitimate health service) be the foremost moral dilemma for an evaluator to talk about? True, a woman who finds herself with a dangerous or unwanted pregnancy must think carefully about her options. And there is that discussion as to when human beings start to be human beings whose rights must be protected. But I am a bit tired of seeing abortion pop up as the topic of choice when moral problems are discussed. How about, well, corruption? Arms production and the arms trade? Sub-prime loans? Or patriarchy and social control over women's bodies?  

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