What does the surge of SARS-CoV-2 (the scientific name of the new coronavirus) infections in parts of Europe mean for international evaluation? Can we, as evaluators, join the soothing voices of those who say, the current common flu epidemic has killed many more people and there is no reason to change anything in our lives? I don't think so. I would like to remind all of us of the Do No Harm principle: Research ethics require us to carefully weigh the potential benefits of undertaking research (at a given time) against the potential harm associated with it. We can relax about ourselves but we must not endanger others. International evaluations can also be done without international travel.
That is why yesterday, I decided to postpone a case study in an Asian country that has relatively few known coronavirus infections - not because I was worried I would contract the virus, but because I could pass it on to others. I live in Berlin, a city of 3.5 million inhabitants where some 58 cases of SARS-CoV-2 have been detected so far (yesterday's data). That may seem little. But while I formed my decision, it turned out that a close colleague's partner who had been in contact with a Covid-19 patient had developed symptoms of Covid-19 (the name of the disease the virus causes). A few hours later, the Guardian (UK) published an article relating how an apparently healthy British couple contracted SARS-CoV-2 during air travel to Vietnam and left a trail of infected people wherever they went - several places spread across Vietnam.
The health advice published in Germany is to avoid all unnecessary travel. Evaluations are as necessary as ever - yet, most of the time, postponing them would hardly threaten anybody's existence (apart from evaluators' flow of earnings - a risk entrepreneurs are used to). As a matter of fact, many evaluations happen late anyway because of poor planning - see for instance my 2012 post on evaluation planning.
Going on as if there was no public health risk associated with a new, rapidly spreading and potentially deadly virus threatens other peoples' lives, especially in countries where health systems are in poor shape or already overstretched. Especially when travelling to remote regions, we might carry the virus to populations who, by their relative isolation, could be relatively protected if we stayed away. Remember how UN peace keepers introduced cholera into Haiti? Find here the UN Secretary General's apology (2016). The history of colonialism is full of examples of European diseases wiping out previously sheltered communities.
What if the evaluation is really urgent, for instance a condition for subsequent project funding (assuming there is no way to re-negotiate the condition in view of a public health crisis)? Work with national evaluators! Even in organisations that find it vital to have an "international" on their evaluation teams, it is established good practice - even in smaller evaluations - to work with "mixed" national/international teams. See also my post on "two are better than one".
If you, as someone who commissions an evaluation, feel you must have an international consultant on the team, invite her to work remotely: Where internet connections are good, workshops, group discussions and interviews can be accompanied via Skype, WhatsApp or a more secure video messaging service. Data collected by the national evaluation team can be analysed in regular phone conferences. Time and resources permitting, the national team can have all its activities audio-recorded, transcribed (and translated, if needed) in full, so that the remote evaluator can follow closely what is happening. There are many options, which can also come in handy if we get more serious about reducing the environmental impact of international travel. I have used these options in my evaluation practice and they have yielded good results.
Remember the old saying about development being all about working "ourselves" (in the "global North") out of "our" business? That applies to international evaluation, too: Let's strive to 'localise' evaluation while developing a rich flow of knowledge and skills exchange across the world!