2016 Education and Research Review

Capturing Complexity and Context: Evaluating Aid to Education

Joel Samoff, Jane Leer, Michelle Reddy

Formal evaluations of aid to education have become more frequent, more systematic, and more important in subsequent policy and programmatic decisions. What do we learn from that increasing volume of evaluations?

The objective of this study is to do a synthesis of evaluations of aid supported education activities that recognizes the complexities of education, aid, and evaluation. The synthesis includes studies that evaluate impacts and outcomes through experimental methods, but do not limit the analysis to evaluations that are reliant on them. The authors argue that since education, aid and evaluations are multi-layered and shaped by context, evaluation strategies based on analyzing events and phenomena out of their context will be partial and carry a risk of generating inappropriate expectations and encouraging an unrealistic sense of confidence in claimed links between inputs and results.

The report was presented during the seminar Aid to education – what works in a complex world?

Main findings (selection)

  • Globally, aid to basic education has stagnated or declined. 
  • The short aid cycle requires near-term evaluations, often well before the intended outcomes can become clearly visible. Not surprisingly, evaluations are often correspondingly superficial, attentive to what can be measured quickly.
  • The evaluations are rarely self-reflective or self-critical.
  • The expected cumulation of knowledge and institutional learning often do not occur.
  • With occasional exceptions, more and more complex evaluations are unlikely to improve education or increase aid effectiveness.
  • Complex and expensive evaluations by detached outsiders can serve occasional narrowly defined objectives but have limited general utility.

Recommendations (selection)

  • Where evaluations are needed to confirm that aid funds were used as intended, limit the evaluations to that role. Where evaluations are intended to serve other purposes, say increasing local transparency and accountability for aid flows, they can be designed and managed for those purposes.
  • Evaluations can themselves become an empowering part of development assistance and structure acoountability by incorporate recipient participation, be well integrated into activities and provide formative results.
  • Focus on educators’ evaluation needs and uses is more likely to improve education outcomes than the common focus on aid providers’ monitoring requirements.
  • Rather than the generally unachievable objective of determining what works or what works best, evaluations can be designed to examine how things work in specified circumstances and then used to improve both the education and the aid process.

Joel Samoff, Professor, Stanford University
Jane Leer, Research Specialist, Stanford University
Michelle Reddy, PhD candidate, Stanford University