Book Review: Evaluation in the Extreme: Research, Impact and Politics in Violently Divided Societies

by  Rebecca Smyth,  GJA Student Ambassador

Colleen Duggan, Sub-Director of Management at United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rightsin Colombia and an advisor to the Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP), has recently published a co-edited volume with Kenneth Bush entitled Evaluation in the Extreme: Research, Impact and Politics in Violently Divided Societies.  The product of an exploratory joint research project between the International Conflict Research Institute at the University of Ulster and the International Development Research Centre, it is of relevance to academics, practitioners and students interested in ensuring that research and evaluation have a positive impact on people living in violently divided societies.

Divided into five sections loosely organised by theme, the collection provides fascinating insights into various aspects of the field of evaluation, both in general and within the context of violently divided societies more specifically.  The main, powerful message of Evaluation in the Extreme is that the control, production and framing of knowledge is a question of power and politics, and therefore research is “inextricably involved in either empowering or disempowering individuals and groups by reinforcing or challenging structures of domination or liberation.” (Bush and Duggan, 2015: 28)  The need to for self-awareness and reflexivity in carrying out research and evaluating its impact becomes all the more acute in the context of violently divided societies, which are by their nature fluid, unpredictable, complex and volatile.

Chapter 2 consists of quite possibly the most exhaustive literature review in the history of literature reviews, and serves as an excellent overview of the origins and development of evaluation as a concept and as a distinct field.  Part II is comprised of two chapters reflecting on the interactions between power, politics, methodology and ethics, with Janaka Jayawickrama and Jacqueline Strecker’s contribution on the ethics of evaluating research of particular interest to your humble reviewer, given that much of it resonates with feminist approaches to research and the ethical dilemmas it presents.  In a similar vein, Sonal Zaveri’s chapter in Part IV on evaluation and vulnerable groups highlights the importance of expanding our understanding of the concept of violence beyond militarised expressions of it, a recurrent theme of this volume.  She emphasises the need to critically examine the potential interactions of an intervention with existing structures of inequality, that failure to do so risks reinforcing or creating new expressions of inequality and injustice.

Part III is concerned with evaluation in the ‘post-conflict settings’ of Northern Ireland and South Africa, analysing the continued segregation of the Northern Irish education system along religious lines, and the challenges of implementing a HIV and AIDS policy in South Africa based on research rather than politics and ideology.  Along with Zaveri’s contribution, Part IV offers a funder’s perspective on how best to interpret and evaluate programmes in a divided society, while Part V brings together the lessons and reflections of the previous sections in a coherent fashion.

While the collection touches upon a variety of regions and countries, the focus tends to be on a few of ‘the usual suspects’, such as Northern Ireland.  Including research on other contexts would be of benefit in advancing the field as a whole as it could potentially providing fresh insights to current understandings of violently divided societies.

In all, Evaluation in the Extreme is a valuable, ambitious contribution to conflict studies, peace studies, political science and public policy – to name just a few –  as well as a potentially ground-breaking work in the development of evaluation as an independent field.