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What is Effective Evaluation and Why is it Important?

What is evaluation?

According to the American Evaluation Association, evaluation is “a systematic process to determine merit, worth, value or significance”1 . Simply, evaluations can tell us if a program, policy or system is working, but evaluations can also answer dynamic questions such as:

  • Why has a particular program had a positive impact?
  • What changes can be made to improve project performance?
  • Has a project been successful in including marginalized groups?
  • Has a program been cost effective, and what is the return on investment?

While monitoring and evaluation (M&E) are frequently referenced together, they are in fact distinct from one another. Monitoring is an ongoing process, used to gather feedback to assess progress toward a goal2. While evaluation can be used as a way to monitor progress, monitoring and evaluation differ in terms of timing, scope and participants.

Timing: monitoring is continuous, and evaluation is done at a point in time.

Scope: monitoring focuses more on day to day activities and shorter term progress, assessing where to modify activities to meet an overall goal. Evaluation draws overall conclusions on the entire program’s effectiveness, sustainability, and impact.

Participants: Monitoring is frequently done in-house by project staff and participants, and evaluation often includes a larger group of stakeholders, participants, donors and oftentimes external evaluators2.

Principles of Evaluation

The American Evaluation Association details guiding principles for evaluators to direct best practice, sound methodology, and professionalism.

  1. Systematic Inquiry: Evaluators conduct systematic, data-based inquiries.
  2. Competence: Evaluators provide competent performance to stakeholders.
  3. Integrity/Honesty: Evaluators display honesty and integrity in their own behavior, and attempt to ensure the honesty and integrity of the entire evaluation process.
  4. Respect for People: Evaluators respect the security, dignity and self-worth of respondents, program participants, clients, and other evaluation stakeholders.
  5. Responsibilities for General and Public Welfare: Evaluators articulate and take into account the diversity of general and public interests and values that may be related to the evaluation3.

While every evaluation will vary in purpose and scope, these overarching values provide ideals to ensure the utmost integrity and ethics are practiced in any evaluation circumstance.

Evaluation in Practice

Evaluators can draw from many different methods and types of analysis in answering key questions about a project or program. These evaluation techniques are generally categorized into two types:

  1. Quantitative methods typically gather information in numerical form. Quantitative methods include surveys, polls, and questionnaires.
  2. Qualitative methods typically gather descriptive data. Qualitative methods include focus group discussions, key informant interviews and participant observation.

Strong evaluation methodology includes both qualitative and quantitative components, which is referred to as mixed method evaluation. Mixed method evaluations combine a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques appropriate to the evaluation context and objectives.

Uses of Evaluation

Evaluations can be used in many ways. Evaluations can be an internal learning tool for organizations to monitor progress and learn about what has worked and what has not worked in a particular approach or project. With learning in mind, evaluations can be a catalyst for adaptive management and directing continual improvements within an organization. Additionally, in the international development realm, evaluations are frequently a donor requirement. In this context, evaluations are an external learning tool to inform donors, partners and other stakeholders about project success, shortfalls and lessons learned that can help to inform future funding priorities and project design.

Careers in Evaluation and International Development

A basic understanding of evaluation principles and methods is necessary to be an effective international development practitioner. Even if you aren’t seeking to be a professional evaluator, evaluation is an important skill in any role – as a program manager, a technical implementer, or in administration – to guide and make decisions about program implementation, to track progress and to evaluate success. There are also many career paths that require specific and in-depth evaluation expertise. Many NGOs, donors and government agencies staff evaluation professionals in-house to lead both monitoring and evaluation efforts and inform best practices and learning across the organization. Additionally, these entities often partner with evaluation firms, which can provide expert services and an independent, unbiased evaluation.

Many resources, networking groups and trainings exist for the novice and expert evaluator alike. For more information, you can explore:

The American Evaluation Association

USAID Learning Lab

Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL)

About the Author

Jill LaLonde is an instructor at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota and the Executive Director of OneVillage Partners, a Minnesota-based international NGO that facilitates community-led development projects in Sierra Leone. Jill has more than 10 years of experience in the international development and nonprofit sectors, ranging from Gates-funded public health research in Northern Uganda to managing multi-million dollar USAID-funded projects across Africa, Asia and the Middle East at Land O’Lakes International Development. Jill holds a BA in Psychology from the University of Minnesota and an MSc in Development Studies from the London School of Economics.


  1. (2014 January 28). What is Evaluation? Retrieved from
  2. (2009). Handbook on Planning, Monitoring and Evaluating For Development Results. Retrieved from
  3. (2018, August). American Evaluation Association Guiding Principles For Evaluators American Evaluation Association. Retrieved from