The need to understand the values of intended beneficiaries

Interesting post by Edward Carr ‘Mistakes Behavioral Economists Make‘ on his blog “Open the Echo Chamber” about the need to understand “what success looks like” when planning and evaluating interventions to reduce poverty.

There is still a lurking, underlying presumption that in making livelihoods decisions people are trying to maximize income and or the material quality of their lives.  This, however, is fundamentally incorrect.  In Delivering Development and a number of related publications (for example, herehere, and here) I have laid out how, in the context of livelihoods, material considerations are always bound up in social considerations.  If you only evaluate these actions as aimed at material goals, you’ve only got a part of the picture – and not the most important part, in most cases.  Instead, what you are left with are a bunch of decisions and outcomes that appear illogical, that can be cast as mistakes.  Only most of the time, they are not mistakes – they are conscious choices.

Few evaluations take sufficient time to really understand the perspectives of intended beneficiaries and how they would judge success – and yet without this it’s hard to plan effective programs.

1 comment to The need to understand the values of intended beneficiaries

  • Thanks for raising this thought provoking issue, Patricia.

    The things we value most highly are often intangible – priceless, even (e.g., our family, friends, health, culture, the environment… the list goes on).

    Yet policy decisions to tend to privilege an economic lens over other forms of valuation.

    Economics gives us a useful set of tools for thinking about how to allocate resources to maximise value. But if we define value (or resources) too narrowly we might not reach valid conclusions – e.g., we might end up over-allocating resources to things that return an obvious or measurable economic benefit, at the expense of things we value in other ways.

    In NDE no. 133 (Spring 2012) George Julnes highlights the risk that economic valuation (if more visible and preferred than other methods) could result in “a distorted understanding of the public interest and a diminished capacity for evaluation in general to serve this interest”.

    In the same issue Brian Yates notes that the monetary value of outcomes.. “may not reflect outcome value from key perspectives, possibly exacerbating discrimination according to gender, ethnicity and age” (p43)

    My question is this: What can economics learn from the field of evaluation – and what can evaluators learn from economics? Can the two sets of paradigms be merged in some way, and can that lead to better evaluation in some contexts?