Having taken a deep dive into realist evaluation with BCURE, I’ve been fascinated to share insights with other realist evaluators in this growing field. Realist evaluation can provide valuable insights for policymakers and implementers, but it is a demanding and rigorous approach, requiring a specific way of thinking about causal relationships and context that requires a realist ‘mind-set’, the right evaluation design and stakeholders willing to engage in depth with the evaluation.

To help us be more systematic on our lesson-learning, a few of us realist evaluators – staff and associates at itad – have formed a Realist Evaluation Learning Group, to distil what we’ve learned along the way and share it with the wider evaluation and international development communities. We have been exploring both how realist evaluation can add value to the complex, cross-sectoral and multi-country evaluations we tend to do in international development, as well as how the approach needs to be adapted to get the best out of it for commissioners, implementers and evaluators. We have co-authored blogs, and a practice paper, which is nearly ready to share, as well as a previous practice paper for the Centre for Development Impact. Read more.

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I’ve been leading the five year evaluation of GCRF since 2020. It’s a very large and complex research fund that supports cutting-edge research and innovation to address challenges faced by developing countries. It is part of the UK’s official development assistance (ODA) and is managed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The fund aims to deliver excellent research with development impact, making practical contributions on the global effort to address the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs). GCRF aims to maximise the impact of research and innovation to improve lives and opportunity in the developing world.

Three girls stand in doorway after attending a community research feedback event, in Mus Kamp, Afar Region, Ethiopia, 2018. 
Photo credit: Jennifer Leavy, 2018

GRCF is delivered by 17 of the UK’s research and innovation funders, making it a complicated evaluation, to say the least. I’m proud to work alongside a talented international team of evaluators from Itad, Rand Europe, NirasLTS, AFIDEP and Athena Infonomics. We’ve also done some exciting data science work with our partner, Digital Science, mapping GCRF’s global footprint of projects and outputs.

In the first year, we looked at the foundations for achieving development impact across the fund, addressed through four evaluation modules: management; relevance and coherence; fairness; and gender, social inclusion and poverty (GESIP). I’m pleased to announce that our evaluation reports from the first year have now been published by BEIS, and are available to download.

Overall, the Stage 1a evaluation found that GCRF is making clear progress in terms of establishing the foundations for development impact – becoming relevant, coherent, well-targeted, fair, gender sensitive and socially inclusive. Strengths were seen especially in GCRF’s flagship programmes. However, inherent challenges in the fund’s size and complicated delivery architecture meant that progress has been varied across the portfolio, and important gaps remain, especially around managing for development impact and how poverty is addressed. 

We are now well into the second year of the evaluation, looking at GCRF’s flagship programmes. Although GCRF has been challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic and its various impacts, we are beginning to map what has been achieved across this fascinating portfolio of research and innovation for development.

First of all, I want to say thanks to the people who’ve signed up to follow this blog and have waited patiently for a long time for me to say something. I’ve been spending time working with clients, learning by doing and developing my practice in helping organisations working for social aims.

And also thanks to WordPress, who put some rather inappropriate adverts on here, but that at least prompted me to get on with writing this post. For those of you who have signed up based on those adverts, you may want to reconsider? I don’t think this blog will be quite what you’re looking for!

I do feel that now I am starting to have stuff to share – at least about the questions that have raised doubts but that have led me to think more deeply and try out new things; what I’ve taken from working in different settings; and some of the inspiring conversations and reading that have opened more territory to explore.

So a first set of thoughts on what has been the core of my work for the last two years – theory of change.

Theory of change (ToC) is the approach that everyone is trying to use now for designing, planning and evaluating programmes. Last year, I did a review  for DFID on how people were working with it. From a methodological point of view, ToC is not difficult to grasp, but from a process point of view, people have struggled to get what they would like to from it. If they approach it from a ‘technical’ angle, it doesn’t feel that different to other planning tools, especially, close cousins like the Logical Framework, which ToC is supposed to be different from.

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