When evaluating human rights progress, focus also on the journey

In the quest for accountability, techniques such as Results Based Management,(RBM) which tend to focus on “outputs”, “activities” and quantifiable “results”, are often not useful to human rights organizations. Regardless of their specific issue area, human rights groups work towards fundamental social change. Results based management evaluations are unnecessarily cumbersome, too focused on linear causality and unaware of incremental but critical changes for complex human rights advocacy. In their rush for measurable results, human rights organizations risk forgetting the central role of people in social change.

Processes other than RBM exist. Learning-Based Management and Outcome Mapping, for example, help human rights workers engage in evaluative thinking every day, not only at donor-prescribed periods. They show human rights groups how to realistically assess who they can actually impact in their work, and then teach them to focus their efforts on changing the attitudes and behaviors of specific officials, activists, corporations and other stakeholders. These processes emphasize measuring small changes along the way.

Consider a hypothetical human rights campaign to protect the rights of migrant workers. Donors, working with a results-based management perspective, would ask human rights workers to collect data on numbers of migrant workers with new capacities to advocate for their rights; new fair labor policies and practices adopted by corporations; and new government initiatives to enforce labor protections. Moreover, donors would want evidence that all these quantifiable results were generated by the human rights work they had paid for.

Before any “measurable” results occur, however, human rights workers will tell you that a tremendous amount of effort needs to go into many interim steps. 

Before any “measurable” results occur, however, human rights workers will tell you that a tremendous amount of effort needs to go into many interim steps. These include endless meetings to build trust with reluctant informants; repeated efforts to needle one’s way into government offices; repeated and often failed efforts to find sympathetic corporate employees; and multiple meetings with the local, regional and international media. All of these small steps need to take place every day, over long periods of time.

This is the work that activists don’t want to be distracted from when the time for donor reporting rolls around. This, moreover, is the work that should count as outcomes—immediate, intermediate and long-term. We believe it is crucial to document these small victories in an efficient, ongoing manner, while not losing sight of the broader goal. 

Like most organizations, human rights groups have a “theory of change” for their work—they believe that specific strategies and activities should lead to desired outcomes. To achieve these shifts, they try to influence others. The strategies for dealing with migrants, government officials, and corporations vary widely, and each will follow a different “pathway of change”—for migrants, from intimidation to proactive advocacy; for governments, from negligence to fulfillment of responsibilities; for corporations, from inaction to a fundamental shift in corporate responsibility. It is these “pathways” that evaluators must assess, for it is here we will find evidence of human rights advocacy outcomes. 

Social change happens when people change their practices, behavior and relationships. The quantitative, final-state outcome data gathered by Results Based Management advocates is important, but so is nuanced, qualitative information on changes in people’s actions, behavior and relationships.

To gather and learn from small behavioral changes, all members of a given human rights group should routinely engage in evaluative thinking and documentation; it’s not a job that can be left to dedicated “monitoring and evaluation” specialists. It is the front-line activists, after all, who are best placed to recognize the significance of the events, meetings, interactions and conversations in their daily work, and that together add up, hopefully, to transformative change. 

Flickr/Solidarity Center (Some rights reserved)

Human rights workers conduct a seminar in Thailand. Activists are best placed to recognize the value of their daily work.

Organizations that prioritize learning through regular, daily evaluative thinking dramatically increase their ability to document, describe and explain their outcomes. Not only do they gather rich data to strengthen their own work, they also gather the information they need to satisfy donors. 

Monitoring and evaluation of human rights work must be done by people with people, not to people. Human rights staff must do the work, but they must also encourage participation from the people they seek to help. The voices, opinions and knowledge of individuals affected (or not) by a human rights organization’s work are crucial to understanding its real outcomes and inclusive monitoring processes.  

Doing this kind of monitoring isn’t easy, but it’s not that hard either. Aided by new software packages and hands-on training, human rights groups can learn to evaluate and document the behavioral changes they create each day, and to solicit the views of the people they seek to help.

Social change happens in non-linear ways, and rarely on the timelines of two-year, donor-funded projects. It happens incrementally and slowly, but it does happen. In human rights advocacy, activists and donors should celebrate the small wins along the way to a larger, future, cumulative victory.

Quantitative “results” will appear on reports to donors, but for the human rights groups themselves, it is the human journey—along with its myriad intermediate steps—that matters most.