Reciprocity in Evaluation

Follow the golden rule in research and evaluation… treat communities and organizations how you want to be treated. At AKA we are all about reciprocity in our work and the decisions we make. Here are some examples and considerations for elevating the golden rule in research and evaluation.

One ball on the left is being balanced by three balls on the right

Reciprocity, the process of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, is a social norm that has strong ethical considerations for researchers and evaluators. It is an essential component of research and evaluation with communities, but it can take a backseat or remain an afterthought to the planning and implementation of programs. “Helicopter research” is a term that comes out of the violations of reciprocity. It is defined by a long history of when researchers, in positions of privilege and power, would enter communities, collect samples, and publish results with little to no community involvement or benefit. We now know the damaging effects of this type of research and evaluation, and the longer-lasting impacts of engaging in meaningful collaborations that center on the values of reciprocity. However, there are still times when work can fall short of the practice of reciprocity, times when data goes unshared or results from a program follow an upward hierarchy of dissemination and are sent only to the funder. There is an inherent power dynamic at play between researchers, evaluators, funders, and participants. Prioritizing reciprocity considers this power dynamic and makes meaningful efforts to balance the funding requirements with the benefits to communities.

Research and evaluation in public health aim to improve equity, social justice, and health outcomes through new practices or programs, and this can only be done by collaboration. Communities and individuals devote their time, effort, and experiences to the work and impart wisdom to the researcher and evaluator. Without engagement, there would be no results to share, without collaboration there would be no way to get at true meaning, and without community investment there would be no impacts.

Benefits of Reciprocity

At its core as a social norm, reciprocity helps ensure the survival of species. It ensures that people receive help when they need and that we, in turn, accept help when we need it.

It allows us to get things done with others that we would otherwise not be able to do ourselves.

This translates into the work we do as researchers and evaluators. Reciprocity is essential in understanding how to develop and continue relationships. It addresses the power dynamic and privileges and prioritizes the voice of individuals and communities. A researcher by the name of Mutindi Mumbua Kiluva-Ndunda advocates that reciprocity in research...

“...involves privileging the discourses of those in the margins and engaging in activities that aim at moving their issues toward the center.”

Considerations for Ensuring Reciprocity

In research and evaluation, reciprocity can take many forms. Based on a vast body of literature and our own experiences, the following considerations can help prioritize reciprocity in research and evaluation.

  • Engage in capacity-bridging Capacity-bridging is an emerging term that moves away from the term capacity building. It emphasizes all individuals have knowledge and skills that they bring to the table and can share through the research and evaluation process. This prioritizes sharing knowledge between academics, researchers, evaluators, and community. This can take many forms. One example is working with youth to share evaluation and research learnings.

  • Ensure balance Often research and evaluation results are required by the funder. But this shouldn’t take precedence over the needs and wants of the community. Balance the evaluation to prioritize community wants with funder needs. Incorporate funder requirements into a community-centered evaluation plan.

  • Collect data defined by the community, for the community Identify the outcomes of interest to the community, collect the data in the way that is most meaningful to the values and traditions of the community. Share the results with the participants and the community first and foremost. In Indigenous communities this can involve an emphasis on Indigenous ways of knowing and knowledge sharing. We can acknowledge Indigenous voices and ways of knowing by incorporating culturally responsive citations.

  • Devote time and effort The process of reciprocity is a journey. From planning to knowledge sharing to disseminating findings…all good things take time.