How do project implementers design an intervention in a dynamic environment, when they don’t know how beneficiaries will respond? And how do evaluators design a flexible process to get decision-makers the information they need, when the theory of change is participant-driven and activities involve substantial grassroots initiative? One recent EnCompass evaluation explores these questions—with exciting results.
Isolated for decades, Myanmar (Burma) is in the midst of a political and economic transition. As part of that transition, the Internet is opening the doors to uncensored information for the first time—with incredible speed.
The change is visible in Myanmar’s Freedom on the Net scores, which plot a hopeful trajectory. The country’s score has jumped 25 points since 2011, from 88 out of 100—one of the worst scores a country can get—to 63 in 2015. Despite acknowledged challenges, this is unassailable progress in Internet freedom for such a short period. But the speed of this transition, happening alongside elections and a rapid liberalization of the economy, creates its own challenges. Although the general literacy rate exceeds 90 percent, people of all ages now have an urgent need for digital literacy.
One traditional source of information in Myanmar is the library. The country’s 5,000 active libraries already have a central role in community life, but most lack funding and staffing to add technological infrastructure. As recognized centers for learning, however, they were well-positioned to become digital information hubs. They are, by one librarian’s account, “among the most trusted community institutions in the country.”
Through IREX’s Beyond Access initiative, Myanmar’s libraries have been gaining ground as community centers for inclusive technology education. Beyond Access’s partnerships with libraries in rural and urban communities are building librarians’ skills and providing free access to tablet computers and Wi-Fi so library users can connect to the Internet, including new e-government services and news outlets that were crucial for the pivotal 2015 elections. The project vision is of “welcoming spaces” enabling people from all walks of life to access digital information.
In 2015, through support provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, EnCompass began working with IREX to evaluate the initiative’s progress over the course of 2 years. From the outset it was clear that the project was witnessing incredible enthusiasm from librarians and library patrons, but what was driving this success, and how were librarians becoming “infomediaries” who could help users navigate the new, uncensored information landscape? What did the modern library user look like—and want—in this new paradigm? IREX saw the evaluation as an important opportunity to dig in and understand the project’s value and change process at an early stage.
A key strength of Beyond Access projects is their built-in flexibility, a natural result of a model that is based on collaborative, locally driven goal-setting and stakeholder co-funding. Just as digital literacy and access to information enable individuals to achieve their personal goals, Beyond Access adapts in response to new information to make adjustments that maximize progress towards its project goals. Our evaluation approach—an appreciative, utilization-focused process—is a boon in such a context.
Given the focus on utilization, we needed a process-driven evaluation that promoted broad understanding of results and further facilitated the change process. Participatory techniques engaged project staff at every stage, from defining the purpose of the evaluation to collecting data. At the end of the first phase in 2015, an iterative series of meetings helped co-create meaning from the data, and ultimately produced the evaluation’s findings.
What we found was that the project was (and is) moving libraries toward the vision of being modern information spaces, and attracting more users as a result. But although the technology was clearly bringing more people into the libraries, libraries were struggling to get girls and young women to use technology at the same rate as men and boys.
In many cases, that’s where an evaluation finding might stop—on the pages of a report. But the utilization-focused participatory approach helped spark concrete thinking about how to push toward greater inclusivity, and the appreciative lens identified grassroots successes for the project to build on.
“We got immense value from the EnCompass evaluation. We have made some adjustments to our program design, influenced in large part from Phase 1 evaluation findings related to the diversity of library users. That’s a testament to the tremendous value IREX has derived from this process.”
IREX—already primed for adaptation—saw the opportunity to innovate for greater inclusion by introducing a parallel activity, Tech Age Girls. The three-phase program is a “progressive model” that helps close the digital gender divide by building girls’ technology and leadership skills and connecting those who excel with more opportunities and mentors in the longer term. In Myanmar, selected librarians will act as links, facilitating Tech Age Girls activities.
It’s these kind of tangible benefits that make us, as evaluators, excited to get up each morning and dive into our work. With a client that was already looking for ways to respond to global shifts in education and digital information access, an evaluation like this one has incredible power to engage creative processes and think more critically about inclusive development, especially in a dynamic environment like Myanmar’s.
Phase 1 of the evaluation was just the beginning. This summer, we are slated to facilitate Phase 2, which will look into the past year’s progress and provide evidence to frame conversations with stakeholders in Myanmar as Beyond Access looks to extend its reach.
Co-written with Jaime L. Jarvis