New UN ethics guidelines for evaluation: a Q&A with co-author Gaby Duffy

The launch of the 2020 United Nations Evaluation Group (UNEG) Ethics Guidelines promises to bring higher levels of ethical standards to the practice of evaluation. Integrity, accountability, respect and beneficence are the four principles that embody the new guidelines – steering UN agencies on a path towards ethical evidence.


In a recent interview, Gaby Duffy, one of the main authors of the UNEG guidelines, shares more about applying ethical principles in real situations. The former UN World Food Programme staff member, who retired recently after almost 40 years of service, shares her experiences in a rich and rewarding career that saw her stationed across the globe, before her final assignment in the WFP Office of Evaluation.

In the not too distant past, WFP faced ethical dilemmas in conducting evaluations. There were no up-to-date guidelines to fall back on, and a limited common understanding of what constituted an ethical issue in terms of evaluation practice. The UNEG Ethical Guidelines for Evaluation were born to ensure that an ethical lens informs day-to-day evaluation practice. Why ethics is so important for the WFP evaluation function?

Well, I think the new guidelines are important for everyone involved in evaluation, for all the reasons you just mentioned. Having said that, if we think of the very challenging and complex contexts in which WFP delivers its programmes, the responsibility to ensure that evaluations are conducted in an ethical manner is huge, as the consequences of conducting unethical evaluations could be tremendous, both for beneficiaries, staff and the organization. That is why the guidelines are designed to be applied across a range of institutional contexts, throughout all phases of an evaluation, by organizational leadership, commissioners, evaluators and those who manage evaluations.


Co-author of the UNEG guidelines, Gaby Duffy recently retired from WFP’s Office of Evaluation. Her career led her to places across the globe. Here she is with country colleagues in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, circa 1999.

Did you face ethical dilemmas as a manager of recent evaluations?

I think that all evaluation managers face ethical dilemmas in the course of their work, to be honest. Recent dilemmas are related to conducting evaluations during the COVID-19 pandemic — we have had to reflect and carefully assess whether it is firstly appropriate and safe to conduct some kind of evaluation, and then secondly identify the best approach to safeguard the communities, partners and staff being evaluated, as well as evaluators. Each context and situation is different and what is right in one situation may not be the right choice in another. Other ethical dilemmas I have had to manage in centralized evaluations have been related to evaluators having a conflict of interest and potentially using data collected for purposes not directly related to the evaluation. In the Evaluation of WFP Policies on Humanitarian Principles and Access in Humanitarian Contexts, we had to develop a specific approach to enable internal learning on sensitive issues related to decision making of the humanitarian principles, while maintaining confidentiality and a safe space for those providing information.

I think that all evaluation managers face ethical dilemmas in the course of their work. Recent dilemmas are related to conducting evaluations during the COVID-19 pandemic

 

We know the guidelines are a UN Product, developed by a broad working group and with peer reviewers from a range of entities representing different mandates to ensure UN system wide applicability. Why is a consistent approach to ethics from various UN agencies so crucial?

The very nature of ethics is tricky — there are no strict right and wrong answers, and it is quite difficult to promote a common understanding. Hence the decision to develop the four ethics principles that are broad enough to apply across the range of very diverse UN agencies, and yet ensure consistency. The involvement of colleagues from very different UN organizations in the development of the guidelines was therefore very important. Without this consistency of approach, we are not setting a high enough common standard for UN evaluations. If we look at the principle of beneficence for example, the consistent application of this will shift from ensuring that evaluations do no harm, to making sure that all evaluations commissioned or conducted by UN agencies make a difference and contribute to the common good. Wouldn’t that be impressive?

The involvement of colleagues from very different UN organizations in the development of the guidelines was very important


How is WFP integrating the ethics principles into standard practice? What are the next steps for WFP to build awareness?

WFP has already started to apply the guidelines for example by including reference to ethics principles in evaluation terms of reference, in the report templates and in the EQAS (Evaluation Quality Assurance System). Importantly, all evaluation firms and evaluators that conduct evalautions for WFP are required to sign the Pledge of Ethical Conduct in Evaluation that is part of the guidelines. Still, there is a lot to be done to build awareness. I can envisage a series of interactive awareness sessions for evaluation staff and managers, particularly those in the field, as well as more in-depth sharing sessions with the evaluation companies.


Here is Gaby on the go as an emergency officer in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Evaluation in humanitarian contexts require specific approaches to enable internal learning on sensitive issues, while maintaining confidentiality and a safe space for those providing information.

Looking back on your career at WFP, what makes you smile, what makes you cry and what makes you proud?

I have so many wonderful memories. One memory that makes me smile is celebrating my birthday alone in freezing conditions in a sub/office in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where the local staff presented me with fresh flowers even though it was minus 25 degrees!

I have no idea where they got them from, but it touched me deeply, given the particular context. If I think back to the different countries I worked in, the one thing that still makes me cry is the thought that so many small children are suffering, and have such a difficult life, often shortened by severe malnutrition or in many places by malaria that could be cured with just a few dollars for healthcare. And yet I am proud to have been part of WFP, to have attempted to make a difference by delivering gender training across South Asia in the days of WFP’s early gender policy, piloting cash vouchers in Burkina Faso, and implementing a development programme for women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, to name just a few. Lastly I am very proud to have co-authored the ethics guidelines.

Watch Gaby Duffy in action at the WFP’s EvalXchange 2020 knowledge sharing event discussing the Guidelines’ meaning, application and implication for future ethical evaluation work.

 

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