Three Pragmatic Principles for NGO Evaluation

Pragmatics is the ability to interpret and use social cues in various situations. It involves the understanding that there are no universal rules, but that what is acceptable varies by culture and social context. It also requires the ability to recognize contextual implications of verbal expressions. These linguistic skills are crucial for effective communication. Pragmatics can be taught through a variety of methods, including direct instruction, modeling, and opportunities for practice in real-life social situations. In addition, it is important to understand that pragmatics is a learned skill and that goals for the development of pragmatic skills must be set at a level appropriate to the individual’s age and abilities.

For those who work in the field of social development, particularly those involved in community-based research and evaluation, pragmatic principles provide a strong foundation for constructing an approach to evaluation which is more inclusive and responsive to the diverse interpretations of reality experienced by respondents. This article describes how pragmatism can be applied to the research process in order to provide insight into the way that a range of NGO processes are interpreted by different stakeholders within specific contexts.

As a philosophical philosophy, pragmatism has many applications in the social sciences and humanities. Its emphasis on the connection between thought and action has led to its adoption in applied fields like public administration, political science, leadership studies and international relations. In particular, its epistemological stance can help to steer social research away from metaphysical debates about the nature of truth and reality toward practical understandings of socially constructed reality (Patton, 2005).

In the case of NGOs, this epistemological pragmatism can support efforts to develop more evaluative literacies amongst staff by focusing on the need to understand how different evaluative practices are embedded in organizational processes. It can also assist in identifying how different NGO processes are influenced by normative beliefs that surround the nature of evidence and the role that empirical research plays in determining truth claims.

NGO evaluation is often framed as a “wicked problem” because it involves navigating the complexities of a diverse and contested field of knowledge. It is therefore important to be mindful of the context and complexity of the evaluation challenge when designing an evaluation plan. The three pragmatist principles discussed in this article can be used as a guide to achieving this goal. In the example projects described below, pragmatism helped to identify the need for methodologies that make room for the interests and agendas of diverse stakeholders at the research design stage. This necessitated a qualitative approach that utilised interviews and participant observation to capture the varied and often subtle informal and everyday evaluative practices that are often overlooked in formal documentation.