The Uncomfortable Choice between Evaluation and Accountability

/ Analysis

What may at first seem like a false dichotomy, may well reveal a fundamental flaw in many current practices.

It is becoming clear from our research that what the funders of Arts for Peace projects think of as evaluation is more often about accountability. What may at first seem like a false dichotomy, may well reveal a fundamental flaw in many current practices. In his radical acting manual, The Actor and the Target, the theatre director, Declan Donnellan, identifies a series of “uncomfortable choices” for the actor. By this he means concepts which appear compatible and even complementary, but which in practice are contradictory and cancel each other out. One of particular topicality is that between Independence and Freedom: we think we can have both, but by selecting one we eliminate the other.

As a Co-investigator on the current AHRC research project into the effectiveness of ‘Arts for Peace’, I have come to see how Accountability and Evaluation can also be seen as contradictory concepts. Our wide-ranging review of the so-called evaluation methods used by funders of “Arts for Peace” projects has served to confirm a widely-held suspicion that the prevalence of tick-box forms does nothing to serve the development and improvement of this work. Because they are seen primarily as a means for funders to account for the grants they award, recipients feel an inevitable pressure simply to seek to demonstrate that they have exactly fulfilled the requirements of the grant. There is rarely any incentive or opportunity for funders and grantees to learn from their own practice, and our research has indicated that the vast amount of data generated by these exercises remains untouched, beyond a simple record that it has been submitted. And it must be questionable whether the resources required to process it would be justified by the quality of the data received.

A move towards an emphasis on genuine evaluation, would allow projects teams to acknowledge and reflect on problems and unexpected outcomes arising from their work, in the shared interest of sharing learning internationally across the growing “Arts for Peace” sector. The way in which well-intentioned funding requirements to balance participation across opposed communities can actually serve to reinforce the very binaries the projects are funded to soften and undermine. In Northern Ireland, for instance (as one project-deliverer observed), it is unhelpful that the first question asked of participants in a project designed to promote reconciliation between communities is whether they identify as Protestant or Catholic, amid increasing awareness of the growth of the category of those who identify with neithers. The rising political significance of the “neithers” is something that was not much in the minds of those that framed the Good Friday Agreement twenty five years ago, but it is surely time that the policies that underpin the array of Peace funds that followed from it, should now begin to reflect the changing political reality of the region. The sustainability of the peace and of the arts as a mechanism for encouraging the peace may well depend on it.

David Grant is a Senior Lecturer in Drama in the School of Creative Arts at Queen's University, Belfast, where he has worked since 2000. A former Managing Editor of Theatre Ireland magazine, Programme Director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, and Artistic Director of the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, he continues to work as a theatre director alongside his academic work.

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