Learning how to be a GEMSE practitioner

Applying the GEMSE framework to development evaluation is an emerging practice.  Even for us, the GEMSE developers. We are learning how to be GEMSE practitioners through the generous use of real live evaluations being managed by different UN agencies. Two of these living examples of ‘learning how it’s done as we go along’ are feeding into the drafting of a UN Concept Note and in the drafting of an evaluation’s Terms of Reference. We will discuss the former in this blog and focus on our experience with the TOR next time.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term a Concept Note is a short description of a project idea, such as a program that needs funding. Concept notes are also prepared to explain the value of doing a program evaluation. Several months ago, UN Women sent out a call for expressions of interest to pilot the GEMSE Guidance open to any UN or partnering organisation, and in so doing, the net was cast broad and wide. We are delighted by the response we received as organisations see the potential relevance of the GEMSE approach to their projects in ways not immediately apparent to us!

Moving forward with one such agency, we entered into a ‘thought partnership’ with the Evaluation Manager. As a process this has involved us talking with the agency about their evaluation’s intentions, reading background material on the agency’s role and key responsibilities and analysing the Concept Note through the GEMSE criterion for analysis which are:

To be responsive to:

  • Gender
  • Ecological landscapes
  • Marginalized voices


  • Selecting appropriate method/ologies

In order to promote:

  • Social change

We provided a written response to the Evaluation Manager: a cover email containing our key thoughts and the attached Concept Note peppered with what we certainly hope would be helpful comments to promote her thinking about the potential of the evaluation, its scope, objectives and theory of change. The evaluator found this to be a constructive exercise and absorbed several suggestions in her final Note. The exercise has assisted her to think differently about the TORs she is now putting together – but that’s a story for another blog.

This exercise has honed our knowledge of how the GEMSE criteria can be applied. What thinking systematically and systemically means in practice and how to open up conversation about boundaries with people who might not have used the language of systems thinking in the past. We hope also to include these lessons in the Guidance to pass on this capacity building and teach others how to be a GEMSE practitioner.

We haven’t spent nearly enough money protecting the only real thing that matters: Our Planet.

By Ellen and Anne

With this pressing reality, we as global development practitioners and academics are interested in how evaluation practice can contribute to creating an ethos of engagement with nature.

News this week from the Australian ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies of the extent of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) has really shocked us.

Caused by changes in the water temperature (usually warmer waters) 93% of the coral of the 2,900 reefs along its 2,600 kilometres (1,615 miles)  length, were affected by the worse seen bleaching event in our lifetimes.

The most beautiful colourful reefs, home to thousands of marine animals, are now deathly white. And whilst it isn’t the first time this has happened, and some of the coral is expected to recover, this one was severe: it is as if 10 cyclones hit the reef simultaneously. The hardest hit areas, ironically, are those least touched in the protected northern areas of the Coral Sea.

This is surely a call to take Climate Change and the Paris Agreement seriously. But will we?

We won’t until we stop our practice of marginalising ecological landscapes. Even iconic and globally significant World Heritage sites, like the Great Barrier Reef are threatened whilst we fail to take their interest fully into consideration.  As we continue to shape, mould and reshape places to make them more livable for us, what happens to the ‘habitability’ of a place for human and non-human species? Can we live in places without threatening the biodiversity of flora and fauna in such a way as to enhance the inhabit-ability for all? This is our notion of what ‘sustainability’ might mean. Creating or supporting the conditions necessary for all species to thrive – not just humans, so all can procreate, recreate and inhabit a place for the term of its natural life.



Source: EcoWatch


Source: Bleached staghorn with damselfish. Photo by Jodie Rummer. ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University Townsville

And this is the theme of this week’s blog.

We need to spend money on the things that really matter.

The most glaring need for us today is protecting our planet but we don’t allocate enough time and money to evaluating the impact of economic, social and political development, on our interconnected and all important ecological landscapes. And by not doing this, we risk missing the unexpected and unintended consequences of our actions.

Evaluation is one of the vital links between knowing what our impact is and what we can do to change it.

So what can we as evaluators do about this?

For a start, ecological systems must become a consideration in social systemic evaluations. Think about it. What social development programme doesn’t contain some element of an environmental system? Whether these are food systems, sanitation, land rights, etc.

To make informed decisions, we need evaluation methodologies that can account for the complexity of inerconnected and elaborately entangled, human and environmental systems and their unplanned outcomes.

We think we’re on the cusp of new opportunities to emerge as the SDGs are implemented and held to account through evaluation. As evaluators we need to be on the front line selecting appropriate strenghts-based methodologies to measure and report against a wide set of indicators of impact. Sponsoring agencies need to be supported and cajoled to allocate the funds to do this work well.

Evaluators often have influence and power.  We can negotiate ToRs (terms of reference) and the participatory methods, that can raise awareness about legitimate environmental concerns. We can do this without compromising our independence or the credibly of our findings. We can do this.


Feminist Systems Thinking, Gender Equality & Evaluation

G’day and Saludos! Welcome to our new blog that will bring you along with us on an academic and practitioner journey of collaboration, exploration, and creation of a new United Nations Women guidance publication that seeks to support current and future evaluation efforts. Drs. Anne Stephens from the Cairns Institute at James Cook University in North Queensland, Australia)  and Ellen D. Lewis from the University of Hull’s Center for Systems Science have partnered with Shravanti Reddy, Evaluation Specialist with the UN Women’s Independent Office of Evaluation.

So what is our intention for our work and this blog? We would like to create a conversation and platform where we can discuss our emerging ideas, reflect with you on our field pilots and contribute to the ever growing discourse and body of knowledge in the fields of systems science, evaluation, gender and development and feminist theories.

Why is this still a topic worth exploring? To date, not one country has achieved gender equality (United Nations Development Program, 2013a). On the day he was elected in 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked the following question by a reporter: “…you said it was important to you to have a cabinet that was gender-balanced, why was that so important…?” He responded, “Because its 2015” (CBC Radio Canada, 2015).

As some background, Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (GEEW) has been promoted by the UN Women Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) since its inception. However, guidance and practice on how to implement such an approach in evaluation has been a key gap in the evaluative literature. In the past, the IEO has partnered with the United Nations Evaluation Group (UNEG) and other groups to develop methodological guidance in this area for practitioners that has resulted in useful resources for not only UN Women, but also the larger evaluation community.

As interest and understanding of the need to integrate GEEW in evaluation is growing, practice is also improving. This is further strengthened by the centrality of GEEW within the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda and a more concerted focus on the role of evaluation in assessing equitable progress towards these global targets, including prevention or reduction of gender inequalities.

Week 1 in New York City

What an amazing and exciting first week in NYC. The weather has been perfect (although for the Australian from the tropics, it is a bit chilly).

Day one (the day we arrived) we attended a launch event “No one left behind: Evaluation SDGs with an equity-focused and gender-responsive lens”  of the UN SDGs hosted by multiple organizing agencies (i.e. UN Women, UNICEF). It was a diverse group of maybe 50-60 practitioners, Non-Governmental Agencies (NGOs, aka non-profits/charities) staff, evaluators, academics, and parliamentarians (aka politicians).  It was a sponge afternoon, as we absorbed a whole new culture full of  acronyms, faces, accents, organizations and global realities. We were grateful for the short two-hour length of the launch event, it gave us time to catch up with the rotation of the earth as compared to the speed of our spinning minds! The room was alive with activists who earnestly hoped to contribute to a better world that works for everyone.

Days two and three were Technical Seminars: “Towards an Equity-focused and Gender-responsive framework to evaluate the SDGs”, which included panels of experts and break out sessions to deepen the conversations. We captured some of the comments from the panelists (apologies for typos and grammatical faux pas I was using a cell phone to post) and posted them on Ellen’s Twitter and Anne’s Twitter . What really became profoundly evident, was that Anne’s Feminist Systems Thinking theoretical framework she created for her PhD dissertation back in 2009, was now poised to support the SDGs ideals of leaving ‘no one left behind’. The conversations and presentations we listened to that afternoon indicated an increased focus (and hopefully action) on dealing with complexity and using a systems approach to tackle the worlds must pernicious problems. Ideals of using both quantitative and qualitative data to tell the story (select appropriate method/ologies), prioritize the inclusion of marginalized populations (voices from the margins), the obligation of every country to fight climate change (incorporate the environment within research/actions), insist on gender equality as a clear means to mitigate social and economic inequality worldwide (adopt a gender sensitive approach) to achieve the SDGs by 2030 through sustainable social change (undertake research/action that promotes plurally desirable and sustainable social change) (Stephens, 2015). This first week of seminars and discussions also reinforced that Ellen’s doctoral research (which used Anne’s theoretical framework and operationalized it into a method/tool in a development context in Nicaragua) had an opportunity to support the SDGs in building local capacity to significantly contribute to the evaluation process and allow for emergence of new information, indicators and data.

Our goal is to keep you informed as we progress and link this blog to our accompanying discussion forum at Feminist Evaluation (you will need to register to contribute). We welcome and actively seek your voice too.


Stephens, A. (2015). Ecofeminism and Systems Thinking. Routledge. New York.

*All our comments and opinions are our own and not of UN Women, University of Hull or James Cook University.