Design, Monitoring and Evaluation for Peacebuilding

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Reflective Peacebuilding as Developmental Evaluation Part II: Reflective Practice as DE

Let’s bring this discussion back to peacebuilding, but in particular reflective peacebuilding. Much of what was discussed in Part I of this blog series may sound familiar to those of you who are familiar with reflective practice and action-research. Here’s a brief re-cap:

  • Developmental Evaluation (DE) is oriented towards learning about a project while it is being implemented in order to improve its future implementation and to better understand whether assumptions are holding;
  • DE is being embraced by USAID CMM;
  • DE’s learning orientation fits well with the paradigms of action-research and reflective peacebuilding practice.

Clearly, Developmental Evaluation has potential applications in peacebuilding. Having already outlined the basics of DE in Part I of this series, let’s now turn to examining the essentials of reflective peacebuilding practice, and how this relates to DE processes.

What is Reflective Practice?

Reflective practice is a term coined by social scientist Donald Schon in the 1980s. The reflective practice paradigm suggests that most relevant problems for society are highly complex and convoluted: simple cause and effect relationships have long been thrown out the window (sound familiar peacebuilding evaluators?). In such situations, espoused theory may hold little relevance for it explains the action, but not necessarily why the action was conducted in the first place, its value, and so forth. In its most basic definition, reflection is a conscious, active process of focused and structured thinking which is distinct from free floating thoughts, as in general thinking or day dreaming.

So reflection provides an opportunity to reflect on our actions and how we perceive their value, on our tacit assumptions for both design and the context, and perhaps, just perhaps, a few moments of quiet peace to re-energize ourselves.

Peacebuilding: Demystifying Theory, Remystifying Practice

In Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring and Learning Toolkit,[1] John Paul Lederach, Reina Neufeldt and Hal Culbertson outline key elements of reflective peacebuilding practice and why it is essential:

  • “Peacebuilding is a complex, multifaceted process of change. Understanding and evaluating peacebuilding work requires a variety of tools and avenues of inquiry into how change processes operate; peacebuilding evaluation, therefore, cannot be a simple matter of measuring a final result.”
  •  “…our approach places special emphasis on monitoring- and evaluation-as-learning, rather than evaluation-as-measuring results…” Reflective practice requires “building knowledge, understanding and improving practice through explicit and disciplined reflection.”
  •  “…learning is constant… it happens before, during and after projects, creating a clear link between monitoring, evaluation and learning.” Evaluation is not just an assessment exercise; it is a critical part of the learning process “that requires continuous reflection.”

Given the above points, the authors suggest the following questions[2] as a broad guide to reflection. But keep in mind that there is no magic formula for reflection and learning: it all depends on the context. Broadly speaking, however, the following principles and questions can act as a basis from which to launch your reflection.

Theory-based Reflection

  • Be descriptive – push yourself to describe how you think things relate and why an activity may encourage something you hope to build or discourage something you hope to avoid.
  • Be annoyingly inquisitive – keep asking yourself and others why you think a process works the way it does and how you have chosen to do it, given your hoped-for outcomes.
  • Be predictive – suggest, draw and identify the cause-effect relationships of actions and results you think are connected. Does doing A and B help create C?
  • Be systemic – go beyond cause-effect to look at the wider context and history. Cause-effect thinking predicts that action A will produce result B; systemic thinking not only observes that, in a particular setting A, B and C tend to be present when a particular pattern emerges, but also asks, “What else is going on in this context? What visible and invisible factors are combining in the overall system to produce this result?”
  • Be comparative – relate your problem, your analysis, your ideas and theory to what others have proposed. How do the explanations of others compare to your experience?
  • Be wild – many of the most powerful theories in history have emerged when someone suggested an idea that “broke out of the box.” Try out ideas even at first they seem wild. Remember, a theory is not The Truth, just a guess about how things work that needs to be tested.

Practice-based Reflection

  • Keep asking why – ask why not only about the nature of the project, but about how particular activities are related to project outcomes. How and why are they connected?
  • When you ask why, listen for “because” – when people, especially local partners, explain why they think something works the way it does they often start their explanation with some form of “because.” Listen carefully for this explanation. Dig deeper. Go beyond the initial “because” to find the reasons and unspoken ideas behind the rationale. This often leads to uncovering unspoken assumptions and implicit theories of change.
  • Learn from failure – when things do not go the way you hoped they would, find an opportunity to stop, think and reflect at a deeper level. The great gift of failure is that it so often promotes learning, while the tragedy of success is that it is easy to assume things happened exactly as expected and neglect the opportunity to learn. Take advantage of failure to frame it as learning, not disaster.
  • Watch carefully for the unexpected – little things along the way that almost go unnoticed and unexpected changes often provide insight into the complexity of the change process. Become attentive to these norms.
  • Discuss your projects with different people – too often peacebuilders talk only with like-minded people. The more diverse the range of people you talk to about your ideas and projects, the more likely you are to encounter other perspectives and other ways of explaining change processes, in turn greatly increasing your curiosity about how things really are working.

But, of course we are all very busy people, and while we may value it, we rarely set time aside for concerted reflection in our hectic day-to-day schedules. But what if we could build reflection-based/developmental evaluation-oriented activities into the project design, as an actual project activity, and have this double as inputs into the project management and evaluation processes? We’ll explore this issue next week in Part III.

Hot Reflective Peacebuilding Resources

Free Online! Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring, and Learning Toolkit by John Paul Lederach, Reina Neufeldt and Hal Culbertson

Free Online!  Reflecting on Peace Practice Project byCDA Inc.

Free Online!  Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators by Julie Reed and Christopher Koliba

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace by John Paul Lederach

The Little Book of Conflict Transformation by John Paul Ledearch

The Little Book of Strategic Peacebuilding by Lisa Schirch

[1] John Paul Lederach, Reina Neufeldt and Hal Culbertson, Reflective Peacebuilding: A Planning, Monitoring and Learning Toolkit, Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at theUniversity of Notre Dame and Catholic Relief Services Southeast-East Asia Regional Office, 2007, accessed 14 March 2012,, p. 2.

[2] Lederach, Neufeldt and Culbertson, “Reflective Peacebuilding,” pp. 4-5.

     Jonathan and Craig,  thank you both for bringing Developmental Evaluation (DE) into the peacebuilding evaluation conversation again. I agree that DE helps to address the non-linear nature of evaluation in our field and begins to account for the ever-changing dynamics that practitioners and evaluators face in conflict environments. The wider application of DE in the peacebuilding field will provide holistic benefits due to its focus on integrating evaluation throughout the implementation of peacebuilding programs and its ability to account for and adjust to ongoing developments on the ground.

     In this second installment in the series, your point about the need to be open to learning from failure is a very good one. This idea has been a focus of ongoing peacebuilding evaluation discussions; and it has been viewed as critical to shifting the culture of DM&E in our field. The ability to have illuminating conversations moves DM&E away from pure accountability toward learning from our work.

     Looking forward to the final installment in this series - and evolution of the role of DE in peacebuilding evaluation.  

I like this very much - well said!


Jonathan, I like your comments related to incorporating reflective practice right into the project design. You are right, it is often hard to carve out spare time for reflective practice. Program design and evaluation often takes many twists and turns, so I like the idea to incorporate reflection as an ongoing tool to learn and adjust rather than taking time to reflect after it is too late for changes.  

I was thinking that in team based settings where there are a range of stakeholders, building in set times for individual stakeholders to collectively reflect as a group at strategic intervals along the implementation phase would be very helpful . These are settings where along the way the shared collaborative experience and encouragement reflection could bring out important questions and needed adjustments about the design. This would certainly help to mitigate the potential dangers of 'groupthink,' and one way to increase involvement of internal and/or external stakeholders.

I find that learning the art of reflective practice begins by linking both academic knowledge and experience incorporating action-learning. It may not be natural for everyone to jump right into reflective practice so beginning to organize reflective thoughts on paper can be very helpful. I have recently adopted journaling is a tool in increasing the art of reflective practice. By keeping a journal,  dilemmas can be identified and framed in such a way that sometimes harder to do by thought process alone.  Creativity is key, so journaling can be used to draw and connect complex ideas and thoughts.

Hi Rod,

Thanks for your thoughts. Your point that not everyone may be ready for reflective practices is well taken. This can be particularly so when we are under pressure to meet deadlines for deliverables, that reflection on the process and outcomes seems a bit of a luxury - but the luxury is on time, not the value we place on the activity of reflection. 

Planning for accurate timelines would seem to be an important way of ensuring that you do indeed have time for such reflection. And by building in such reflective processes into the project itself, those involved begin to acquire reflective practitioner attributes. 

I wonder, do you have any thoughts on how to utilise the journal? If I were to reflect on a regular basis in my journal, does this bring certain issues to the fore in my conciousness or is another process required - such as re-reading the journal, and/or identifying action points arising out of the journaling process? Perhaps it depends more on how the individual understands and structures their own reflections... 




Hi Jonathan,

You have posed some interesting thoughts about the value and time for reflective practice. I was thinking further about your comments, and it came to mind that the more I learn about reflective practice I begin to realize that it is not something that we necessarily do in addition to our work, but something that we incorporate into our work processes along the way. Reflective practice can become an integral part of who we are when we are designing or evaluating, so that it takes the pressure of finding that luxury of spare time after. The challenge may be to slow down enough when under time pressure to produce outcomes. One small step toward this may be the regular incorporation of reflective questions such as "why?" and "how?" to encourage deeper thoughts or conversations along the way. This can be difficult, however, if working in a team setting where others may feel that reflective questions are slowing down the process of decision making,  so getting everyone on board  beforehand is important otherwise it may cause a conflict! While it would be very hard to quantify (but a good post reflection and going back over journal notes could help) I can't help but wonder if in the more time and energy is saved as a result.

On the question you have posed about journaling, I have found that re-reading past journal notes has provided a great deal of perspective. It  helps me reflect on what has changed over time and creates a map of I have been in past thought processes. Because a change in thought and direction often happens incrementally and is not always discernible so it is always interesting to look back to see the way a process unfolded. Sometimes even I find that what seemed very important at the time when I wrote it in fact is not necessarily that important in the future, and vice versa. Small areas of thought can also spark good areas that maybe because of time constraints there was not adequate time to ask enough reflective questions. Journaling also gives us an opportunity to look back and see if there were any themes that become evident over time that we would not have picked up on. I also find that using drawing out diagrams of the problem can help, especially if it is about a process with steps. With all this being said, journaling is only one way of possibly many, that can help to develop reflective practice. Maybe there are others out there that can share their experiences.

For now,


Hi Jonathan and Rod,

Thank you for your discussion on incorporating reflective practice into peacebuilding.  My personal opinion is that reflection can and should be an important part of peacebuilding practice and evaluation.  However, I would also add my own caveat to that statement that it is challenging to make broad and general conclusions. Really, I should emphasize that it can and should be incorporated based on certain awareness of the benefits and uses.  In other words, its usefulness is only as beneficial if the practitioner is sufficiently self-aware and self-critical of his or her own reflections.

The reason I say this comes from the comment that you (Jonathan) posed so well in your post: “Perhaps it depends more on how the individual understands and structures their own reflections...”  In a “Reflection on Reflective Practice,” Cheldelin, et al. claim that studies have shown that people lack the introspective capabilities to accurately observe cause and effect of their own responses and therefore their observations will be based on their own already established “a priori theories” (prior beliefs). [1]  As a result, one must be aware of the risk that the reflection serves to enhance certain bias. 

For example, what happens if a practitioner is reflecting on their own project and their job (and identity) is tied directly to that project?  Will they be as objective about their own performance as the project may require? This is not an uncommon context and one that may further increase the risk of bias, subconsciously or purposefully.

The conclusion that I would propose we take away from this is that effective reflective practice must also include a practitioner’s recognition of their limitations in critical self-reflection and attempt to also observe bias and assumptions.  To do this, I would emphasize important points from the Lederach, et al. reading: “be comparative” and “discuss your projects with different people” as ways to increase the effectiveness our reflective and journaling skills.





[1] Sandra I. Cheldelin, Wallace Warfield with January Makamba, Reflections On Reflective Practice, Paper presented at the ICAR Winter 2004 Conference. Fairfax: Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, p. 14.