Locally-Led Developmental Evaluation Advantages and Limitations: The Case of Headlight Consulting Services

By: Endashaw Beshir, Esrael Woldeyesus, Tseday Tilahun, Yitbarek Woldetensay, and Yomif Worku


Development and humanitarian challenges are local in nature; hence, effective humanitarian and development assistance requires an inclusive approach that centers local actors throughout all aspects of the work (USAID, 2022; USAID Learning Lab, 2022). Locally-led development improves the participatory process and enhances local ownership of programs. Locally-led developments need robust monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) systems for managing the complexity, uncertainty, and context-specificity related to locally-led interventions. MEL of locally-led interventions requires a long-term systemic shift from traditional MEL to MEL that is locally led, balancing asymmetries in power and accountability. Of the different evaluation approaches, because of many of its unique features and principles, Developmental Evaluation (DE) is one of the most suitable evaluation approaches to capture learnings in locally-led development and humanitarian interventions. There are locally-led DEs and expat-led DEs. With DE being a more recent evaluation approach, the advantages and limitations of a locally-led DE and expat-led DE have not yet been explored. This blog will describe the rationale, advantages, and limitations of locally-led DE.

Advantages of a Locally-Led DE

Locally-led DEs Strengthen Long-Term Capacity Building: Learning by doing is the best way to master skills (Mekonnen, 2020). With strong technical support from the DE Administrator team, locally-led DEs allow the local team to exercise the entire processes of DE implementation, DE acculturation, and facilitating adaptation. With DE being a relatively new evaluation approach, there are not enough DE evaluators in global markets. Having locally-led DEs can overcome the evaluator scarcity by building long-term capacities of local professionals. The capacity building for local teams is not an extra cost compared to hiring expats, as DE is still new globally. Expats also often miss as many of the skills needed to implement a DE as local staff and need capacity building and mentorship too. Even providing capacity building for local DE teams has the extra advantage of contributing to sustainability and benefits from easily contextualizing, adopting, and adapting methods and approaches. For example, the Headlight DE Evaluators in Ethiopia often confirmed that they are learning and building capacity from the DE Admin team because Headlight has an excellent organizational culture that prioritizes this approach. The DE Admin often provides training or arranges working sessions before the local DE team embarks on some DE activities for the first time. However, maximizing the benefit of locally-led DEs in terms of strengthening long-term capacity building needs more resources, time, training, and capacity-building experience from the DE Admin. 

Locally-Led DEs Ensure Sustainability: The evidence shows that local knowledge and engagement are essential for sustainable and equitable development (Jenna T. & Cynthia S., 2022). The long-term capacity building gained through locally-led DEs ensures sustainable DE human resources for the host country. Expats are in and out of the host country frequently, which inhibits the ability to understand and articulate context and historical knowledge well, which are foundational for solid systems thinking and complexity approaches. Moreover, as expats leave the country at the end of the project, DE knowledge goes with those expats; however, with local staff, DE skills can be retained, expanded, amended, and multiplied quickly and cheaply. For example, the Headlight DRM DE local team leading adaptive action workshops comes off differently than any of the DE Admins facilitating those sessions as local staff adapt the approach to fit the local situation. 

Locally-Led DE Ensures More Trust and Buy-in: Evaluation literature across approaches and sectors emphasizes the importance of securing stakeholder buy-in, and DE is no different. Buy-in for the DE process means that stakeholders believe in and are committed to the evaluation design, the person or people who carry out the evaluation, and the deliverables produced by the evaluation. Many of the challenges related to buy-in encountered in most evaluation approaches are heightened in the DE context, given the continuous nature of the evaluation and embedded position of the Evaluator. The general need for more understanding about evaluation among non-evaluators can also be exacerbated when dealing with a lesser-known form of evaluation such as DE. Locally-led DEs improve DE buy-in by bringing more contextualized evidence to the stakeholders and creating more trust. Having pre-existing relationships to lean upon when needed improves buy-in. In locally-led DEs, there is often a chance for the local team to work with colleagues they have worked with in the past. Continuing building on those relationships is incredible for the DE to get DE champions and secure buy-in. 

Locally-Led DE is Less Costly: Generally, expats are expensive and temporarily-based in most situations. They are costly but do not necessarily offer more; an expat assignment cost two, maybe three times, the price of a local employee (Martin, 2022). Travel expenses, visa issues, host or home-country tax differentials, and relocation allowances are all unique costs for expats in addition to a higher basic salary. Moreover, expats are temporarily based. There is evidence that expats, especially those performing extremely-demanding jobs, have a high burnout rate. It seems that 25% of them are called home early because they take on too much stress. This problem results from several factors, including language barriers, being away from friends and family, dealing with an entirely new culture, and feeling isolated (Martin, 2022). Whereas locally-led DEs are cost-effective and the team is more stable. Particularly for large-scale DE, locally-led DEs are more cost-effective. 

Locally-Led DE Generates More Contextualized Evidence: One of the advantages of locally-led DEs is that the local team understands the culture in which they live and easily captures what is happening from a local perspective or context. Locals can navigate potential problems with greater ease, and that usually translates to generating contextualized evidence. This contextual knowledge allows us to adapt and adopt different evaluation methods quickly. A local evaluator is also in a better position to understand the intended user and intended use of evidence, which means locally-led DEs better practice one of the crucial principles of DE: utilization focus. 

Disadvantages of a Locally-Led DE

The Pool of Qualified Local Nationals Could be Limited: In countries with higher illiteracy rates and histories of political unrest, it is harder to recruit local talent with basic evaluation skills. Evidence shows that competition for qualified local nationals in these countries tends to be fierce; bilateral donors and their implementing partners often struggle because they pay less than the private sector and UN institutions. However, in some countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, tapping local talent has become relatively simple because the aid community has been working on the ground for a while, and there is a relatively good-sized talent pool to recruit from (Nina Kennedy, 2012). 

‘Expats are better’ Attitude: Many people continue to favor the expatriate over local staff and do not consider the increasing qualifications and aspirations of local employees. This is an important issue in implementing DE as it affects the embeddedness and active participation of the program people. For example, the Headlight team noticed that some stakeholders respond to emails faster when someone from the donor side or the DE Admin team is copied. 

Language Barriers: DE is a qualitative-study-intensive approach. Language differences affect the quality of qualitative research at two stages: when interview data need to be translated into the researcher’s language and when participants and the principal researcher have the same non-English native language and the non-English data lead to an English publication (Fenna N., Tineke A., Hans J., & Dorly D; 2012). Qualitative research is considered valid when the distance between the meanings experienced by the participants and the meanings interpreted in the findings is as close as possible. As most NGOs and donors report in English, a locally-led DE may suffer from this kind of language barrier, particularly when the non-English data lead to an English report. 

More Technical Capacity Building Time and Skill Needed from the DE Admin: DE requires multiple skills and capacities to implement its activities. Furthermore, gaps in technological skills, sectoral knowledge, and awareness of DE may affect operations. Hence, locally-led DEs needs more capacity building from DE Admin; the DE Admin has to have more capacity-building skills. Expats also need time and training to adjust to a new culture and language. In addition to this, as DEs are expected to deal with dynamic environments tracking both the intended and unintended outcomes, expats need time to learn new assumptions and relate to the changing environment every time. 

Why Choose Locally-Led DE? 

Hiring expats has been justified when international implementers perceive a limited local talent pool. In this case, expats can quickly launch projects, build local talents, and ensure quality compliance with headquarter standards. However, it does not mean expats are complete by themselves. Despite job-specific skills, expats need to learn local contexts (e.g., legal and cultural). Factors such as knowledge of local languages, culture, religion, regulatory frameworks, local networking, and political and security environments become essential when expats roles need significant interaction with a multitude of stakeholders, such as the role of Developmental Evaluators as they facilitate Developmental Evaluations.   

Developmental evaluation has emerged fairly recently as a way to support adaptive learning in complex and emergent initiatives (Dozois, E., Langlois, M. and Blanchet-Cohen, N.; 2010).” As a result, the approach is new to expats and host nationals alike. Due to the limited exposure, this necessitates the need to build skills of Developmental Evaluators regardless of their nationality. The talent pool with the required skills and knowledge in Developmental Evaluation is equally limited for all. This undermines the justification for the need to invest in expats. According to HBR, “on average, expats cost two to three times what they would in an equivalent position back home (Black, J. S., & Gregersen, H; 1999).” In addition, the article also states that just deploying an expat is not a guarantee for the organization’s success and the employee, as expats likely need support from their headquarters as much as the locals need to be supported. In this regard, building local capacities is by far more efficient and sustainable. 

In the long term, building local talents increases the organization’s value for money. It ensures their best practices are used to build local capacities, which are usually the first responders to their local needs – in humanitarian or development fields. As Headlight is doing, such an approach could also support the Grand Bargain commitment of “making principled humanitarian action as local as possible and as international as necessary.”  


Generally, a locally-led DE is preferred over an expat-led DE for many reasons. The locally-led DE increases the number of local DE talent by strengthening long-term capacity and ensuring sustainability. It is also cost-effective, supports embeddedness, generates more contextualized evidence, and improves the utilization of evidence. However, a locally-led DE needs more capacity-building time and skill from the DE admin. Finding a local national with basic evaluation skills in many developing countries takes time and effort. 


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