The Case for Building Trauma-Informed Competence for Evaluators

Written by: EnCompass Staff,

By, Gayatri Malhotra, Sofia Machado, and Ghazia Aslam

Evaluators today need approaches and tools to help them navigate effectively and ethically in a world where violence from war and conflict, gender-based violence, racial and ethnic prejudice, and discrimination against minorities of all kinds—disability, nationality, language, etc.—are increasing. Trauma from these experiences is more common than we think, and evaluators often engage with people who have experienced it. To help address this need, EnCompass has developed preliminary guidance, “Understanding Trauma and Its Significance for Evaluators,” to help evaluators plan and implement data collection practices that are sensitive to participants who have had traumatic experiences.

As practitioners who are responsible for transforming the voices and stories of project participants into evidence and recommendations, we must be particularly careful when evaluations include individuals who have undergone trauma[1], such as refugees, survivors of war and conflict, survivors of domestic violence, or even providers who have experienced secondary trauma as a result of working with survivors. In these situations, data collection might lead participants to revisit potentially difficult memories from their past, triggering distress, suffering, and potential retraumatization.

When engaging with individuals who have experienced trauma, it is important to apply trauma-informed approaches to data collection[2], a set of principles and techniques that prioritize respondents’ safety and aim to remove as many triggers for retraumatization as possible. This approach enables a respectful environment that promotes physical and emotional safety for both participants and data collectors. It also creates the potential to improve data quality and yield more authentic responses, allowing participants to feel more empowered and in control. Importantly, this approach allows for the possibility of collecting data from individuals whose voices may otherwise be excluded from research because of the high risk of retraumatization.

EnCompass has worked in the monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) space for over 22 years and continues to gain experience with trauma-informed research and evaluation approaches in various contexts. To date, we have worked with survivors of conflict in Colombia, displaced persons in Iraq, Syrian refugees in Turkey, and survivors of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Myanmar. Because our work spans the globe and includes data collection efforts across a range of projects and participant groups, we continue to invest our efforts in do-no-harm and good practices for data collection. In this sense, trauma-informed approaches are an increasingly critical part of our research and evaluation repertoire.

EnCompass’ preliminary guidelines on trauma-informed approaches to data collection are based on existing literature and our evaluators’ experiences and lessons learned from working with populations likely to have experienced trauma. The guidelines include a brief explanation of trauma and how retraumatization can occur during data collection events. They also contain a set of principles and recommended techniques that we have used to operationalize these approaches, such as ways to choose the most appropriate data collection environment and methods, measures to protect participants’ welfare and confidentiality, and directions for addressing retraumatization during data collection. EnCompass’ Technical Assistance and MEL Team uses these guidelines to orient colleagues who are new to applying trauma-informed approaches, and as a checklist to guide us through the process. In the past year, we shared our experiences developing and using the guidelines at the 2022 American Evaluation Association conference, “Reshaping Evaluation Together,” to help advance the conversation about using trauma-informed evaluation approaches. We hope these guidelines will serve as a valuable resource for our colleagues in the international development community.

As an organization grounded in an appreciative and strengths-based approach to evaluation and learning, EnCompass continues to learn alongside our evaluation colleagues in the United States and around the world. We are eager to hear from and engage with our peers and partners as we continue to refine our trauma-informed approaches, and welcome comments and feedback on our newly published guidelines. Together, we can ensure ethical, respectful, equitable, and empowering evaluations.

[1] Trauma refers to experiences that cause intense physiological and psychological stress reactions. It can refer to a single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances experienced by an individual and perceived as physically and emotionally harmful or threatening. These experiences can have lasting adverse effects on the individual’s physical, social, and emotional well-being, and can completely overwhelm the individual’s ability to process and integrate the memories and emotions involved in that experience.

[2] A trauma-informed approach is “a strengths-based service delivery approach that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.” Key Terms: Definitions, SAMHSA News, 22, no. 2 (2014), quoted in Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), A Guide to GPRA Data Collection Using Trauma-informed Interviewing Skills (Rockville, MD: SAMHSA, 2017).

EnCompass Staff

EnCompass offers innovative solutions for organizational excellence.  We seek to enhance the impact and capacity of government and multilateral agencies, corporations, and nonprofits around the world through customized services in organizational and leadership development, training, technical assistance, and evaluation.

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