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Narrative Assessment

Narrative Assessment revolves around building stories about advocacy and its subsequent usage for learning, monitoring, evaluation, and communication.

Narrative Assessment uses stories to clarify how advocacy works and how it relates to advocacy outcomes. The stories unveil what happened, how, and why. They tell, for example, which decisions were made and how, and which strategies were followed, even while consequences were not clear, adversaries made their own strategic moves, and contexts kept changing.

The heart of Narrative Assessment is, thus, formed by the stories of advocates about their work. Stories revolve around their experiences, their knowledge, and skills that go into making sense, deciding, and acting on opportunities, challenges, and dilemmas. Through the co-construction of stories by advocates and a Narrative Assessment facilitator, the causal links between advocacy and outcomes are explored and substantiated to develop plausible accounts of contributions to change. This way of working does justice to the dynamics of advocacy within specific contexts, it tries to bring out and assess the plausibility of claims made in, for example, outcome harvesting.

However, Narrative Assessment does not have to focus on, or start with, outcome findings. Stories can also be built around other dynamics.

For example, stories can tell how a program developed. They can tell about the challenges a program faced with changes in a political context and how these were responded to or describe how hard lessons were learnt. Importantly, challenges and failures that are all too common in advocacy work can be meaningfully incorporated. That is the beauty of Narrative Assessment stories, making use of the fact that a good story will usually partly revolve around challenges.

Narrative assessment stories are different from, for example, most significant change stories that tell of successes. They focus on bringing out the true nature of advocates’ work and their understanding of what happened, and they are told in their voice from their perspective. These stories let audiences follow the ins and outs of advocacy in context, thus capturing the work of advocates in an interpretable, personal way. These stories bring out the skills and knowledge of advocates in relation to the action and results. Narrative Assessment stories thus put advocates at the center. This is because advocacy knowledge and skills are deeply rooted in advocates' experience and knowledge of how to maneuver in complex and dynamic contexts. Their knowledge and skills are gained and shared through learning in action; by experience, facing failures, and learning from doing so; through in-service training and real-time hands-on coaching. Narrative assessment builds on these well-established traditions while current M&E approaches do not acknowledge or facilitate the identification and sharing of this knowledge.

The method is also different from other story-based methods in that it emphasizes the plausibility of stories. By creating stories in a way that makes them believable, and puts this believability to the test, Narrative Assessment seeks to comply with evaluative quality criteria emphasizing rigor. It helps advocates build stories that inform and inspire peers while also seeking to be more acceptable and convincing to evaluators, donors, and other advocates than the more common ‘success stories,’ because of this rigor. This makes Narrative Assessment especially useful when objective evidence is hard or impossible to come by. This is often the case with advocacy.