Collective sense making of evaluation research data in CLARISSA using the River of Life

A challenge that we face in such a large and complex programme as CLARISSA is the amount of evaluation and learning data that is being generated through the participatory processes. In this programme we collected life stories from 400 children per country, which were analysed by children across 4 to 6 workshops and we subsequently facilitated 13 action research groups in two countries, with each having between 12 and 22 meetings. All these participatory processes have been carefully documented, so you can imagine the piles of data we are faced with!

How can we make sure we actually make the most of these data to help us answer our evaluation research question about how, for whom and under what conditions participatory action research generates innovation. A key step in our evaluation research on this question is having a detailed and deep understanding of how these participatory processes are implemented and facilitated with each specific group and each specific context. Across the life of the programme we will have completed three evaluation analysis workshops (EAW) with the whole team (including PAR facilitators, documenters and MEL team) – 2 completed to date, 1 upcoming in autumn 2023. In these workshops we work with the whole team to analyse the PAR data we have gathered so far and to update our realist programme theories. During these workshops we use a tool to help us get to the bottom of how PAR is being implemented: the ‘River of Life’. Using the metaphor of a river, it helps us to retell the story of implementing PAR. We have found this a particularly easy and useful tool in these workshops.

The River of Life is a well-known facilitation tool and was developed as an ‘ice-breaker’ activity using the metaphor of a river to invite people to share their life’s journey to current point. Using river-related metaphors, participants can indicate certain points in their life, for example whirlpools or rough waters to illustrate when there were tough times, rapids when things were going well, splits or twists in the river to illustrate turning points etc. Others have adapted the River of Life for data gathering purposes for communities to share experiences with natural disasters. During these processes it was found to be particularly helpful in capturing diverse perspectives into one narrative. The accessible structure that the River of Life gives to storytelling seems like a useful tool to have in one’s evaluation toolbox.

At this point we have used the River of Life in two sets of evaluation analysis workshops: one that focused on the 18-month life story and collection process (EAW 1) and one that focused on the first phases of the PAR groups (EAW 2: group formation to issue selection). The river of life was used as a visual tool and metaphor in preparation and during the workshops. For EAW 1 each country team was invited to map out the complete river that represented the whole life story collection and analysis process, which was done by two appointed ‘holders of the story’, who had been documenters during the life story collection and analysis phase. For EAW 2 each facilitation team was asked to create the river of life for their PAR group. The teams used the documentation that had been completed during the life story and PAR processes. In drawing the rivers, they added elements to represent covid lockdowns (whirlpools), community/parent meetings (rapids), when stories were shared outside of the programme (ladders), when children joined or left the process (boats) and identifying themes for the PAR groups (bridges). Specific activities within the process were then mapped onto the river illustration and for each it was described on sticky notes: 1) what the activity was; 2) why the activity took place; 3) how the activity was completed; and 4) who were involved. Given the workshops were completed online, the rivers were drawn on a Miro board.

River of Life depicting the life story collection and analysis process in Bangladesh

The evaluation analysis workshops then started with the holders of the story (EAW 1) or the documenter of the PAR group (EAW 2) taking the team on a journey along the river and thereby providing a detailed overview of what had happened during the intervention implementation. Given the length of the river in EAW 1, the facilitator invited the story holders to present one part of the river at a time and then open the floor for questions for clarification, more detail or critical reflections. In EAW 2, where the rivers represented a much short process, these questions happened after each PAR team had presented their river. In response to the questions, more sticky notes were added to the river illustration, usually they would cover further detail on the why and how of activities. During this process the river of life acted as a ‘boundary object’ for critical reflection. Having the visual illustration of the process made it safe and accessible to explore hidden dimensions of the process that had not been surfaced in other learning processes.

In addition to providing a nice visual tool during the workshop and a helpful way to use the large amount of process data, we found that using the river metaphors helped to provide a realistic overview of the participatory process by unearthing a lot more detail about the process that was implemented by the country teams than those not in country were unaware of. Given that rivers are not linear (unlike canals!), this metaphor helped us to visually represent the messiness that are participatory processes. All the twist and turns, the splitting in the river, whirlpools etc are helpful to systematically capture what happens during the participatory intervention without losing the messiness of this process. By the end of EAW 1 the river really highlighted all the preparatory and community trust building activities that the teams had undertaken.  This highlighted to us once again that participatory research is so much more than what happens in workshops, but it is about taking the community along with you from the beginnings of the process. We also saw clearly how far along the river we had travelled before we started encountering boats (signifying when children became part of the process), illustrating that to safely engage children, it was important to first build trusting relationships with the adults in their lives.

Based on our experience adapting the river of life tool to evaluation practice, we highlight that it is a useful tool to have in one’s evaluation toolbox to 1) provide an engaging and safe boundary object to explore hidden dimensions of a process in a safe way; 2) visualise and illustrate the non-linear nature of most interventions, but particularly participatory interventions and 3) as a structure to organise large amounts of process data.

September 27, 2023
Mieke Snijder