The relevance of a project describes how efficient the outcome of the project is expected to be with respect to a given goal, to be specified by the evaluation or by the project being submitted. This means that the relevance of a project has always to be related to some goal and, for general research projects, that goal is most often the increase of our scientific knowledge, although it is sometimes also related to more direct social or environmental benefits for our society. In this last sense a project on renewable energy will be considered more relevant than a study of medieval music, although both may be scientifically relevant.
If a research project is set up in order to solve a specific problem, one may specifically judge the relevance of the proposed methodology with respect to solving this problem. This contains some aspect of feasibility but it is more than this: it may be quite feasible to perform a proposed project, whereas its result will never be able to solve the problem at hand because one started from a false assumption.
In the context of development research one might look at a project's relevance for the developing countries, which would then describe the usefulness of the expected outcome for solving some of the problems in these countries, or at least for obtaining a better understanding of these problems. Remark that also a purely scientific project may have some relevance in this respect, when it can increase the intellectual, educational and research capacity of a country.
Whereas the above definitions describe "relevance" as an ex ante element of evaluation, it can clearly also be applied ex post in the final evaluation of a finished project.
Relevancies and objectives
According to the above definition, we can distinguish different types of relevance, depending on the specific goal or objective that one wants to realize. Let us give a few examples:
- Developing analytical water quality measurements for addressing a local drinking water problem: its development objective is Health.
- Assessing the probability of achieving a set of economic goals under various investment scenarios: its objective is Economic Growth.
- Using improved varieties adapted to local soils and water conditions in sustainable agriculture: objective is Sustainable Agriculture.
- Performing a research project in fundamental or technological sciences without direct relation to a local problem: the development objective may be Capacity building.
For each different objective, evaluators may have a different level of appreciation – depending on local circumstances -, so that they will find one objective more relevant than another one. This should be distinguished from the relevance of a given project for its intended objective. The total relevance of a project is then a combination of the two measures: the relevance of the objective and the relevance of the project with respect to its objective.
Another distinction is that between a project that introduces a completely new result or methodology for achieving its goal, and one that adapts knowledge and technology already available elsewhere to the local context and boundary conditions of a developing country. Both are equally relevant for development, as described in the annex about the innovation.
In the ex-post evaluation, one should ask whether the originally intended relevance has been realized.
In addition to evaluating the development relevance of specific research objectives, it might be interesting to evaluate also the « enabling environment » (Gordon Conway, 2010) of the research being considered. Addressing the enabling environment of a given research calls for horizontal analysis that may touch upon several disciplines. For example, a project addressing the development of local/regional market for agriculture crops will include better support for role of women, access to communication technologies – cell phones - , quality of infrastructure, security of transport etc... Relevance is then related to the capacity to perform horizontal analysis of seemingly dispersed but, under scrutiny, closely interconnected factors.
- Start with a clear idea about the priorities that should be applied for the different types of relevance: are general scientific projects acceptable? should there be a developmental aspect? do you give priority to economical or to environmental projects?...
- Try to clearly identify the type of relevance of the project.
- Is there a typical relevance to the main needs of the population ? to the main problems faced by the national authorities? by developing countries in general?
- Is the project relevant for human resource development (usually by capacity building and training)?
- Is there relevance to national/regional/international policy development? at least indirectly ? or is there a potential to do so?
- Is the proposed methodology indeed relevant for obtaining the desired result?
- Are the project's objectives appropriate to the problems/questions they are/were supposed to address? to the physical and policy environment within which to operate?