Possibilism and Evaluation

Judith Tendler and Albert Hirschman

by Nicoletta Stame (Author)
©2022 Monographs X, 156 Pages
Series: Albert Hirschman’s Legacy, Volume 4


Albert Hirschman affirmed that "Judith Tendler’s fine insights into the differential characteristics and side-effects of thermal and hydropower, and of generation and distribution, contributed in many ways to the formation of my views." Judith Tendler, in turn, wrote that Hirschman had taught her "to look where I never would have looked before for insight into a country’s development," and that in Albert’s work a researcher who was "patient enough" would find "a rich complexity of both success and failure, efficiency alongside incompetence, order cohabiting with disorder."
Reconstructing the theoretical roots of interpretive social science, this text shows how Hirschman’s possibilism lies at the base of the original way Tendler practiced evaluation and anticipated many current developments. The continuing vitality of their thought enables us to trace the outlines of possibilist evaluation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • 1 Evaluation and development
  • 2 Interpretive social science: The core of an anthology
  • 3 Interpretive social science and morality
  • 4 Hirschman, possibilism and evaluation
  • 5 Hirschman’s production line on projects and programs
  • 6 Possibilism, change and unintended consequences
  • 7 Doubt, surprise and the ethical evaluator: Lessons from the work of Judith Tendler
  • Appendix A Albert Hirschman and the World Bank
  • Appendix B Remembering Judith
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Subjects

←vi | vii→


During the 1960s, although sometimes dealing with what we now call evaluation issues, Albert Hirschman found it convenient to use his academic position as a pioneer in development economics to keep himself out of the evaluation debate that accompanied the expansion of U.S. international aid in Latin America. In the meantime, Judith Tendler, the only real student Hirschman had ever had, and still in touch with her teacher, was developing research relevant to the evaluation being conducted in a number of international institutions. In retrospect, it can be said that the attitude of both represented a possibilist stratagem, because it gave them a position of effective freedom in their work even as they operated close to officialdom in the field of evaluation, and this allowed them to positively influence its evolution.

Furthermore, this is an intellectual legacy that can be very useful today. Because in the more open climate resulting from the cultural and political evolution of our times, the legacy of Judith Tendler and Albert Hirschman can be used as a source of ideas that helps us not only to better understand the various aspects of the problem of evaluation that were rediscovered later, but also to bring into focus the possibility of promising future developments.

Luca Meldolesi

←viii | 1→


My relationship with Albert and Judith (and with their thoughts on evaluation)

In my relationship with these two great personalities—Albert Hirschman (1915–2012) and Judith Tendler (1939–2016)—there was always something that was left unsaid. From their contribution to the understanding of how change can actually come about, I have especially drawn on what might be relevant to the evaluation of development policies and programs—a practice that they considered to be of lesser importance than either their theoretical work or the actions to be evaluated. This was true even though they themselves were evaluators, Albert in particular when he evaluated the World Bank projects he spoke about in Development Projects Observed, 1967 (henceforth DPO), and Judith in her work with various international development agencies over a long period of time.

One reason, I think, is this. Even though they were (de facto) great innovators in the field, they never wanted to commit themselves to a battle over evaluative approaches (or paradigms). For them it went without saying that what was meant by evaluation (and/or appraisal) was the sort of mainstream practice required by the agencies, and they considered their analytical work on development programs ←1 | 2→and policies to be on another level altogether.1 Judith, for example, distinguished between “evaluations,” something similar to monitoring, and “studies,” which allow comparative analysis and cross-functional comparisons,2 and recommended concentrating on the latter (Tendler, 1983).3 When she was asked to make an evaluation, she made it known that on such occasions, alongside the current practice recommended by the international agencies, there was also (fortunately) an opportunity to study development. Albert distinguished (1965, p. 4) between “existing project appraisal techniques” (that measure the productivity of a project with respect to a pre-established objective) and his own way of studying linkages and unexpected consequences through the observation and comparison of projects and their characteristics. He would then specify that what he was arguing should be understood as supplementing current techniques rather than replacing them. Yet in doing so, both of them showed that evaluation could be done in a way that was different from the mainstream. In fact, starting from observation in the field, comparisons, linkages, and unexpected consequences are really key tools in a type of evaluation that works toward improvement, “for a better world.” It is what I call “possibilist evaluation.”

After having worked on the Marshall Plan for the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, Albert served as “economic and financial advisor to the National Planning Council” in Colombia in 1952–53. As he recalled in “A Dissenter’s Confession,” “the World Bank had recommended me for this post, but I worked out a contract directly with the Colombian government. The result was administrative ambiguity that gave me a certain freedom of action” (1986, p. 7).4 But when a ←2 | 3→dictatorship took power there through a coup, he set himself up on his own as a business consultant, and then entered American academia through The Strategy of Economic Development (1958), a text that came out of his Colombian experience and which had an extraordinary influence on development economics. Later, in Journeys Toward Progress (1964), he reflected on the practices of “reformmongers,” particularly those who were close to him—the master reformmongers Lleras Restrepo and Celso Furtado to whom he dedicated the book. And when he wanted to look at what happened during the implementation of development projects he had a difficult confrontation with the World Bank (henceforth WB), which had itself commissioned the work.5 In fact, the report he prepared (A Study of Selected World Bank Projects: An Interim Report, 1965) was subjected to such defensive criticism by the WB that the book based on his work (DPO, mentioned above) was published through the Brookings Institution, not the Bank. After his experience as a consultant for international agencies, Albert became a great innovator in social thinking, drawing inspiration from his own observations of reality.

Judith, on the other hand, who worked as a consultant for international agencies in the 1970s and 1980s, was able to establish a dialogue with them, but at the same time jealously maintained her independence, both in calling on them to adhere to their stated tasks6 and in inviting them to be true to their democratic foundations.7 Her way of looking at reality, along with her adherence to what she had directly observed through field research and direct involvement, earned her esteem and respect for her ideas—even if her interlocutors...stopped there.

In this introduction I will attempt to argue my case concerning the legacy of Albert and Judith’s contribution to “possibilist evaluation.”8 I will begin by comparing their intellectual trajectories, moments of intersection and parallel paths, ←3 | 4→with reference to their formulations concerning development and possibilism.9 I will then analyze the reasons behind what I see as the enduring vitality of their thinking, reinterpreting some aspects of it that can be found both in current debates and in the work of many evaluators (who nevertheless rarely refer10 to Albert and Judith). And in doing so I will refer to points that are then addressed in later chapters.

Roads that cross and roads that diverge

In the mid-1960s when Albert was teaching at Columbia University, Judith asked him to be supervisor for her doctoral thesis.

Hirschman was at the culmination of his three-dimensional work on development—The Strategy on economic development, Journeys Toward Progress on policy-making, and Development Projects Observed on development aid. As he wrote in 1994 (now 2015) in his Preface to the second edition of the latter:

The concept—or fantasy—of a unified “trilogy” emerged in my mind primarily during the writing of the present book. Over and above the overt purpose of my work—the analysis of development and the advice on policy—I came to see it as having the latent, hidden, but overriding common intent to celebrate, to “sing” the epic adventure of development—its challenge, drama, and grandeur (2015, p. xvi).

In DPO in particular, Albert had indicated the principles that ought to motivate an evaluation whose aim is to support development. Implementation, he said, should be treated as “a long voyage of discovery in the most varied domains, from technology to politics” (1967, p. 32). And along the way, the creativity (the hiding hand) that emerges should be recognized and appreciated, and various forms of uncertainty must be taken into account along with latitude and time differences, project characteristics (trait-taking and trait-making), and the centrality of side effects.

←4 | 5→

While Albert was observing World Bank projects, Judith was writing her doctoral thesis on electric power in Brazil. Between the two of them there was a rich exchange of views on the themes of development and technology—as well as of a personal nature (including some letters revealing discouragement11). At the end of this period Albert said that Judith’s work on technology had inspired him:

This manuscript was largely written in New York between February and July 1966. During this period, I profited greatly from exchanging ideas and draft chapters with Judith Tendler who was then writing her doctoral dissertation on electric power in Brazil. Miss Tendler’s fine insights into the differential characteristics and side-effects of thermal and hydropower, and of generation and distribution, contributed in many ways to the formation of my views. (“Acknowledgements” in Hirschman, 1967, p. xi)

Judith, in turn, said that Albert had taught her “to look where I never would have looked before for insight into a country’s development,” and that in Albert’s work a researcher who was “patient enough” would find “a rich complexity of both success and failure, efficiency alongside incompetence, order cohabiting with disorder” (1968, p. xi).12

In taking leave of his “exclusive 18-year commitment” to development (and Latin America), and based on the trilogy and on a series of illuminating articles—starting with titles such as “Obstacles to Development: A Classification and a Quasi-Vanishing Act,” (1971d) or “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding” (1971e)—Albert sketched out in the introduction to A Bias for Hope “an underlying methodology and perhaps philosophy” for possibilism (1971, p. ix). It was here that he listed inverted sequences, cognitive dissonance, blessings in disguise and unintentional consequences as “possibilist devices” (1971b).13


X, 156
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (October)
Possibilism evaluation development change program learning unintended consequences ethics surprise Possibilism and evaluation Judith Tendler and Albert Hirschman Albert Hirschman’s Legacy Nicoletta Stame
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2022. X, 156 pp, 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Nicoletta Stame (Author)

Sociologist Nicoletta Stame (PhD, State University of New York and Catania University) is emerita professor at Sapienza University of Roma, past president of the European Evaluation Society and Associazione Italiana di Valutazione, a member of the editorial board of Evaluation, and vice-president of A Colorni-Hirschman International Institute.


Title: Possibilism and Evaluation