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What is monitoring and evaluation?

February 2, 2011

Coming back from a week in the Gambia after Christmas, well rested and certainly well fed (I have yet to be ill from Senegalese food, ironically it was bangers and mash that did it…), I made a resolution to sit down and start using this blog for one of it’s intended purposes; reflecting on my time and work here. Very promptly ‘life’, or at least work, then happened, and suddenly it was the end of January and that New Years reflection blog post had yet to emerge.

Moving abroad 7 months ago it seemed that a blog would be the perfect way to share all the inevitable new/interesting/different things about life in Senegal. The reality is however, that after the initial culture shock of ‘isn’t this country so shiny and exotic’ wears off, days get consumed with many of the same tasks and stresses as anywhere. With each new report, deadline, and meal to cook, it can be hard to take a step back and reflect on what is around you. The failure of SenElec to provide electricity for large periods of time has also not helped.

Now seems a particularly good time to do that as I start the count down to the end of my time in Senegal, and look forward to another 9 or so months in Mali. Christmas brought with it the news that I’d landed the job of Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator for a small, but dynamic, NGO based in Bamako, and so in March I will be saying goodbye to Senegal, and moving to a peri-urban suburb of Bamako called Sikoroni.

Looking back over the past 6 months, the one thing that has most consumed by days, my thoughts, and my weekends, has been the pursuit of an understanding of ‘monitoring and evaluation’. Words which I now throw around frequently, which even define a large part of my identity here, and with which I now use to quickly respond to questions of ‘what do you do?’, ‘oh, I work in monitoring and evaluation’. The phrase itself, technical and dry, gives only the barest indication of what it entails. The past 6 months however have provided me with a crash course in some of the many gritty realities of the growth of a monitoring and evaluation system within an organisation.

Technically speaking, M&E is ‘the process by which data is collected and analyzed in order to provide information to policy makers and others for use in program planning and project management.’ It is a world of indicators and log frames, of survey questions, data input and graphs. It is remarkably easy to do t badly, through statistical error, bad survey question design, or analysis. Yet it is also, I find, an incredibly exciting field of development in both the process it entails, and what it can bring to a programme. M&E involves taking the really big questions and goals, and then breaking them down into something accessible, and framing them in a way which will provide manageable data. M&E involves asking ‘what was the impact of this programme on the lives of woman in this area’, then thinking about how you start to measure what impact looks like. It involves looking at phrases such as ‘woman’s empowerment’, and then thinking about how you go and measure that. It raises questions about who gets to decide what ‘empowerment’ actually means. Above all, it involves challenging assumptions. Assumptions at a very small level; ‘ the survey question I have written is simple and easy to understand’, and at a more fundamental level; ‘ women from this village will naturally feel more comfortable interviewing other woman their own age, and men, other men’ (as it turns out, not necessarily true).

It is this mergence between theory and reality which first attracted me to the field, and which makes me want to stay there. Yet, part of the past 6 months has been the discovery of how easy it is as an individual to not ask these questions, or challenge these assumptions. In a donor driven world where there is continuous pressure to provide the latest statistics, where the need to just keep things ticking over, to produce that latest report, can be overwhelming, little time or space  is often left to take time and ask ‘really, is this the information we want to be collecting?’

What happens for example, when monitoring forms have been designed, printed, and the people who will carry out the monitoring trained, yet they are not filled in? When suddenly you have a donor with a list of 100 indicators, all of which depend on this monitoring information. In November I found myself sitting my candlelight (thanks SenElec) evening after evening trying to design an evaluation survey to collect this monitoring information which demanded what seemed like the impossible from community members; ‘How many people in the community sleep under a mosquito net?’. Suddenly the distinct definition between monitoring (collection of routine data that measure progress toward achieving program objectives) and evaluation (single investigations into the extent to which changes in outcomes can be attributed to the program or intervention) seemed less clear.

Sitting in a beautiful and remote village it can be depressing as you are surrounded by welcoming community members, who are happy to spend their day answering questions which must at times seem so abstract. As you read out a question that you thought was clearly phrased, and realise that, maybe, really, asking about the ‘role’ of men and women in the community was all a bit intellectual and fuzzy after all. As you eat the food they generously provided, aware also that you are flying in, flying out, just extracting information, wanting to explain, that yes, the questions may all seem a bit funny, but a donor really wants this informaton, and if he gets it, might just give the organisation some more money.

Then, in a different village, a different region, and for a different donor, it can be incredibly rewarding to take the time and sit down to train local surveyors on how to carry out a survey, which, hey might not be perfect, but might just actually provide some really useful information to both the donor and the regional coordinator – information that might just go somewhere. In a whirlwind tour around the different regions of Senegal I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to take this time, to explain what a difference taking care of the basics can make. Why its actually really really important that you don’t just leave blanks in the survey without giving an explanation. To sit down and explain why certain words were used in x question, and discuss how that could then be translated into a local language.  To be challenged: Oh what does ‘women participate in community meetings ‘often’’ mean anyway?. Then finally, to get back the completed forms with good, quality data, with no mysterious blanks or codes in the wrong boxes, and to write a report which has a good basis.

Here the lines between work and life easily become blurred. You become emotionally invested in your work, and that’s part of what makes it worth it; I feel lucky to have such an interest, even passion, in my life (admittedly, this emotion feels a long way away after a long day battling with Microsoft Excel). My monitoring and evaluation knowledge in many way stills feels thin. Randomized control trials are a mystery to me. I avoid statistics, and I couldn’t tell you about the latest shiny developments in the field (that’s for this Saturday’s coffee fueled research). What I can now tell you about  is the nitty gritty. How, and why,  things do or don’t work. And that is something, when I am old and behind a desk in London, maybe working as the donor who wants information on those 100 indicators, is something I hope I don’t forget.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dad permalink
    February 2, 2011 2:12 pm

    Now I understand! I loved reading this piece Helen and the photos serve well to add realism to the text. Look forward to seeing you at the end of the month and hearing first hand of your experiences in Senegal. love, Dadxxx

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  1. Taking the first steps towards a participatory monitoring and evaluation system « pas à pas

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