Monitoring and Evaluation, commonly known as M&E is probably something we have already heard by now, especially if you are in the development sector. But how much do we actually know about the work that goes into M&E?
To gain a deeper understanding of the work and to simplify what M&E is all about, I had the opportunity to interview Rio Jones, Director of Levante International Development.
Sam: Could you introduce yourself and the work done by Levante International?
Rio: I'm Rio, the Director of Levante International Development. We are a specialist research firm, who work to support international and local organizations in the humanitarian aid and development fields. We do this largely through providing Monitoring and Evaluation services, research, and strategic consultancy.
Overall, we have a wide-ranging portfolio of work across the world – in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
Sam: What is Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) all about in the development sector? And how does one go about it?
Rio: M&E is, in very simple terms, the process of collecting data and analyzing it to understand the success and consequences of a project.
Monitoring is what it pretty much sounds like - it is following up on the implementation of a project over the course of its lifecycle, looking at how the activities that have been planned and how are they being implemented. It aims to understand if outputs are achieved and how planned activities are executed.
To make it easier, let’s take an example. Suppose you have an intervention in Syria or in Yemen where you wish to distribute food baskets to people who are food insecure, some monitoring related questions would typically be - Are we delivering the volume of food baskets that we intended? Are we reaching our time groups? Monitoring looks into whether the primary aim is being achieved or not. Taking the food baskets’ example, the aim for them would be to ensure that the most food insecure families can meet their basic needs.
Evaluations are more periodic and holistic assessments. In the lifecycle of any project, you have three stages. The first stage is where one might do what's called a Baseline Study. So, before we start doing our project and start implementing, we want to see what the conditions are now – this means we have something to compare with when we finish our intervention, and see what changes have occurred. This is usually followed by a Mid-term evaluation half-way through the project, which will look at results achieved so far and make any recommendations for improvement. Finally, there will be an End-line evaluation.
Doing this is important for the donors since they are the ones giving their money to see how the project has been shaping up. It is important for project staff who undertake these projects in implementing so that the donors can see the impact of their work and other things that people in M&E typically do. For us specifically, this is at the center of what we do and it eventually helps the people we aim at helping in the first place
Sam: How important do you think M&E is for any developmental project?
Rio: Like I mentioned earlier, if you do an evaluation, you're assessing different themes such as relevance, impact. Alongside these, you would also look at effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability.
First of all, you're looking at the relevance of a project so you're trying to assess.
Imagine you've got a community which is a conflict affected area. You decide that you want to implement, for example, a training scheme to help them learn business skills so that they start their own small businesses.
You might find that there is an NGO who has been trying to run training sessions on small business skills and once you go the grassroots level you find out a myriad of other things. You might find that these people have got no safe water to drink, they are incredibly food insecure, they're still affected by conflict, and there's no cohesion within the community.
What happens is that the NGO trying to teach them business skills are struggling simply because people can't make it to these training sessions. In the bigger scheme of things, it's not a priority for them because they're spending all of their days walking somewhere else to go and get some clean water to drink. So, doing proper M&E would help in analyzing what is an appropriate intervention. In this case, a smart intervention would be a water sanitation and hygiene related one.
The next thing we look at is impact. This is what the donors are really interested in and what predominantly any development or humanitarian organization should be interested in.
Proving that the impact is real is so important because if you're a Development Organization, and you want to do projects related to it, you need to prove that what you do works, especially if you want to get funding. You need to back it up with success stories, statistics and data which show that people's lives have been tangibly improved. And if you can do that, it strengthens your case so much more for expanding your work and for winning support. I think it has a huge motivational value for project staff because they can actually understand what the impact of your work is.
Unless you have a systematic way of doing that, which is based on evidence, data and talking to people, your work is only based on impressions and feelings and anecdotal evidence from the ground. When you're talking about large amounts of money which go into development funding and you're talking about people's lives, I think it's extremely important to have some sort of evidence base in whatever it is that you're doing.
Sam: In your opinion, why do you think M&E is essential for developmental projects? How do you think our world would look like without M&E?
Rio: Well, I don’t think we have to look very far back to envisage a world without M&E. For example, it’s been more accepted in the Health sector. A typical example would be when carrying out a vaccination program. M&E questions for such a situation would be - What was the uptake for the vaccines? Why is it working in this place? And it's not working in that place? What could we do? What could we do better?
But like I mentioned earlier, people need to prove that their intervention worked to show the effectiveness of what they have done. For example, when policymakers outline a policy and have very little evidence to work with, they would possibly draft future policies on the basis of their existing impressions and opinions about what should be done.
The result of that is that the people who have the least power in society, those who are the most marginalized, don't ever get listened to. That is why as part of our mission is to make sure that in doing Monitoring and Evaluation, we reach those people who don't have that sort of power and don't have that sort of ability to shape agendas or decide what kind of projects get implemented within a community.
I think the consequences of failing to properly think about the impact of your work and the relevance of it is that the most marginalized people in society continue to remain marginalized. This means consequences for women, people with disabilities, elderly, LGBTQIA+ .
In a world without that proper M&E is that you can miss the voices of marginalized people.
Sam: Depending on the nature of the project, how long would it typically take for you and your team to complete an entire project?
Rio: Well, because we're consultants, we are brought in at particular stages within a project lifecycle to do a particular job. There is the monitoring and evaluation that an NGO will be doing themselves. Especially now, even small organizations have M&E officers who take care of that and do an internal analysis.
Our role is that we're external actors. We come in from the outside to provide our expertise at certain points within a particular stage of the project. It really depends on the on the size and the scope. I would say with the size of the organization we are at the moment; we would do evaluations for projects which probably typically last between one and three years and sometimes more.
First thing we would do is familiarize ourselves with what the project actually is, who the intended beneficiaries are, we'll look at the existing information. Then we frame a research design the questions do we need to answer, what things we need to measure, what sort of data we need to get. Later, we come up with a plan as to how we're actually going to do that. After that, we analyze and synthesize the data into a report, making recommendations for improvement or future projects. Depending on the size of the task, that could take us a month – or months.
Sam: What advice do you have for individuals who aspire to work in the M&E sector?
Rio: First of all, I would say think clearly about what you enjoy and about what is important to you. Before I got into this field, I knew I enjoy research. I like having questions that I don't know the answer to and I enjoy the process of finding these answers, going to different places, talking to different people and resolving complex questions. If that is something which appeals to you, then M&E should appeal to you.
I would encourage people who are interested in the field to learn more about the nuances of it and different techniques. Make use of the free resources available online to teach yourself some practical skills as well. That’s what I have got to say for those wishing to work in this field.