Upending the system: putting people at the heart of monitoring and evaluation

11 June 2019 Madeline Church Upending the system: putting people at the heart of monitoring and evaluation

In the latest blog in our series on conflict-sensitive humanitarian action, Madeline Church argues that to develop a more transformative and adaptive monitoring and evaluation approach, you need to challenge power dynamics and put crisis-affected people at the centre.

I often ask people what the first words are that spring to mind when I mention monitoring and evaluation (M&E). Their reactions don’t surprise me –top-down admin, confusing jargon, donor-led accountability, and fear. This is a pretty disheartening state of affairs, given how many years of M&E trainings and manuals the industry has produced. 

Huge power imbalances are at work in the M&E minefield, often enforced and reinforced through administrative systems. Take a look at the ‘results chain’, for instance.

The ‘chain’ of results

The ‘results chain’ is so common that we rarely question where it comes from or the language attached to it. Activities lead to outputs, which then lead to outcomes. It’s all in a line, linked together, intentionally set out to be as simple as possible for those filling in forms and adding things up. This rarely reflects the way change actually occurs, especially in conflict-affected societies. We all know it’s not linear. To add insult to injury, we make our partners and ‘beneficiaries’ responsible for our poorly-designed M&E processes. We suck data ‘upwards’, and push responsibility ‘downwards’, as if this is a kind of pay-back for benefits. All the procurement processes, frameworks, administrative systems, and funding structures reinforce this system. At the global headquarters of international institutions, we yank the chain.

My belief is if we truly want to put localisation – shifting more power and funding to crisis-affected people –at the heart of the agenda for humanity, then it means upending this system. Take the people at the end of the chain, give them the reins, and things really start to happen. 

Something meaningful to ‘measure’

Where you start affects everything. If you start from your strategy, your theory, and what your organisation does, you’ll never change anything in this system. You just do more of the same, time and again. If, instead, you choose to start with crisis-affected people, and you put them at the centre, your choices, approaches and challenges will be fundamentally altered. If you ask those people ‘what changes do you want?’, ‘what can you contribute to making those changes happen?’ and ‘how can we work with you to achieve change?’ you begin from a different place. Their desired changes don’t fall neatly into your outcome boxes, or your organisational or sector silo. People don’t compartmentalise in this way. They want to be safe, healthy, live in a comfortable home, and have a job and an education. They don’t see themselves as recipients of programmes, they see themselves as active, loving, working people, with much to offer. If we respect the people we support, and believe they can clearly state the changes they want to see, and be agents in making that change happen, we both have something meaningful to measure.

Doing things differently

We started on the road to transformative and adaptive M&E at Saferworld some seven years ago. We asked people, ‘what do you want those in power to be doing differently in your environment?’, and ‘what would show you that things have changed?’ Their lists were long. We asked them ‘what would your solutions be?’ and used that as the basis for our programming. We asked partners and staff to help to track these changes, and collect information that would be useful so that they could decide what to do next. We support every team to work with partners to monitor their outcomes together. We make time for serious, participatory discussion and analysis of these changes.

Organisational change – upending the system

What effect has this had on Saferworld as an organisation? Quite a profound one.

Our teams and partners hold workshops every six months to ask important questions. ‘What are people with power doing differently? Why is that significant in relation to the conflict context? What contribution have we made to those changes? What could we do next to build on the good things?’ We add the costs of these workshops into our budgets. We include the data in all our reporting, and offer it to evaluators to test and verify, and use it to underpin our programming. The issues that arise inform our global policy and advocacy priorities. The experience enhances our ability to offer conflict- and gender-sensitive analysis and advice and to apply it to ourselves and our programmes.

Most importantly, we learn from these reflection processes and adapt. We bring team members from one team into outcome discussions with another. Teams and partners discuss the potential consequences of their work. What conflict risks are there in ‘fixing a problem’ in one area – does it simply move and replicate the problem in another? What gender risks are there? Is a good outcome for some a bad one for others, often impacting women or younger and older generations? How can we adapt in the next phase?

Organisational change, particularly if designed to address the fundamental power imbalances at play between international non-governmental organisation headquarters, their staff deployed across the world and their partners, is a lengthy exercise, requiring commitment from the top and a willingness to listen. You have to attend to all the nooks and crannies where power and privilege hide and resist, including in your own mind. Everyone has to be prepared to shift the resources to the right place in the system, which can mean giving up jobs in headquarters and redirecting people to where they are needed.

To be prosaic, you have to pay attention to the paperwork. It’s the admin that kills the strategy, however noble the strategy might be. We reframed our 2014 strategic plan and theory of change to emphasise the people at the centre. But once you’ve put the people at the centre of your strategy you have to put them at the centre of your log frames and your theory of change, share your budgets more equitably and reflect the shift in power in your partnerships. 

Hopefully, if you frame your approach around what changes people want, and what data they need, and can use, then people change their minds about M&E. It makes critical thinkers, data-collectors and evaluators of us all. M&E ceases to be a chain.

Listen to this podcast with Madeline on Saferworld's 'outcome harvesting' approach. 

Read more of our blogs on conflict-sensitive humanitarian action. 


Photo: Saferworld’s Somalia team working with partner Somali Women Solidarity Organisation in Kismayo. Photo credit: Alexandra Azua Hale/Saferworld.

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