33,000 stores, 61 years of business, and more than 1 billion served. Can you guess which organization these numbers are associated with? McDonald’s. Imagine if development organizations had these kinds of statistics. Imagine if they could track results to this degree. Would programs save money? Be more efficient? What would it take to harness data in this way?
Tuesday’s Technology Salon featured a discussion about Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E), some of the pitfalls, challenges, and potential to improve projects in the future. Susan Stout, Senior Results Adviser, Development Gateway and formerly of the World Bank, and Herb Caudill, Founder of and CTO of DevResults and Caudill Web, led the discussion of M&E experts.
There was a general consensus among attendees that M&E is beneficial to projects. Some of the benefits include cost savings, more accurate baseline data, and better information for local agencies and governments to respond. Some of the challenges with M&E include choosing the right tools/software, and many participants voiced, communicating the data to the people who have enough leverage to respond.
Traditionally, M&E has been what one participant called “extractive,” meaning information has been collected and communicated to donors. What some participants voiced is that to be successful and support projects as it should, M&E data must be communicated to people on the ground in-country, such as local health officials, regional Ag officials etc. M&E is rife with “data friction,” a failure to communicate all the data to all of the people who are involved, and this friction devalues data.
There seems to be a disconnect with funders and the funded about M&E. Some project managers said that funders don’t always support a budget for M&E, or find it unnecessary until the end. Participants representing funding agencies spoke about how they are trying to incorporate M&E more for their grantees. In one case a funding organization even contracts out to a company to run M&E throughout projects for all of the organizations in their portfolio. This also levels the playing field between larger organizations that can more readily afford assistance with M&E.
M&E and the F-Word
As one participant pointed out, everyone is afraid of the F-word, failure. A frequent stumbling block of M&E is the fear of admitting failure in the development world. When asked, few participants could think of projects that admitted it wasn’t working and discontinued the work. One participant said that in some cases, donors or committees are resistant to M&E because they are more afraid to find out that a certain idea has failed and to adjust the project framework, than to continue with a model that they know is less effective. In the case of small organizations, if a project “fails,” then they might not get fired by a donor, but they might not get follow-up work.
Finally, if an organization successfully sells the need for M&E in a project, the next step is to find the right ICT tools. A technologist proposed these five scenarios for choosing ICT platforms, and some of the benefits and downfalls.
- “Muddling Through”: In this option, organizations have some data, but it may not be well organized. People are able to find answers, but not easily. The system is not efficient.
- Developing software or a program in-house: This depends a lot on the skill set of the organization’s IT staff. Problems can occur if their skill set is limited, or especially in the case that this person leaves etc.
- Contracting out to have a program made: In this scenario, it is often hard for organizations to get what they want. In the end, the organization has little control,and the costs can be extremely high.
- Repurposing a program: The technologist said this scenario usually ends up as a “square peg in a round hole.” It seems easier to use an existing program than to create one from scratch, but the programs actually serve the purpose in rare cases.
- Using an existing program “off the shelf”: While there are some platforms that let organizations customize parts (such as Microsoft Access), there aren’t many options yet.
As a lead discussant said, data has the power to be revolutionary in the development field. Aid work is complex and emergent. The field has heightened demand for a fusion of people who can understand technology and development.
Written by Asia Hege, a Kurante Associate and future development expert.