G(r)o(w)ing organically and the future of monitoring

In the past three weeks I have been working quite a lot on monitoring again, as one of my focus areas (together with knowledge management/learning and communications): processing and analysing the results of RiPPLE monitoring for the first time, developing the WASHCost monitoring and learning framework and generally thinking about how to improve monitoring, in line with recent interest in impact assessment (IRC is about to launch a thematic overview paper about this), complexity theory and even the general networks/ learning alliance angle etc.

Monitoring growing organically

I think monitoring is going and growing the right way – following an organic development curve – and for me it is one of the avenues that can really improve in the future, which perhaps explains the current enthusiasm for impact assessments etc. As mentioned in a previous blog post, I think the work we carry out with process documentation will be integrated as part of monitoring later, an intelligent way to monitor, which makes sense for donors, implementers (of a given initiative) and beneficiaries.

So what would/could be characteristics of good monitoring, in the future? I can come up with the following:

Integrated: in many cases, monitoring is a separate activity from the rest of the intervention, giving an impression of additional work and no added value. But if monitoring was indeed linked with intervention activities and particularly planning and reporting, it would help a lot and make it seem more useful. In the work on the WASHCost monitoring and learning framework, the key trick was to focus M&L on the ongoing reporting exercise and it did a wonderful trick. In addition to this, monitoring should also be linked with (mid-term and final) evaluations so that the evaluation team – usually external to the project – can come up with a more consistent methodology while keeping distance and a certain degree of objectivity. Evaluations are a different aspect and I’m not explicitly dealing with them here, even though they share a number of points with monitoring.

Informed: If monitoring is integrated with planning, before the project intervention there should be an analysis about the issue at hand and the potential best area of intervention. In line with this, a baseline should be established for what processes and outputs will be monitored. This helps prepare monitoring activities that make sense and interventions that are really focusing on how to improve what doesn’t work (but could help tremendously if it would);

Conscious: about what is at stake and therefore what should be monitored. The intervention should be guided by a certain vision of development, a certain ‘hypothesis of change’ that probably includes a focus on behaviour changes by certain actors, on some systems, processes and products/services and more generally on the system as a whole in which the development intervention is taking place. This conscious approach would therefore be well informed not to focus exclusively on hardware aspects (how many systems were built) nor exclusively on software issues (how much the municipality and private contractors love each other now);

Transparent and as objective as possible: Now that’s a tricky one. But a rule of thumb is that good monitoring should be carried out with the intention to report to donors (upward accountability) and to intended beneficiaries (downward accountability) – this guarantees some degree of transparency – and should be partly carried out by external parties to ensure a more objective take on monitoring (with no bias towards only positive changes). Current attempts to involve journalists to monitor development projects are a sound way forward and many more options prevail.

Versatile: Because monitoring should focus on a number of specific areas, it shouldn’t just use quantitative or qualitative approaches and tools but a mixture of them. This would help make monitoring more acceptable (with the accountability vs. learning discussion for instance) and would provide a good way to triangulate monitoring results, to ensure more objectivity in turn.

Inclusive: If monitoring includes external parties, it should focus on establishing a common understanding, a common vision of what is required to monitor the intervention, and it should also involve training activities for those that will be monitoring the intervention. So monitoring should include activities for communities as for donors, it should bring them together and persuade them that they all have a role to play in proving the value of the intervention and especially improving it.

Flexible: A project intervention rarely follows the course it primarily intended to follow… equally, monitoring should remain flexible to adapt to the evolution of the intervention. It should remain flexible in its design, in the areas that are monitored and in the methods that help monitor those specific areas. That is the value of process documentation and e.g. the Most Significant Change approach: revealing deeper patterns that have a bearing on the intervention but were not identified or recognised as important.

Long-term: Assuming that development is among others about behaviour and social changes, these changes are long-term, they don’t happen overnight; Subsequently monitoring should also have a long term perspective and indeed build ex-post evaluations to revisit intervention sites and see what are the later outcomes of a given intervention.

Finally, and with all else said before, monitoring would gain in being more simple, planned according to what is necessary to monitor and what is good to monitor, in line with existing resources and perhaps following a certain donor’s perspective: to monitor only what is necessary.

Hopefully that kind of monitoring will not feel as an intrusion by external parties in the way people are carrying out their job, and/or it will not feel like just an additional burden to carry without expecting anything from it. Hopefully that kind of monitoring will put the emphasis on learning, on getting value for the action, and on connecting people to improve the way development work is going on.

Related posts:


Capacity for change

Developing capacities is about exploring our needs together

Developing capacities is about exploring our needs together

These last two weeks have been under the banner of capacity, for different reasons.

  • First off because I’ve been working with the successor of a great colleague for communication in the RiPPLE project and it focused a lot on rapid capacity development as the departing colleague would be working only for another 2 weeks before leaving. After almost 3 years in position and a number of activities well in progress, it’s much of a challenge to get her successor up to speed and in delivery mode. Luckily he will have detailed task-based guidelines and a few activities will involve the new organisation of our flying bird.
  • Secondly because of long discussions on learning and capacity with my RiPPLE colleague and friend Livia. The recent reading of an excellent paper by IDS ‘capacities for a change’ have fuelled our reflections on the understanding of capacity.
  • Finally, this week is the week of the world water forum and i am taking part to a couple of sessions on learning and capacity.

What are the common threads coming out of these happenings?

  1. All (good quality) development is essentially about capacity development (CD) and a joint process whereby both parties are learning to work together;
  2. Capacity is important at personal, organisational and institutional level: it is in the combination that development work proves most valuable;
  3. There is still a mixed bag of initiatives unde the label of capacity development but in my view a key criterion is that it aims at empowering the actors involved in these CD activities.
  4. For Northern partners this means that CD should be liberating from the development discourse inherited from (de)colonization and it should objectively help a) provide as clear a view as possible on their role b) help identify and address weaker areas of their function as partners and most importantly c) make them realise that their end purpose is to disappear (from developing countries), not to grow.
  5. For Southern partners, well enough books have been published about the topic to really address this at the end of this post!

Related posts:

Connecting the nodes: how a resource centre can make itself essential

From the work we are carrying out in various countries and regions, it seems increasingly clear that the combination of learning alliances and resource centres is powerful.

Learning alliances are great to dive into a specific topic and invite various types of stakeholders to cover it from various angles, so as to embed it in the local context, pool resources, promote and guarantee improved policy and practice (on the topic handled)… However they usually generate a lot of resources and ideas that are not always analysed, consolidated and disseminated beyond the learning alliance group.

On the other hand, resource centres provide a central point of contact for information that matters for sector stakeholders. By consolidating and disseminating information, resource centres ensure that information that is relevant to a group of stakeholders indeed reaches them. But resource centres are not only about information management, they are also about knowledge sharing, and particularly connecting actors and networks together to make sure that information flows more freely to find its most helpful application.

Learning alliances and resource centre networks are all aimed at bringing the puzzle together

Learning alliances and resource centre networks are all aimed at bringing the puzzle together

It is in this light that a number of activities and initiatives could help to raise the profile (and respectability) of a resource centre network:

  • While learning alliances focus among others on bringing about and scaling up innovations, resource centre networks would be well advised to synthesise existing information and making it available in a compelling format. A lot of useful information goes unnoticed, probably because of a natural tendency not to look at the past and because of another natural tendency to start on one’s own basis (the quest for immortality, claiming innovations…). It appears perhaps not as rewarding to look back at existing information and synthesising it but it helps ground the work, avoid mistakes from the past and avoid yet an additional waste of resources.
  • Learning alliances usually come with a series of capacity development activities that really fit the purposes of their focus area (e.g. integrated water resource management, financing the health sector etc.). Resource centre networks could on the other hand use synthesised information to link it with existing capacity development initiatives and institutes and bridge capacity gaps by using good quality information.
  • Finally, resource centre networks would be informed to connect as much as possible with national priorities to justify their focus on the key areas of governmental programmes. Usually one or more governmental agencies are present in the RC network but if this is not the case, it is essential for network members to develop a policy engagement strategy to make itself useful to public authorities. These are but three ways of justifying the value of resource centre networks, and I will keep on reporting about some of the choices made by partner networks to illustrate these ideas.

For the coming weeks, however, I will leave resource centre networks aside and focus on learning alliances with the upcoming developments:

  • The results of the learning alliance session at the World Water Forum;
  • A consolidated information package on learning alliances that will involve a number of IRC staff and partners.
  • A consolidated information package and perhaps a tool box on process documentation (in support of learning alliance processes), fresh with the recent insights from the WASHCost workshop (see my previous blog about this).