By Gervin Chanase
This blog is part of INTRAC’s season on shifting the power through monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL). The season is part of our celebrations of INTRAC’s 30th anniversary. This blog also forms a part of a communications partnership between INTRAC and the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI).
The days when monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) were just seen as an afterthought or as ‘nice to have’ are gone. Almost every organisation aiming to be successful has a MEL unit or department. Even in resource-constrained organisations, a staff member is either designated as a MEL officer or doubles as one. In fact, MEL is so crucial that between 3 to 10 percent of organisational budget is spent on MEL activities (Sedrakian, 2016).  Monitoring and evaluation have undergone tremendous changes over the years. One thing which has largely remained constant, however, is that their theory and practice have largely been dominated from the ivory towers in the global North. As a result, the language of MEL contains confusing jargon and terminology that is neither universally applicable nor easy to understand. MEL is also characterized by a complex set of processes, templates, and tools that cause headaches for development workers when applying them. Consequently, organisations often outsource MEL units and assignments to consultants and firms, who, to justify their hefty fees, box the units into cosmetic, complex processes and tools.
The funding community, in turn, incorporates a number of these rigid tools, approaches, and templates into the range of requirements they expect of recipients to access funding. Accordingly, recipient organisations replicate nearly the same pattern in their interaction with local communities. In another article, I discussed how communities are rarely involved in designing monitoring and evaluation matrices and tools, although some CBOs are trying to incorporate community input. International donors set performance metrics that are then handed over to local implementing partners. Most of the time, those donors lack a deep understanding of local dynamics and problems, while their local implementing partner applies these rigid MEL tools and processes. As one descends the aid value chain, the autonomy and agency of actors at the bottom of the tier, notably the implementing partners and communities, are reduced as well. The shift the power movement and the re-emerging discourse on decolonization has prompted several calls for re-imagining all facets of organisational development (OD) and development programming, including MEL in which local communities play a central role. Although this has caused some angst, it is my belief that no aspect of development programming should remain immune to the rising tide of shift the power, including when it comes to how communities track, measure and define success. This brings me to the main point: how do we shift the power through MEL?
MEL is an interdisciplinary subject with a wide scope, which is why I would like to narrow the focus to just one of its components: learning. To set the tone, it is important to understand how societies learn, preserve lessons, and envision success or failure. In the African context, oral traditions, mythology, and folklore are some of the predominant forms of preserving and telling stories. Africa’s mythology, folklore, stories, and literature are replete with lessons and heroic tales that can be used to inform, educate, and inspire decision-making. For MEL practitioners and the international development community, this presents an opportunity to integrate some of these indigenous approaches. To regain agency for the communities we work with, we need to tap into these local mechanisms of capturing lessons and successes.
I believe it is important to emphasize that African stories are more than just tales: for those who tell them they are pieces of living history and culture. Several of the stories are recognizable for the region from which they come. Using this understanding, communities can be supported to tell their stories in a language that resonates with or reflects their context and dynamics. Communities have the right to express themselves in a way that makes sense to them. Finally, we could move towards communities taking the lead in drafting or narrating success stories from their own perspective and in their own voice – the result can be inspiring. When we take this approach, there is an enormous shift in power. It has the potential to genuinely give a voice to local communities, which are too often ignored, sensationalized, or even misrepresented. To use traditional folklore and storytelling is both organic and culturally relevant. It may take time before homegrown approaches gain critical acclaim and acceptance, but we can start promoting local knowledge and approaches and contextualizing currently existing methods and tools. In this way, local communities can be supported not only to co-create change, but to measure it, too.
Gervin Chanase is an international development expert affiliated with the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI), with over nine years of professional experience in third sector governance, policy and advocacy, results-based monitoring, and evaluation. Gervin’s work is currently situated in the intersectionality among civil society research, capacity strengthening, and policy advocacy. Gervin is a member of the International Programme for Development Evaluation (IPDET), and the Knowledge Network of the United Nations Office of the Special Advisor to Africa as well as a Certified Online Learning Facilitator (COLF). Gervin holds a Masters’s degree in Development & Governance from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, and a second Masters’s in Global Studies from the University of Vienna (Austria), University of Leipzig (Germany), and University of California (Santa Barbara), USA. He is also the author of numerous publications focusing on civil society discourse in the global South.