By Elanor Jackson and Kanwal Ahluwalia

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.

As it stands, the power around monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) is very much held in the so-called global North.  MEL has developed as a requirement of donor funded projects. This has resulted in a strong focus on upward accountability and at best, international development organisations trying to improve programme quality. Even when MEL systems are co-designed with programme participants, with the aim of being adaptive and accountable to them, ultimately, MEL data is destined to be held and used only by implementing organisations and donors.

This system requires a radical shift. This would mean handing over the reins to programme participants to design programmes based on their own priorities and supporting them to create methods to collect and reflect on MEL data in ways they find useful. Gina Dorso has highlighted this in her 5-point Guide to Decolonising Aid.

In the meantime, we recognise that we, as international consultants, are part of this flawed system. Due to the power and privilege we hold, we have access to certain opportunities. Knowing this, we have been trying to find ways to shift the power to excluded communities – particularly to women and girls – through the adoption of feminist MEL practices. Here we reflect on our experiences of doing this.

Feminist MEL explicitly challenges unequal power relations, and questions assumptions about gender identities and roles. A feminist approach challenges the idea that MEL concepts are neutral and recognises that MEL activities themselves are political and can challenge or maintain power relationships [1]. We find Dona Podem’s Principle Focused Evaluation, Feminist Evaluation (PFE-FE) principles [2] a helpful way to guide thinking about feminist evaluation.

Firstly, we question the purpose of the evaluation and who it is for. We encourage clients to consider a feminist approach and one which involves working alongside programme and partner staff, enabling spaces for critical reflection. We discuss what centring the voices of women and girls, men and boys looks like in practice. This means allowing time to build relationships and trust; creating safe spaces and opportunities to hear the priorities and concerns of diverse women and girls and exploring the underlying root causes of inequality, as opposed to asking leading questions determined by donors and evaluation terms of references. We are also explicit that we ourselves are feminists, with a particular view of the world which informs the way we design our MEL approaches and analyse issues.

When facilitating evaluation/review exercises, we try and create a safe space, ensuring that participants are comfortable to participate and that there is support on hand for them if they have concerns. We are aware of power relationships. This includes our own power and position as external evaluators/facilitators, as well the power dynamics in groups. We think carefully about who is asking the questions, how they are asked, in what language, who else is in the room and so on.  We prioritise the safety and security of diverse women and girls, build in time for consultations with different groups and try to be iterative and responsive throughout the review process. We work closely with local partners and organisational staff, reflecting with them on the learning that emerges as well as what this learning implies, and we seek their feedback in adapting review processes.

We use participatory learning approaches, which we consider are core to shifting the power. We have integrated these approaches over several years, to ensure women and girls are able to surface issues of who has power, when and where; who has access to assets, resources and decision-making; and by; exploring underlying barriers to inequality and realisation of rights. As a minimum, we try to develop participatory evaluation tools in collaboration with programme partners, taking into account ethical and safeguarding considerations and do no harm principles.

We build in time for sharing and discussing findings both during evaluation activities with participants and then with partners and commissioning organisations. This can involve challenging conversations for organisations, particularly in relation to women’s rights and gender equality programmes where progress is non-linear, and gender transformative outcomes are often not realised within project timeframes. 

We try as much as possible to ensure that learning is used to strengthen gender transformative work, and to address unequal power relations.  However, we have found that the extent to which this helps to shift the power to women and girls in programmes is often constrained. Rarely is there time or interest from commissioners for co-design of evaluation processes with programme participants. This is due to competing pressures on partners’ time, limited resources, and lack of commitment to pilot and adapt participatory feminist learning approaches. Often these approaches are considered less rigorous or legitimate, compared to quantitative surveys for example.

Even if clients are committed to the approaches we propose, decision makers are not always open to hear challenging feedback. This is especially true if it does not fit within donor reporting parameters, existing organisational priorities, or if it challenges power structures within organisations. We also see reluctance to commit to gender transformative approaches because these are not seen as core to an organisation’s work, or are considered to be difficult to implement in patriarchal contexts, where organisations are worried about being perceived to be imposing an external agenda.  

So what more can we do to shift power through feminist approaches to MEL?

Donors need to recognise and appreciate the value of feminist MEL and participatory methods, and to encourage organisations to use them. They should allow time for feminist MEL, value listening and learning, and consider challenges as important steps in a process of learning.

We must ensure evaluation results are listened to and acted on, encouraging senior leadership and donors to take feminist MEL findings on board and turn recommendations into action; i.e. ensuring their buy in and commitment to follow through and really shift the power.  

Above all, we should support local organisations, together with women and girls, to develop MEL processes and capacity that responds to their contexts and needs. MEL activities should be empowering for participants and for project staff, and centre communities’ and women’s and girls’ own narratives.

[1] “Applying feminist principles to program monitoring, evaluation, and accountability”, Oxfam discussion paper, July 2017

[2] Making Feminist Evaluation Practical, 2018, Donna Podems eVALUation Matters Fourth Quarter

Read the previous entries in this series: “Reimagining monitoring, evaluation, and learning through African folklore” by Gervin Chanase, and “Abuse of power? How M&E systems really operate” by Rod MacLeod.