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Evaluating monitoring systems in international development

Monitoring systems in development projects should be considered as a programmatic tool and steering element in their own right. This includes the necessity for evaluating the systems for improved monitoring and increased impact.

By Nina Baltes

Monitoring systems overlooked?

Monitoring systems have the potential to be the backbone of a strong, flexible, adaptable and responsive project that puts the communities it serves centre stage.

Oftentimes, however, projects barely tap this potential by not paying sufficient attention to their monitoring systems and the benefits that could be reaped by doing so.

Hence, scrutinising project monitoring systems as a programmatic tool and steering element in their own right is hardly ever done, neither through a project’s own initiative and a wider desire for insight nor demanded for by funding agencies. The eyes are almost always set on the final destination (the predefined results of the project) but not on the journey itself (the processes and systems that support reaching the goals over time).

A change in focus

Changing this focus to include the processes and systems that lead to achieving project goals will require time, an appreciation of what they can contribute to project management and a corresponding attitude. Efforts should be made now in initiating and devising ways that promote this renewed focus.

One central question here is: How can monitoring systems be professionally and systematically evaluated according to precisely tailored and transparent criteria through the application of empirical methods of data collection and analysis and based on established evaluation approaches?

Going about it

A theory-based performance evaluation with a utilisation-focus and participatory elements could provide the answer.

First and foremost, this includes two major components: the development of a logic setting out the specific goals of the monitoring system to be evaluated and the development of a framework guiding the areas deemed important for evaluating the system.

A logic, be it in the shape of a logical framework or a theory of change, is usually developed solely for setting out the goals of the overall project with monitoring included as an add-on (and oftentimes considered a necessary evil). A distinct logic for the monitoring system of the specific project is usually missing.

Yet, the exercise of setting a project’s own distinct goals for the monitoring system and reflecting on the processes and set-up needed to achieve them, while considering how it interacts with, complements and strengthens the overall project beyond the ‘usual’, provides real opportunities – for an evaluation and beyond.

Besides offering improved clarity, for an evaluation it can also provide guidance for the set-up of the system relating to inputs and activities as well as the desired results of the system relating to outputs and outcomes.

The evaluation framework complements the logic and facilitates an evaluation content-wise, which has the potential to provide even deeper insight into the monitoring system, its ambitions and related contextual factors. These insights in turn can spark the development and improvement of the system.

Participation and transitionability at the core

The reflection of the system and the ambition to improve it can also provide a renewed focus on the communities the project intends to serve. This is an aspect easily forgotten when predominantly focussing on the goals in a very inward-facing and self-centred manner, as is often the case.

An appropriately set-up monitoring system should maintain a constant focus on the communities that the project serves. This could increase the chance of achieving overall project impact and sustainability of the intervention by involving the communities in monitoring in a way that provides a sense of ownership and ensures the transitionability of the system once the project is ‘handed over’.

Are you serious?

For the majority of development professionals working in the field and juggling the daily responsibilities and challenges that come with managing a development project, scrutinising a monitoring system to this extent may either seem like hogwash or wishful thinking. Either way, in their minds it may have little to do with reality.

And reality, unfortunately, often succumbs to the ailment of actionism, in the sense of little reflected and little planned action with the main aim of showing a track record of delivered activities – constituting progress. Adding the task of evaluating the monitoring system would only add an additional layer of work and divert valuable resources from advancing the track record.

Sow now, harvest later

Keeping monitoring to the required minimum and not evaluating the monitoring system could therefore save hassle and money. This, however, constitutes a short-term thinking perpetuated by the prevailing actionism.

Greater initial investment now, both in terms of money and time, could strengthen the project overall and save more financial resources in the long run while at the same time catering for a system that keeps operational once the project has integrated into the local infrastructure.