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Can Monitoring Drive a MERL-Led Future?

By Guest Writer on December 25, 2015

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Angus Deaton, the economist and noted aid critic, was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. In a speech following the award, AFP News reported that Deaton expressed “great sadness regarding the enormous amount of money spent on aid in Africa, [and that] very little had gone to data collection, so there was little information on its benefit.”

Last month, I drafted a monitoring and evaluation proposal focused on assisting an organization in incorporating IT tools to monitor a new initiative. At least I thought it was an M&E proposal. Then I attended MERL Tech, a one-day conference for those in the international development and aid industry who are using technology to increase the impact of monitoring, evaluation, research and learning in development. It was a fantastic experience and brought together some of the foremost minds to consider how we continue to develop as a profession.

After attending the conference, I have come to appreciate that I am flawed in my ways and neglected to incorporate 50 percent of MERL into my proposal. Namely, I failed to give research and learning a much-deserved place at the evaluator’s table. Following the conference, I had an opportunity to correct this oversight. Again, I found myself working on a proposal, this time for a client interested in monitoring its programs using an information management system. I gave it my best shot. Sadly, my proposal still didn’t contain a single mention of MERL — just plain old M&E.

To be sure, I’m a convert and believe research and learning are an integral part of the development and aid agenda. My struggle is that many organizations, and probably even most, are still trying to get the M right in MERL.

Monitoring is perhaps the most complex function confronting organizations. Monitoring data provides information that staff and partners use to make important day-to-day decisions that improve program and organizational performance. Not only that, monitoring is also fundamental to the rest of MERL, or, in this case ERL. Without the systems in place to capture, store and review monitoring data, what can we possibly hope to learn from our programs?

The issue Deaton addressed in his Nobel speech is the same issue monitoring looks to solve. It’s not easy though. Monitoring entails complex tasks, such as the use of tech-heavy data collection tools and frameworks for standardizing indicators across activities. In short, it’s difficult for individual projects. When scaled across an organization there are additional complexities, such as ensuring partners and donors have the same understanding of indicators, who is tasked with reporting information and finally how data will be disseminated or used.

At the MERL Tech conference, what stood out for me was seeing organizations that were focused on addressing a single part of MERL. This included tools for data collection and storage and real-time analysis. As for the ERL, it wasn’t as clear what products and organizations were bringing to address these challenges. There’s probably a reason for that. As an industry, we’re only starting to grasp some of the basics of monitoring and much of ERL requires good monitoring data.

To quote the 1989 masterpiece “Field of Dreams,” “If you build it, he will come.” In this case, what we need to build is better monitoring systems, which lead to better data. With better data comes an increased opportunity for researchers to assess impact and build on our work, and in time, convey lessons and improve programming.

Investing into monitoring and data collection will allow us to realize the full vision of a MERL; it’s the Field of Dreams equivalent of building a baseball field on a farm in Iowa so that Shoeless Joe Jackson will get to come back and play ball. It’s aspirational. It requires faith that the data we’re collecting is valuable and will be used to improve our programs and further our missions.

Michael Klein is a director of International Solutions Group and is a member of ALNAP, Washington Evaluators, and the American Evaluation Association.

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