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8 Ways to Digitize Your MERL Practices During COVID-19 Response

By Guest Writer on April 9, 2020

covid19 merl tech

All of a sudden you’re stuck at home because of the new coronavirus.  You’re looking at your monitoring and evaluation commitments and your programme requirements and you’re thinking:

  • Do we put all our M&E efforts on hold?
  • Postpone research until the coronavirus threat has passed?
  • Think about learning once everything goes back to normal?
  • Or is there a way to still get MERL done now?

Here are 8 ways you can adapt your M&E for COVID-19 Digital Response. These ideas are ways you can stay on track, and maybe even improve your MERL Tech practices, even in the middle of a lockdown:

1. Make Phone Call Interviews

Do you have any household assessments or baseline surveys or post-distribution monitoring that you had planned in the next 1 to 3 months? Is there a way that you can carry out these interviews by phone or WhatsApp calls?

This is the easiest and most direct way to carry on with your current M&E plan.  Instead of doing these interviews face-to-face, just get them on a call.  I’ve created a Humanitarian’s Phone Call Interview Checklist to help you prepare for doing phone call interviews.  Here are a few things you need to think through to transition to a phone-call methodology:

  1. You need phone numbers and names of people that need to be surveyed. Do you have these?  Or is there a community leader who might be able to help you get these?
  2. You also need to expect that a LOT of people may not answer their phone. So instead of “sampling” people for a survey, you might want to just plan on calling almost everyone on that list.
  3. Just like for a face-to-face interview, you need to know what you’re going to say. So you need to have a script ready for how you introduce yourself and ask for consent to do a phone questionnaire.  It’s best to have a structured interview questionnaire that you follow for every phone call, just like you would in a face-to-face assessment.
  4. You also need to have a way to enter data as you ask the questions. This usually depends on what you’re most comfortable with – but I recommend preparing an ODK or KoboToolbox questionnaire, just like you would for an in-person survey, and filling it out as you do the interview over the phone.  I find it easiest to enter the data into KoboToolbox “Webform” instead of the mobile app, because I can type information faster into my laptop rather than thumb-type it into a mobile device.  But use what you have!
  5. If you’re not comfortable in KoboToolbox, you could also prepare an Excel sheet for directly entering answers.  Be warned that this will probably require a lot more data cleaning later on.
  6. When you’re interviewing, it’s usually faster to type down the answers in the language you’re interviewing in. If you need your final data collection to be in English, go back and do the translation after you’ve hung up the phone.
  7. If you want a record of the interview, ask if you can record the phone call. When the person says yes, then just record it so you can go back and double check an answer if you need to.
  8. Very practically – if you’re doing lots of phone calls in a day, it is easier on your arm and your neck if you use a headset instead of holding your phone to your ear all day!

2. Collect Videos & Photos Directly

When you’re doing any in-person MEAL activities, you’re always able to observe evidence. You can look around and see impact, you don’t just hear it through an interview or group discussion.  But when you’re doing M&E remotely, you can’t double-check to see what impact really looks like.  So I recommend:

  1. Connect with as many beneficiaries and team members as possible through WhatsApp or another communication app and collect photos and videos of evidence directly from them.
  2. Video – Maybe someone has a story of impact they can share with you through video. Or if you’re overseeing a Primary Health Care clinic, perhaps you can have a staff member walk you through the clinic with a video so you can do a remote assessment.
  3. Pictures – Maybe you can ask everyone to send you a picture of (for example) their “handwashing station with soap and water” (if you’re monitoring a WASH programme). Or perhaps you want evidence that the local water point is functioning.

3. Do Remote Final Evaluations

It’s a good practice to do a final evaluation review when you reach the end of a programme.  If you have a programme finishing in the next 1-3 months, and you want to do a final review to assess lessons learned overall, then you can also do this remotely!

  1. Make a list of all the stakeholders that would be great to talk to. Staff members, a few beneficiaries, government authorities (local and/or national), other NGOs, coordination groups, partner organisations, local community leaders.
  2. Then go in search of either their phone numbers, their email addresses, their Skype accounts, or their WhatsApp numbers and get in touch.
  3. It’s best if you can get on a video chat with as many of them as possible.  It’s much more personal and easy to communicate if you can see one another’s faces! But if you can just talk with audio – that’s okay too.
  4. Prepare a semi-structured interview, a list of questions you want to talk through about the impact, what went well, what could have gone better. And if there’s anything interesting that comes up, don’t worry about coming up with some new questions on the spot . Or skipping questions that don’t make sense in the context.
  5. You can also gather together any monitoring reports/analysis that was done on the project throughout its implementation period. Get any pictures of the interventions you can, too.
  6. Use all this information to create a final “lessons learned” evaluation document. This is a fantastic way to continually improve the way you do humanitarian programming.

4. Adapt Focus Group Discussions

If everyone is at home because your country has imposed a lockdown, it will be very difficult to do a focus group discussion because… you can’t be in groups!  So, with your team decide if it might be better to switch your monitoring activity from collecting qualitative data in group discussions to actually just having one-on-one interviews on the phone with several people to collect the same information.

There are some dynamics that you will miss in one-to-one interviews, information that may only come out during group discussions. (Especially where you’re collecting sensitive or “taboo” data.) Identify what that type of information might be – and either skip those types of questions for now, or brainstorm how else you could collect the information through phone-calls.

5. Adapt Key Informant Interviews

If you normally carry out Key Informant Interviews, it would be a great idea to think what “extra” questions you need to ask this month in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

  1. If you normally ask questions around your programme sector areas, think about just collecting a few extra data points about feelings, needs, fears, and challenges that are a reality in light of Covid-19. Are people facing any additional pressures due to the epidemic? Or are there any new humanitarian needs right now? Are there any upcoming needs that people are anticipating?
  2. It goes without saying that if your Key Informant Interviews are normally in person, you’ll want to carry these out by phone for the foreseeable future!

6. Reassess Third Party Monitoring

Some programmes and donors use Third Party Monitors to assess their programme results independently.  If you normally hire third party monitors, and you’ve got some third party monitoring planned for the next 1-3 months, you need to get on the phone with this team and make a new plan. Here are a few things you might want to think through with your third party monitors:

  1. Can the third party carry out their monitoring by phone, in the same ways I’ve outlined above?
  2. But also think through – is it worth it to get a third party monitor to assess results remotely? Is it better to postpone their monitoring?  Or is it worth it to carry on regardless?
  3. What is the budget implication? If cars won’t be used, is there any cost-savings?  Is there any additional budget they’ll need for air-time costs for their phones?
  4. Make sure there is a plan to gather as much photo and video evidence as possible (see point 2 above!)
  5. If they’re carrying out phone call interviews it would also be a good recommendation to record phone calls if possible and with consent, so you have the records if needed.

7. Manage Expectations

You probably didn’t predict that a global pandemic would occur in the middle of your project cycle and throw your entire plan off.  Go easy on yourself and your team!  It is most likely that the results you’d planned for might not end up being achieved this year.  Your donors know this because they’re probably also on lockdown.

You can’t control the pandemic, but you can control your response.  So proactively manage your own expectations, your manager’s expectations and your donor’s expectations.

  1. Get on a Skype or Zoom call with the project managers and review each indicator of your M&E plan. In light of the pandemic, what indicator targets will most likely change?
  2. Look through the baseline numbers in your M&E plan – is it possible that the results at the END of your project might be worse than even your baseline numbers? For example, if you have a livelihoods project, it is possible that income and livelihoods will be drastically reduced by a country-wide lockdown.  Or are you running an education programme?  If schools have been closed, then will a comparison to the baseline be possible?
  3. Once you’ve done a review of your M&E plan, create a very simple revised plan that can be talked through with your programme donor.

8. Talk to Your Donors Now

When you’re on the phone with your donors, don’t only talk about revised programme indicators.

  1. Also talk about a revised timeframe. Is there any flexibility on the programme timeframe, or deadlines for interim reporting on indicators? What are their expectations?
  2. Also talk about what you CAN do remotely. Discuss with them the plan you have for carrying on everything possible that can be done remotely.
  3. And don’t forget to discuss financial implications of changes to timeframe.

By Janna, an aid worker, engineer, mom, wife, and self-declared data-lover! Her mission is to connect with every field worker in the world to help the humanitarian sector use information management and technology to make aid faster and more accountable. She originally published this post as 8 Ways to Adapt your M&E during the Pandemic 

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7 Comments to “8 Ways to Digitize Your MERL Practices During COVID-19 Response”

  1. Ayesigye Jordan says:

    Thanks Janna,
    This is a game changer.

  2. Janna says:

    Thank you Ayesigye.

  3. Maria Tsvere says:

    My name is Professor Maria Tsvere, responsible for staff development at Chinhoyi University of Technology in Zimbabwe. We have been teaching using chalk and talk mainly and sharing resources with students using such ICTs as E-learning Portals and e-library.
    Our University had to close because of the Covid-19 just like any other University in the region. This gave us an awakening call- the need to teach remotely. We had just started the first Semester.
    Now we need to up-skill our members of staff on how to teach remotely using ICT tools.I need assistance, ideas, resources etc. Please assist me.

  4. James Gunn says:

    Thanks Janna – you’ve packed in a lot practical suggestions

  5. Maria Tsvere says:

    Thank you so much. Let me go through this resource and use what I can for our situation.

  6. Maria Tsvere says:

    I am not getting to the 8 ways. I am getting stuck at this point. Please send me the link again

  7. Maria Tsvere says:

    Found it. Thanks. They are helpful indeed. Thank you