Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Monitoring and evaluation in partnerships: why learning comes first

Guest post: Andre Ling, Research Officer/Technical Assistance with the Agricultural Learning and Impacts Network (ALINe) at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

The Impact and Learning Team and the ALINe project members share insights and good practice during bi-monthly Learning Labs, an afternoon of learning and reflection framed by our project work and esearch questions. Andre shares his reflections in this blog post.

Last week's Learning Lab with the Impact and Learning Team (ILT) touched on two topics that are probably relevant to just about all actors involved in development processes: partnerships and sustainability. Both are buzzwords, frequently used and misused, open to a range of interpretations and often obscuring the hard realities that confront development practice.

This post looks specifically at 'partnership' and what approaches to monitoring and evaluation (M&E) may be most appropriate in a partnership context.

The term 'partnership' frequently glosses over the complexity of inter-organisational relationships:
  • The many reasons for which organisations find themselves in a partnership to begin with
  • The power asymmetries inherent in the common model of grantor-grantees that defines many partnerships
  • The different interests, values or ideological positions of partners
  • The specific organisational development needs of different partners

Image from: http://www.ramsar.org
The prevalence of such factors can lead one to the conclusion that most partnerships are marriages of convenience as those joining in such ventures do so largely to serve their own interests. But, at the same time, it barely deserves mentioning that an individual actor can do little to address the complex problems of our times.

So how do we go on together honestly? How do we make partnerships work?

And what kind of M&E makes sense in partnership contexts?

To begin with, taking stock of power asymmetries within the partnership and mapping out the divergent interests, values, worldviews, spheres of concern and needs of partner organisations may be a good place to start. Often the leading agency in a partnership (usually a grant-maker of sorts) will have goals of achieving some kind of systemic change. The other partners (frequently grantees) may be more concerned with implementing specific activities to contribute to more localised changes and be less comfortable with confronting systemic change. Such a divergence creates a critical disjuncture, resulting in the leading agency wanting to make changes in the other partners; to make them see the same way. Failure to engage with this rift in a sensitive manner can lead to a variety of problems, for example low trust and limited ownership.

One response is, perhaps, to establish a joint M&E framework; a system of indicators and reporting requirements that can be deployed to ensure that all organisations are 'on the same page' and are held accountable to achieving desired outcomes in a standardised way. The danger here is that compliance and standardisation – both power mechanisms – ride roughshod over what might be considered the more crucial goal: learning how to work together effectively to achieve mutually desired change.

This is not to dismiss the contribution of joint M&E frameworks but rather to put them in their rightful place as servants of learning (individual, organisational or institutional) rather than formalities implemented for their own sake. To clarify, the point is that learning encompasses a far wider set of practices and activities than what usually goes by the name of M&E and, furthermore, that regular M&E is not a sufficient pre-condition for learning to take place. Just think of all the evaluation reports that have been shelved and forgotten.

An emphasis on learning prior to M&E opens the door to a potentially more diverse set of tools, techniques and practices that can be used to (a) build relationships of mutual trust; (b) reveal and question entrenched assumptions; (c) share and cultivate more systemic ways of thinking about the nature of the problems that the partnership is seeking to tackle.

This can prepare the ground for co-creating an M&E system that is both oriented toward learning and situated within a partnership culture that is supportive of learning. A significant consideration here is that this means taking the partnership itself as a unit of analysis to be monitored, evaluated and learned from and through over time.