The tools, on their own, do not make the difference

by Dagny Skarwan

The need to carry out an evaluation in order to discover what results have been achieved by an intervention is appreciated by organisations, projects and the teams responsible for implementing them. In turn, monitoring is often linked to accountability, generally through a weekly or annual report.

Moreover, in the field of NGOs, monitoring is usually understood as reporting activities, in other words, accounting for everything that has been done, within a set period, in relation to the operational plan.

Even when projects have a logical framework or results matrix, and even when they have developed a theory of change, it is not unusual for organisations and local teams to be surprised by the instruments they come across when they start getting involved in participatory monitoring of outcomes and impacts. In this type of monitoring, I usually help teams reflect on how outcomes are measured, how impacts can be recognised and measured, and -from there- recognise the different contributions of the project. Questions also arise concerning the purposes of monitoring that go beyond the need of a project coordinator to provide accountability, and include questions such as where to start when monitoring a project and how to know when it is the right moment to do so.

In my work with NGO technical teams, we discuss how monitoring has to signify more than just accountability and reporting to donors. Its core purpose has to entail learning through generating, analysing and comparing information and data for decision-making.

When I share with them that monitoring should also be participatory, they generally agree on a conceptual level. However, when I suggest that participatory monitoring begins at the planning stage, I usually receive looks of astonishment. If teams are to carry out participatory monitoring of outcomes and impacts in a meaningful way, we have to start with the premise that in participatory monitoring, the participation begins with each person committing to the process and taking on a role, rather than leaving it up to a monitoring specialist or coordinator.

The “participatory” aspect therefore refers to the technical staff of the project exercising their capacity to facilitate processes of reflection with communities, groups and individuals so that these are the ones who determine the objectives. In my understanding, participatory monitoring is monitoring that empowers and should therefore be standard in all organisations, or at the very least in those that are created with, and practise, a rights-based approach and who are keen to foster new qualities of dialogue and democratic interaction. In the same vein, we can ask ourselves if it is even possible to achieve individual or social structure empowerment if the NGOs and their projects, rather than the involved actors, make all the decisions starting from the initial project planning, through to its evaluation. How can this empowerment happen if the NGOs are the ones to decide what changes should be made within the target groups.

Participatory monitoring encourages democratic relationships and a culture of reflection. For the target groups and involved actors, the information generated is useful for self-evaluation and decision-making concerning changes that they hope to achieve. It also includes learning to make decisions and committing oneself to action either alone or together with members of a group.

Developing a baseline can be something of an awakening for a project team, it is a good way to validate a project strategy and lay the foundations of a participatory monitoring of outcomes and impacts system. An important conceptual aspect is the integration of the “grassroots” perspective in the logical framework and in the organisation’s monitoring system.

Now that we have discussed the concept and the agreements on the principles of the participatory monitoring approach, we can move on to present some specific tools included in the NGO-IDEAs Toolbox.

These tools can be adapted to the topic, context and group of actors, helping the same target groups, partners or beneficiaries take an active role in planning and formulating their objectives, as well as regularly measuring and analysing if they have met their own goals.

Methodologically and operationally, monitoring can become a valuable tool to complement daily work processes. People discover this when they are introduced to the tools and also to questions that seek to clarify the type of skills that we need in order to be able to facilitate these processes. Here, an increase of self-evaluation among the actors is key as monitoring is no longer just another project function, but is rather part of our responsibility before our donors and target groups to achieve objectives.

It is a significant moment when we move from an initial reaction of astonishment to practise using and applying some of the tools, such as the Collective Change tool. This tool helps people arrive at their own horizons of change with -and in- a group, within a collective that shares some common features.

The underlying reason for this tool is that often in projects, we work in groups, we put groups together, we divide larger groups into smaller ones, and yet, the people in these groups may well not get the opportunity to discover what aims or interests they have in common, and neither do they get the chance to establish objectives for change.

Participatory monitoring begins right there with the members of a group reflecting on that which they have in common and so there is a certain interest in pursuing a goal, in harnessing the energy of the group to bring about some changes, starting from a common vision and setting objectives.

On their own, the tools do not make the difference. Another time, I would like to share more with you about the tools, the ways they can be used, their versatility and the results that can make the difference for change management.

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