Snail’s Faith: on M&E and the pace of change


Things get better slowly. Achingly, painfully, snails-race-past slowly. They got better slowly in the US. As Chris Blattman recently pointed out, Andrew Jackson was a child soldier and genocidaire. My parents were married in 1969. If my mom hadn’t insisted on finishing her graduate work first, they would have needed to choose their wedding location with care. Anti-miscegenation laws weren’t eliminated in the US until 1967.

Things get better slowly in development. Sometimes at a speed invisible to the naked eye. Often at a speed invisible to our careers. That’s why we do monitoring and evaluation; it’s meant to catch the accretion of tiny changes that will eventually add up to something that matters. You don’t need to be able to see it when you have numbers to track it.

Of course, not all projects have M&E that works. Sometimes you’re tracking the wrong stuff, and you don’t capture slow change. Sometimes you’re not doing a very good job of tracking anything. That doesn’t mean the intervention isn’t working; it just means your M&E isn’t working. Sometimes it’s not working because it’s not well designed, and sometimes it’s not working because the trade-offs aren’t worth it.

Sometimes you stand there, throwing rocks down a well with no visible change. Just plop, plop, plop. Then, all at once, the water overflows in a big splash. You can’t see that with your naked eye, and the wrong kind of M&E will only capture how many rocks you’ve thrown, not the infinitesimal increases in the water level. But sometimes paying the money to measure the water level means you can’t afford enough rocks to throw.

Look at gay equality in the US. Years and years of discrimination and abuse. Court cases that went nowhere. Change that didn’t come. And then, apparently out of the blue, equality started winning. Now we’ve got gay marriage in Iowa. What do you measure to capture that slow change? The number of failed legislative efforts is a meaningless number; it’s not like you get to 139 and you’re done. Incredibly detailed public opinion polling would catch it, but that’s serious money. Money you could spend on strategic litigation instead.

You need to believe in your theory of change if you can’t measure what you need to.

That’s an act of faith. Faith is what we’re left with when M&E can’t answer our questions. Faith is a tricky thing. It can get you Freedom Riders or the Mayan apocalypse. You should save your faith for when it’s deserved. But it is, occasionally, deserved. Sometimes we just hang have to in there.


(PS: this one’s for you, Danielle)

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