Ten Common Monitoring and Evaluation Mistakes

As you may have noticed, monitoring and evaluation is a topic near to my heart. One thing I’ve noticed is that we repeat the same errors, over and over and over. I’ll elaborate on these in my next three posts, but for now, I will tease you with some lists:

The Top Three Monitoring and Evaluation Mistakes Experienced NGOs Make

  1. Using the same indicators they’ve always used, even as projects change
  2. Too much evaluation, not enough monitoring
  3. Leaving M&E up to the M&E team

The Top Three M&E Mistakes New NGOs make

  1. Choosing really great indicators that are nearly impossible to measure
  2. Confusing a program with an RCT
  3. Focusing on the donor’s data needs when choosing indicators

The Top Four M&E Mistakes Everyone Makes

  1. Too many indicators
  2. Not focusing on data use
  3. Too many process indicators, not enough impact indicators
  4. The IKEA effect


(photo credit: tgkohn)

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)

photo credit

Things I don’t believe in #3 – Most Kinds of Evaluation

Most forms of monitoring and evaluation annoy me. Instead of serving their true – and vital – functions, they are pro forma decorations created externally and staple-gunned onto a project once it’s already been designed. Usually a clean-looking table featuring a timeline and a list of indicators they plan to measure. I loathe those tables, for a lot of reasons.

Monitoring and evaluation are not the same thing. The purpose of monitoring is to observe your program as you do it, and make sure you’re on the right track. The purpose of evaluation is to determine whether you are meeting your goals. These should not be confused.

Let’s use a hypothetical project. Say you’re trying to reduce infant mortality rates among young mothers in rural Bangladesh. That’s your goal. You need to start by defining your terms. What’s a mother? Just women with children, or pregnant women too? And exactly how old is young? So, decide you want to work with pregnant women and women with young children, and they must be under the age of 25. How do you want to keep these children alive? You decide to teach young mothers how to take care of sick children, and how to prepare nutritious food.

Your monitoring should make sure you’re reaching as many young mothers as possible. It should make sure that your educational efforts are well-done include accurate information. It should make sure you’re reaching young mothers, and not grandparents or childless women. Are you actually doing the stuff you said you would? Are you doing it well? That’s monitoring.

Evaluation is about whether you’re reaching your goal. You could be doing great education on children’s health and nutrition. Your young mothers could love your trainings, and lots and lots and lots of them could attend them. Your trainings could be amazing. But improving mothers’ knowledge may not actually decrease infant deaths. That’s what your evaluation will tell you – if your program actually achieving your goal.

What do these questions have to do with the neat little table on page 17 of your proposal? Very little. Monitoring, to be useful, needs to be constant. It can be based on very simple numbers. How many teachers/doctors/lawyers/mothers have you trained? Are the trainings still attracting participants? When your master trainers observe trainings, do they still like them?

Once you start getting answers to these questions, you need to use them. That’s why it’s better if managers collect monitoring data themselves. If participants don’t like your trainings, find out why, and fix it. If you’re not training enough people, maybe you’re not scheduling enough trainings, or maybe you’re not attracting enough participants. Monitoring is like biofeedback. Observe. Measure. Make your changes.

Evaluation happens less often. You’re not going to see impact in a month, maybe not in a year. Annually is usually often enough for evaluation, and you can get an outsider to do it. The important thing about evaluation is that your team needs to believe in it. If you get to the second year of your project, the project your team loves and you’ve given your blood and sweat to it, and the evaluation says it is not having any impact – your heart breaks into a million pieces. It is tempting and easy to simply decide the evaluation is wrong and keep wasting money on a project which just doesn’t work. You need a rock-solid evaluation you can trust so that if it tells you to change everything, you actually will.

(photo credit: leo.prie.to, chosen because I have no idea what it means)