One Step Behind, Yet Again

It’s amazing how I feel completely inundated with blog posts and academic papers and policy briefs on moving M&E in a direction that accommodates complexity and systems thinking; embracing adaptive management and political economy analysis (PEA). Only a year ago, what felt like a handful of knowledgeable people testing the waters with some (much needed) discussion on how M&E in development programming needs to change now feels like a bit of a tidal wave. Or maybe it’s only me, because I’m actively looking for information and have gone down a bit of a rabbit hole on adaptive management in development.

The purpose of my recent research project was to find any guidance on what an M&E framework in an adaptive management programme would look like – on paper. There is quite a lot of policy level discussion on what should happen for M&E to be ‘adaptive’ but little practical guidance. For example, there are plenty of tools (both old and new) that can be used, but how do you use them in one combination or other? And the biggest question I have is: how to use all of these tools in combination with the ever-present and always-in-demand-by-donors log frame (or results framework)? Quite the conundrum.

It was only last year that I discovered that many organizations and development actors had only really settled into results-based M&E (i.e. what happened vs what we did). Counting back… that’s 10 years since results-based M&E was being regularly put into practice, and about 15 years on from when results-based management in development more generally was really taking off. Fifteen years is a significant amount of time and, put into context of the global challenges we face (most importantly, climate change and climate adaptation), that is 15 years too long. We don’t have another 15 years – we don’t even have five years – to figure out how to put much needed changes in development programming into practice.

Making M&E adaptive requires system change, and organizational change, and behavioural change amongst development practitioners ourselves. The entire ecosystem of development has been conditioned to break every problem down into smaller problems with linear processes to solve those problems. To be fair, it was a massive step forward in thinking from the ‘give money, feel better about ourselves’ approach that came before it (and the mentality of which still permeates the sector).

Waiting for systems and organizations to change, and hoping that those changes stimulate behavioural change, will take too long. As M&E practitioners we need practical guidance on how to implement the approach of adaptive management and PEA within our current systems. We need less ‘you should think about’ and more ‘do this, like this’; less ‘here are some relevant tools’ and more ‘use this tool for this and that tool for that.’ I’ve started working on this and I’m excited that I will be able to share my results with you soon!

We have to move past the discussion and the testing and the pontificating and move directly into full implementation of M&E tools that support adaptive management. Unless we do so, the M&E field will continue to be one step behind in a changing development environment.


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