Introduction to Decolonising Monitoring & Evaluation
Last night, I presented some ideas on decolonising M&E to a group of practitioners in Barcelona. A Meetup group gathers monthly, and I was invited as a guest speaker - it was an incredible experience to meet so many interesting researchers and M&E consultants in town.
I shared the framework, philosophies, and ideas below, and then we had a participatory discussion about our work. I had asked people to come prepared with their current or upcoming projects or questions so we could have a lively conversation - which it was! Here it is in its entirety - I hope it's useful for you!
What's wrong with the way we do M&E now? Why do we need a new system?
So the way I see it is this - we all share a horrific, racist colonial history. Whether we were colonised or our ancestors did the colonising, those centuries of brutality and enslavement have affected our ‘global world order’.
As a consequence, we now have an unequal world. Many countries are now drained of resources and are thrown into poverty and inequity. Specific races of people and particular regions are profiting from that.
Development work grew out of that as colonisers started aid departments and organisations like the World Bank to try to correct those disgusting crimes. A great book called the Radical History of Development Studies goes into that.
Decolonising development and M&E involves undoing these racist and exclusionary practices, acknowledging the imbalance of power that is now systemic and structural and not as obvious as it used to be.
Decolonising isn’t just about race to me. It’s about gender, age, ableism, language, and culture. It’s about which groups hold power, asking why, and deliberately redistributing it to those they took from. It also involves innovating and keeping up with the times and looking at longer-term, sustainable change.
This is part of a larger issue of what's broken in planning humanitarian or development projects. M&E is closely linked to that.
I also want to acknowledge that the intention underneath all of this is good and noble. We see a world that needs fixing, and we want to be a part of it.
But. We need to decolonise all of it - philanthropy, planning projects, the way NGOs are run. I see four issues with how we are doing M&E - the role of power, exclusionary practices, short-term thinking, and a lack of innovation. And the way to decolonise is basically to do the complete opposite!
The role of race is central here. White saviours, tokenistic practices in INGOs, and the Oxfam scandal all talk about the role of power related to race, gender, class, caste, and religion. Development work began with missionaries forcing Christianity on other countries and people. Structural adjustment programs continued that thinking into the 70s by forcing one way of market economics, one type of politics, everywhere. That power dynamic is still huge.
Aid flows mirror this. Look at where the money comes from and where it goes. M&E and research more broadly are still extractive and done externally by people who have more power and privilege than those they're researching. They often don’t look like these people or speak their language fluently. In the best-case scenario, we live abroad in the capital cities of the places we're working in.
When we do an evaluation, let's be honest most organisations and donors want you to speak to their staff only. How many have ever talked to the finance officer or the programme administrative assistant? It's rare to speak directly to other staff (besides leadership and those with power). Even rarer to talk to the communities or their partners. How many of us have ever used intermediaries or translators instead of hiring local researchers, NGOs, grassroots organisations, and community leaders?
Decolonising then means actively stepping away from this dynamic, asking us who speaks, for how long, who holds power and why. It involves looking at the four 'expressions of control' and how we relate to them. Power with, power over, power to, and power within.
But in practical terms, we need to be quiet and make space for others to talk and determine their own agenda and research needs and methodologies. We need to take our privilege and power and use it to create spaces and opportunities for our communities for grassroots NGOs.
It needs to be community-led, and here are some ways to shift the focus from donor needs and demands to your people. This means asking them directly. What is their role, and what would their ultimate goal be?
Design the projects and m&e methodologies with them. What does success look like for them? How different is that from your project's indicators and results framework? Find some way to balance that, then work backwards to find the right methodologies that can help answer their needs.
Localisation of development is another way. Open up conversations about structural racism and systemic power- within your organisation, with your grantees and communities, and with your donors especially. They hold the most power here, and opening that relationship is a great first step.
Exclusionary Practices and a Lack of Representation
This is closely related to power, but there are slight differences. Here we're talking about how deeply our communities are involved in the projects and m&e - participatory research and organisational practices.
I'm horrified by the number of times I've seen focus groups on a women's rights project led by privileged white men from the implementing NGO. You would think this is obvious, but no. It also relates to the patronising way we look at our relationships with the community.
They are people with power and knowledge of their own, but we talk down to them as if they should be grateful for our work, our 'help'. So this means that we automatically exclude them from designing research and m&e that directly relates to them. We see ourselves as separate, and the data tells a story of how we view ourselves and the community rather than the reality.
Who leads and implements the project, and who participates in M & M&E activities? If you build a project with the community, co-designing it, are they also involved in analysing and evaluating it?
On what basis are you conducting a needs assessment? Whose needs are you really addressing - the people's or your organisation's?
The community and people you are working with and for should not only be at the heart of all your work, but especially M&E. They should also determine the direction and agenda more than your organisation.
They should be. Make sure that these projects are mutually accountable too. You and your work should help support and strengthen local leadership.
Respect people's time. They are not stakeholders, beneficiaries, or end-users. You can't make demands of their time. It involves taking the time to be deliberate with your work.
One way to decolonise is to make fewer trips and visits. Check out the Grand Bargain to learn more about localising development work better.
Try to use your m&e moments for multiple purposes. If done ethically, you can use these in case studies. I run a workshop on ethical and decolonised storytelling.
Share your evaluation back with them, and get their feedback on how you represented them. Use that to build better projects in the future, again with them.
We also treat the work we do as a little too scientific - and we don't really have enough room for the complex social, political, and cultural spaces we work in. This comes from the historical and colonial roots of science and social science.
One example is that we still use pilot programmes. When you think about that, it's an experiment to see if a specific strategy or a certain set of activities can lead to the outcome you want. Real life isn’t like that. Pilot programmes are a little too controlled, too much like a lab.
And the way we do social science research is still related to that. In our ways, we still see the communities we work with as the subjects of our research, not literally putting them under a microscope. Still, in our ways, that's what we're doing.
This kind of thinking also limits our work to the timeframe of a project. Our M&E is just one small portion of it, done at the end of a project and almost always to satisfy a donor demand.
When we do our impact evaluations, let's be honest - how many of us really put that much effort into the lessons learned section? How many of our partners and donors read it? Who writes it? And how many of them implement what we say?
Equity also involves understanding the past systems' roles and how power, wealth, and access are unevenly distributed. A lot more lies behind why women and girls are discriminated against, and a two-year project training teachers isn't addressing it.
Colonisers left behind many class struggles that sub-Saharan Africa is still dealing with. They made the existing caste system in South Asia worse. Decolonising here means unpacking the many-layered issues around girls’ education that a country faces that are systemic - and the inequity in those systems.
Decolonising looks beyond the project's timeline to look deeply at what is broken in the systems of the places you're working in. So your role in a project is to find a way to fix the longer problem.
Plan out all the ways to get there, all the related problems. And build many projects to address that.
In this way, we’re also breaking away from the grant-seeking, capitalistic cycle of development work. We’re not chasing deliverables and making sure we spend everything according to a budget. But we’re thinking more clearly about what needs to change, improve and what we need to do more holistically. It’s similar to how the Millennium Development Goals evolved into the Sustainable Development Goals.
Look beyond the project's scope to find related issues that will have a domino-like effect and create follow-on projects or other related projects that happen simultaneously, which can address the longer-term, structural, systemic problems there.
Lack of Innovation
As development work has evolved, and we are now innovating how we work with people, the places and issues we engage on, and prioritising new strategies, M&E hasn't changed.
Organisations like Frida and youth LGBTQIA2S+ organisations are growing and making their voices heard. There are now networks of movements and organisations working together, where even ten years ago, it was a lot more service delivery.
But we still view data in the same way we did 40 years ago and are sometimes even prioritising quant over qual. Still.
We aren’t always disaggregating data, gathering it in respectful ways. We take one methodology developed decades ago and apply that to every country we work in. Nothing is tailored. It’s all cookie cutter.
From an M&E perspective, what we consider research is based on centuries-old Western values and knowledge systems. Who holds knowledge, what that looks like, and what a legitimate source of data is.
There are a few ways - to keep up with the times! Our industry is old fashioned, so we need to look at new types of NGOs, support movements, support informal NGOs and networks.
Suppose you mix a rights-based approach with a microfinance program, for example. In that case, you're looking at how you can unravel the systems of oppression that keep women from accessing markets.
Let’s get creative about how that would look - how can we use informal communication, and social media, to discuss our project, build trust and earn the respect of our community?
How can we better use 21st-century technologies to do M&E? In emergency contexts, maybe we don’t need a clipboard to do a survey. We can use WhatsApp.
Look at reparations as a key frame - fixing what was wrong before. And correcting that balance through an equitable redistribution of resources and power.
Community-based development and community ownership are also ways to innovate. The design and responsibility of a development project belong as much to the NGO as to the community.
There are also great ways to decolonise by looking at our language. They're not beneficiaries or end-users because that repeats the colonised language. Let's truly empower them by making participatory M&E not a niche topic but the way to do M&E.
We should be designing methodologies with our communities, thinking of new forms of knowledge.
Look at the role of knowledge outside the privileged White, Western space.
We do not share our knowledge with them. Knowledge exists independent of humanity, and we cannot always express it in statistics or quotes. Sometimes knowledge is shared through images, stories, poetry, and art, so we also need to innovate the research methodologies we use - sometimes even advocating for mixed methods approaches is revolutionary enough!
Three Points In Time
My framework looks at three points in time and the challenges of our work at each moment. We need to look back at our past and acknowledge honestly and transparently what happened. To us, to others, and what the colonisers did. This leads us to a framework of restorative justice and power, correcting the atrocities.
Then we look at our present and respect and acknowledge how these manifest in the distribution of power today. We need to respect that colonialism ruined a lot of economies and countries and has led to the current global order where largely one group of people holds all of it. We need to accept that this is how the world looks and also say that that's wrong.
And then look to the future and imagine how we want it to change and look. What is the kind of climate we want to live in? How do we live with other people in peace? How can we take care of our planet? the animals, and other species on it? What new ideas, inclusive policies, and new ways of living do we need to adopt? And let's start moving towards that vision.
I also look at some key principles and philosophies for decolonisation in development, aid, and humanitarian work.
justice - restorative
kindness and respect
Let's take a WASH project, building wells and water treatment facilities in a rural village in Tanzania. Assuming it's been designed by white men and women in London for a project implemented in Tanzania. What do they know of the people's reality? Where is that reality represented in the proposal?
The NGO has shared a proposal with the donor. They're the ones evaluating it. They will travel a few times a year, measure if the well works, determine if the services are being used by criteria they identified many months ago, take photos, and leave.
The best-case scenario I've seen in large NGOs is that they work with a local implementing partner. But these groups don't get most of the grant money. At best, they are not consulted in writing the proposal or reports and are involved as intermediaries in the M&E.
The people directly involved and impacted by your work are not designing it. They're doing the hard work, and the INGO takes the credit through a larger paycheck and names on the report. They're not the communities themselves, but they're not the community, but they would be better.