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Peeling back the Mask: Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) for Policy Influence and Advocacy

The world officially began the implementation of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in January 2016. The 17 SDGs are set to address urgent global challenges over the next 15 years (United Nations, 2016)[1]. To realise the desired outcomes, a rigorous monitoring and evaluation of the achievements of SDGs is paramount. Policy influence and advocacy is one important component for the achievement of these development results. It deals with the “software” elements of development interventions, a vital ingredient to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.

“Policy influence and advocacy is an intervention intended to catalyse, stimulate or otherwise seed some form of change through different form of persuasion” (Start and Hovland, 2004).

Such interventions are intended to contribute to the achievement of practice, policy and behavioural changes in society. However, this sector is not devoid of challenges which make it rather unique. There is a section of practitioners who regard this sector as complex to monitor and evaluate. This complexity is usually attributed to the way in which dynamism and uncertainty surrounds the realisation of results/outcomes. Some argue that it is further catalysed by the lack of universal indicators (in some instances). This calls for creativity and innovation to track results of interventions of policy influence and advocacy in nature. Arguing from the standpoint of complexity, I propose the following approaches to configure MEL for policy influence and advocacy interventions.

Framing of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning for Policy Influence and Advocacy

When it comes to framing a sustainable MEL system for an organisation engaged in advocacy related interventions, it’s critical to answer the following questions: What is the impact of your intervention? What is the purpose of MEL for your organisation? Who is your MEL audience?  Which MEL approach best maximises results for you? The answers to these questions are the cornerstone for designing a sustainable MEL system for any intervention. It is also very important to understand the theoretical underpinning of MEL for your organisation.

Policy influence and advocacy interventions in Africa are faced with the challenge of shrinking political space especially for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). This among others in many instances has frustrated efforts geared at the achievement of concrete policy changes. For smaller organisations, MEL framing is even more worrying in that there are no clear boundaries for MEL work. This is a survival approach to MEL with significant backlash in harvesting results, typical of most southern CSOs.

Applying complexity-aware methods in Policy Influence and Advocacy

What is the nature of complexity? What is the degree of certainty? What is the dynamism of the situation in which actors and factors change? These and many others are questions critical of ascertaining the level of convolution of an intervention, indicative of a possible application of complexity-aware methods. The application of complexity-aware monitoring is appropriate especially for aspects of strategies/projects where cause and effect relationships are poorly understood, hence making it difficult to identify solutions and draft detailed implementation plans in advance[2]. This is typical of most advocacy interventions. Results sometimes overly delay and occur further downstream with weak linkages to the contribution of the intervention and onward to the outcome. A complex system is characterised by a large number of interacting and interdependent elements in which there is no central control[3]. There are a number of complexity-aware approaches to address such scenarios. This includes, inexhaustibly: Outcome harvesting; Contribution tracing; Sentinel indicators; Most Significant Change; Stakeholders’ Feedback; and Process Monitoring of Impact. With complexity, no one single approach can be singled out as the ultimate solution. Based on the context, adapting a mixed approach would best maximise results. Whenever faced with a substantial level of uncertainty, dynamism and unpredictability, one needs to be complexity-aware in the harvesting of results.

Measuring Results for Policy Influence and Advocacy

When it comes to interventions of policy influence and advocacy nature, there is significant unpredictability of what should be done and what the results will be. This poses challenges in the measuring and harvesting of results. This calls for careful crafting of indicators which are easy to measure. A specific, measurable, and observable sign of progress used to determine whether a programme/project is on its way to achieving its goals. When chosen carefully, an indicator provides an alert when the project is going as planned or off-track and signals when important changes are (or are not) occurring.

In areas such as tax justice campaigns, there are no global indicators for measuring progress of interventions. Whereas scattered indicators may exist in other closely related sectors, there is need to come up with standardised global indicators for measuring results. This calls for collaborative efforts among donors and other stakeholders (such as CSOs) across the globe to initiate debates to standardise indicators and increase efficiency and effectiveness when hunting for results. This shall further reduce the overly hyped complexity claim associated with interventions of policy influence and advocacy nature.

Invest in MEL work

Resourcing and maintaining MEL systems is very key for the success of any organisation. It’s a decision of yesterday and not today! “Milking the cow you did not feed” is the old adage, a common situation within the CSO sector. There is the tendency of establishing a unit and yet failing to support it to perform its duty. This ‘conspiracy’ by some management teams and sections of the donor community is only there to add salt to injury. It’s a time bomb waiting to explode. There will come a time when institutional growth will force the deliberate investment in MEL. An investment in MEL today is an investment in the future of the organisation. There are three key strategic factors to consider for a sustainable investment in MEL: Funding MEL work; Leadership for MEL and Adequate staff capacity for MEL.

Why is it still difficult to convince donors to invest in MEL work? Of what use is it for a donor to ask for outcomes without investing in the processes that can help track results post-implementation? The implementation life-cycle is never complete without monitoring and evaluation of the interventions. The phrase ‘evidence- based advocacy’ is very common in the policy influence and advocacy sector. If evidence is that important to trigger a behavioural or policy change, then the same can be said of outcome of an intervention. Evidence of contribution claim in the form of outcomes harvested is one sure proof of the relevance of that intervention. Among the not-for profit, MEL usually relies on project and unrestricted funding.  This hampers innovative approaches to automate MEL in the improvement of efficiency and effectiveness. In policy influence and advocacy, the interventions are usually of an engagement nature with policy makers or a target group to influence a policy change. Such interventions might take long for results to be realised. This ‘results drought’ can not only be attributed to the complexity and the dynamic environment of policy engagement but also the obstinacy of certain donors to see the need for post- event tracking. This in other words is a call to all stakeholders to invest in MEL work. Let’s challenge ourselves irrespective of the size of our organisation or budget to allocate a certain portion of the annual budget for MEL work, it is a worthy investment. The rule of thumb should be that 10 per cent of every project cost be allocated to strengthening and enriching MEL work.

In conclusion, much as complexities exist within the policy influence and advocacy sector, there is a simple way on how to solve this problem. When designing a MEL system for such an organisation, efforts should be invested in framing MEL, applicability of complexity-aware methodologies and investing in MEL to enhance its ability to measure results. This is only possible with the leadership support of the institution, resourcing for MEL and ensuring that there is adequate capacity to perform this function.


This blogpost was drafted by Reagan Ronald Ojok,the MEAL Officer at Tax Justice Network Africa.

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[2] Discussion Note, Complexity-Aware Monitoring. Version 2.0, Dec 2013



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