Monitoring, evaluation and learning: why it’s an activist’s best friend

Why is Gender & Development focusing on monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) this issue? Editor Caroline Sweetman explains how gender sensitive MEL can support women’s empowerment as well as reporting on it.

Gender & Development turns 21 this year, and we’re celebrating by looking at a really hot topic: monitoring, evaluation and learning. There’s no mistake here – though on the face of it, MEL may sound like a somewhat dry, technical topic, it is in fact profoundly political. MEL helps development organisations get better at what they do, understand
their work more deeply, and take their donors and supporters with them as they learn.  In the words of my colleague Kimberly Bowman, Gender and MEL adviser for Oxfam, ‘A good MEL system is an activist’s best friend.’

This issue of Gender & Development features a unique and unequalled range of different views by authors who’ve all been involved in MEL from a gender equality and women’s rights perspective. The articles here are powerful and useful taken
individually, but appearing as a collection they enable development policymakers and practitioners to compare a wide array of experiences and gain real insight into state-of-the-art approaches to gender-transformative MEL. 

We’re in an era of austerity spending in the Global North and tracking and reporting the impact of development programming in the Global South is a priority at the time of writing.  Resources available for development fall far short of what is needed, and northern governments and development organisations are keener than ever to use their resources as efficiently as possible. 

Donors want hard evidence of quick wins and magic bullets… MEL is a sensitive area

A good MEL approach helps provide value for money, but feminists emphasise the ‘value’ part of this phrase: successful work to support women’s rights and gender equality requires time and sustained support. Yet donors want hard evidence of quick wins and magic bullets:  in this light, MEL is a sensitive area. It’s obviously to be hoped that MEL will reveal a good news story of how helpful development projects are to women in their daily lives, and in their struggles for equality and justice. Yet the full story is often more complex than this,
with lessons to be learned about the need for modest aims in development, difficulties in attribution, and sometimes some horror stories, for example  when women give the thumbs-down to projects which have proved more of a hindrance than a help to them.  

Gendered approaches to MEL emphasise the importance of seeking out women’s and girls’ own analyses of development and its impact on their lives. ‘This development project has not been a backbone to support women here, it’s been a “throatbone” which is choking us,’ a woman told me in 1997 in a village in North Wollo, Ethiopia.  She was speaking of a big rural development project, designed without much input from women and yet claiming to ’empower’ them – in terms they didn’t understand or recognise themselves. MEL
can provide feminists with the evidence they need to advocate for thoughtful, well-planned development which involves women and girls at every stage, and focuses on the social and political aspects of empowerment as well as the economic.

MEL can provide feminists with the evidence they need to advocate for thoughtful, well-planned development which involves women and girls at every stageIn this issue, Paola Pereznieto and Georgia Taylor of the UK Overseas Development Institute present findings from a review of 70 evaluations of
development interventions that aimed to support the economic empowerment of women and girls. Critically, they define economic empowerment as a process whereby women and girls experience transformation in power, agency and economic advancement. By moving beyond the ubiquitous, narrower understanding of economic empowerment as purely and simply concerned with income generation, this study is a must-read. 

A range of articles here help development practitioners to ‘square the circle’ in terms of managing the pressure to report on results with drawing on women’s own perceptions of their lives and gender power relations. Often these approaches use ‘mixed’ – qualitative and quantitative – research methods with the aim of empowering women as they are used.

Womankind Worldwide, CARE and Oxfam are just three of the organisations sharing their learning in this issue on how best to do this.

Development organisations of all kinds should be looking for the best value for money for marginalised people. But it is important that this is done in a way that recognises the scope of the changes that are needed. It is also important that spending is targeted in ways that genuinely support women living in poverty to challenge inequality in social and political arenas as well as in the marketplace.
MEL can be used to help do this responsibly and well, by holding our own organisations to account, and contributing to knowledge that will provide a foundation for better work in future. And all this, in ways which empower rather than disempower women themselves, and their organisations in the Global South. Lessons learned from the fit – or lack of fit – between projects and people’s realities can be used to develop future initiatives that are more relevant, more sophisticated and savvy in their ambition.

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Author: Caroline Sweetman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.