Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is an important part of building both accountability and a learning process into the development program from the beginning, both within and between communities and organizations. M&E should be incorporated into each phase of the community development process and included into implementation planning as a concrete plan for M&E drawn up by the community itself. M&E planning from the beginning can allow the funding strategy and ensuing M&E approach to spring from this relationship. Here we advocate for a Community Praxis Approach to lay the fundamentals of an M&E process.
A Theoretical Introduction to Village Earth’s Community Praxis Approach
The Community Praxis Approach stems from Paulo Freire’s ideas on education and poverty, which have their roots in Marxist concepts of an “ideological superstructure” shaped by the mode of production (e.g. capitalism, colonialism) and which forms the fabric of the “social consciousness.” According to Marx, this is a “false consciousness,” preventing people from recognizing the true nature of their reality, and most importantly, the reality of their exploitation.
Freire was also influenced by the concept of praxis in Marxist theory –namely, the idea that theory should be grounded in action and the everyday practice of human beings. Freire explains,
“It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection; only then will it be a praxis.”
In practical terms, the oppressed must shape their understanding of reality by critically analyzing the world in which they live and then using that analysis to change it. This would be in contrast to the traditional “banking” approach to teaching where someone else tells you about the world and then you memorize it, like someone making a deposit into a bank. Freire was also influenced by the anti-colonial writings of Frantz Fanon especially his ideas on the role of language in the psychology of the colonized. Fanon writes:
“Every colonized people–in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality–finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country.”
With this in mind, Freire developed a new form of literacy education where people don’t just memorize a language embedded with the conceptual categories of the oppressor but rather do so critically, creating their own conceptual categories (of course based on a critical analysis of the world around them). Both Fanon and Freire believed that true liberation must start with education calling this process “conscientization.” According to Freire, “literacy should be viewed as ‘one of the major vehicles by which ‘oppressed’ people are able to participate in the sociohistorical transformation of their society.”
Freire’s ideas have had a powerful influence around the globe, but especially in Latin America, influencing liberation theology and becoming the basis for many social movements. Freire has also influenced contemporary thinking and practice of action research, participatory research, community-based research, participatory rural appraisal, participatory learning and action, and now as we present here, participatory monitoring and evaluation (PM&E).
The Role of PM&E in Community Development
Monitoring and evaluation are not activities outside of the community-praxis approach—they are inherently built into the action-reflection cycle. PM&E can be viewed as the reflection half of the cycle which evaluates and informs action. Monitoring and evaluation are not events that take place after the fact, but instead an on-going processes that help to improve the alliance between program partners (internal activators, communities etc.) and NGO staff (external activators, etc.) and inform involved stakeholders (funders, partner organizations, etc.) about the impact of project activities. PM&E can be used as a process to learn as an institution and improve practice in the field. For communities, this is not only a learning activity but part of the process of conscientisization for all stakeholders. Through the community-praxis approach, individuals and communities critically analyze the world around them and identify practical actions to create the world they wish to see. Critical to this approach is regular open dialog and honest reflection at each stage to determine if the underlying assumptions, strategies and actions are moving the community towards their vision.
The community-praxis approach is like peeling back the layers of an onion. Each layer you peel off is like the process of conscientization discarding another layer of false consciousness. Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation (PM&E) is a part of this process that helps people to analyze and reflect on their actions to determine what is working and what is not. PM&E requires open dialogue between all stakeholders. If M&E reports are tied to job security and future funding—honest and genuine learning are lost as reports are fabricated to meet expectations and not based on genuine reflection and learning. PM&E has to be a two-way exchange relationship based on mutual trust which, in turn, allows for flexibility. It also requires an analysis of whether the actions are moving the community toward their vision. Each peeled of a layer is like a step in the empowerment process toward self-determination and liberation, or total empowerment. Therefore, PM&E is a tool in that process of empowerment. Because empowerment is not a tangible outcome and the process of conscientization is difficult to see – many traditional PM&E tools are not usable to measure the results of this process.
Some of our key indicators in our approach to PM&E are levels of participation, empowerment, and social capital. However, because these indicators are so intangible they are very difficult to measure using quantitative methods. Instead we advocate for qualitative participatory methods both formal and informal. There are a multitude of participatory methods that communities, outside evaluators, and NGOs can use to measure people’s perceptions of levels of social capital, etc. including mapping networks, timelines, focus groups, etc.
This, however, is a process that is to be constantly revisited as new layers of the onion come off. By using participatory M&E tools, communities may realize they have reached a new level of conscientization and that it is time to reanalyze their new reality and decide new visions to work towards. This process is cyclical.
After a series of trust building activities in a community, PM&E tools can be used to gather baseline data with which communities can better analyze their reality and with which communities can address local needs, concerns, and their hope for the future. In PM&E, local perception is more important than precision and scientific objectivity. After communities have come together to analyze that reality, create their shared vision for the future, identified obstacles, and come up with strategic directions to move them toward their vision, monitoring and evaluation activities are then built into the action planning phase. Communities and individuals themselves must determine for each specific action plan how they will determine success, who is responsible to whom, dates to hold those responsible to their timelines (although with a certain flexibility), and guidelines to determine at which level they are willing to participate in a possible outside evaluation by an NGO partner or funder. This decision can then guide the decision on where to find and apply for project funding. For example, if a community is not amenable to evaluation by an outside organization then they can proactively decide not to seek funding from that organization. Communities and organizations themselves must decide what type of funding matches their capacity and development philosophy. M&E should be done with the same level of participation as the rest of the project unless agreed upon ahead of time.
Information gathering activities are used for the purpose of helping local people to analyze their own situation and then decide how they would like to act on it. As an ally in this process external activators can act as neutral facilitators, provide expertise in certain methodologies upon the request of the community, provide access to particular resources, and be advocates for the communities. Communities do not have to reduce themselves down to transparency for funders nor for the NGO staff in this particular approach. They maintain a sense of power in their opacity. Local people can determine their own methods for data gathering whether it be participatory interview, PRA/ PLA activities, or an indigenous method of data gathering, as well as reporting formats understood by them for their use. Outside activators can use this as an opportunity to share with local people different research methods and theories so that they can use this knowledge to demystify monitoring and evaluation activities with the aim of local people ‘decolonizing’ these methods. These activities are not about extracting data, but rather about stimulating learning and conscientization.
Many funders and other outside evaluators like objective data to view that the predetermined outcomes have been achieved and the efficient use of resources. But many times this need to please funders or higher ups in an organization actually undermines community development processes based on relationships of trust. We recommend the adoption of a few non-negotiables in our fundraising strategy. Namely, to not fund the community development process by one large grant. Instead, we build alliances with a number of dedicated, individual, private donors and small granting organizations that trust our approach. We refuse to accept funding with time-bound targets or massive reporting requirements that hinder truly empowering and participatory processes. Many aid agencies and large NGOs require massive transparency in their project management approaches. Bureaucracy and top down approaches make them not open to dialogue with stakeholders and unable to undertake a participatory process. However if local people are genuinely empowered in this PM&E process, they can then use these tools to evaluate the performance of donor agencies and governmental institutions that impose top-down solutions on them.
At each step of the process the continuous cycle of reflection and action is repeated in order for the community, alliance of NGO partners, project team, etc to revisit their actions and determine if they are moving in the right direction or if a new action plan, visioning session, etc is needed. These reflection sessions are best facilitated using the ICA’s ORID discussion method so as to not impose the facilitator’s reality on the reflection of the group. The ORID methodology takes participants and facilitators through a process of questioning what reality is according to those participating. How does that reality make them feel? And how can they take that feeling and interpret why they reacted in that way and what they can do to take that and turn it into constructive further actions. This is the process of conscientization.