There is nothing dramatically new in this short Wall Street Journal article from last month, but we can never have too much harping on the importance of collecting better data, and quality monitoring and evaluation (M&E) in development. Too many decisions are made on poor or incomplete data. Millions of dollars and hours of time are wasted on projects, without ensuring that positive outcomes are being achieved.
Without a doubt, better measurement needs to be stressed in the field of economic development world. Thankfully Gates, among many others, is doing more than just stressing the importance of measurement, they are trying to make real changes.
While the battle for convincing people of the importance of M&E isn’t fully complete, thankfully, consensus towards measurement is occurring. However, finding what and how to measure in complex multi-sector problems isn’t easy, and many of the incentives that development agencies face negatively impact the quality of measurement that occurs. Measurement is expensive, and many development agencies still think of measurement as a task apart from implementation. This leads to a mindset where money for evaluation takes away available money for implementation. This mentality needs to change. While it is easy to understand why we might think this is a trade off, this is a false decision. M&E is essential to all aspects of any project. Without it we can measure progress towards objectives, alter course to changing circumstances, or prove our effectiveness. M&E needs to be mainstreamed in development. Without this we cannot distinguish our success from our failures, which sure makes learning from past projects difficult. This mainstreaming cannot only happen at the implementation level. Implementing organizations work within a funding environment that has its own challenges and incentives. Thus, funding agencies need to prioritize money for these activities. Demanding M&E from their implementing partners, without allowing for realistic resources for quality M&E is a recipe for maintaining the status quo. Money needs to be set aside for improved M&E, and for training to ensure that quality metrics are used as objectives, and that accurate data is collected.
The Gates foundation has done much in pushing the development community towards greater rigor in their projects, and going beyond good intentions to trying to show that good intentions are being turned into positive outcomes. I for one applaud their efforts and look forward to continued progress on this front.