The In Their Lifetime (ITL) portfolio of projects has learning at its core – learning from testing out new technical approaches, learning from and with project participants about changes to their lives, and learning about how we work as Christian Aid, with our partners and stakeholders. Jennifer Backhouse, one of Christian Aid’s Global Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Advisers, writes below about the meaning and value of MEL and how it is at the core of ITL.
What does MEL look like in practice?
When a project starts, our MEL team works with Christian Aid colleagues and partners to fine-tune the project plans, ensuring the space, time and budget for good quality monitoring, evaluation and learning activities are incorporated throughout the project’s lifetime.
We talk through what we are trying to learn from the project and develop “learning questions”. These structure the learning process and help plan appropriate activities to gather evidence and reflect together. For example, the Myanmar project is testing the use of a mobile app to spread health information and so includes the learning question: “How can technology be maximised to inform and educate communities on health risks and on actions that can be taken to prevent or minimise those health risks?”
In addition to the learning questions, each project has its “results framework”. This sets out the changes to people’s lives (or “outcomes”) that the project is aiming to contribute towards. It puts in place indicators to help us assess and explore over time how well the project is doing. Once the results framework is set up, a baseline survey provides a starting point and enables tracking of changes over time. Recently in Bangladesh, a baseline survey was conducted to understand women’s role in economic decision making, their participation in microfinance, and the need for climate resilience and gender transformation in vulnerable communities.
Regular monitoring visits to communities are conducted, including observing, talking with community members (such as community health task force volunteers in Myanmar) and participating in key activities. During these visits, Christian Aid and partners gather feedback on how the project is going, identify challenges and come up with ideas to adapt and improve our work. From the recent monitoring visits in Nicaragua, we gathered feedback and suggestions on the ‘climate resilient family model’ that is being tested. Every 4-6 months, we complement monitoring visits with participatory review sessions with a range of project participants and stakeholders.
Together these monitoring and review processes enable the ITL projects to learn and adapt on the go; making small tweaks or sometimes larger changes to our approaches to maximise results for the people and communities we are working with. A recent review workshop in Sierra Leone allowed women from different communities to share their experiences and learn from each other about addressing common challenges around economic empowerment and leadership.
Finally, ITL projects are evaluated at the close, to bring together all the learning from activities, reports, monitoring visits and review sessions. This is shared across partners and communities, and we build on this learning as we design new projects in similar themes or locations. We are planning the evaluation of the Clima project in Nicaragua during April/May, so watch this space for details of what we have learnt from that!