CLEAR-AA: Lessons Learned on Our Journey to a Systems-Based Approach for Strengthening M&E

Graphic of some gears and other icons representing a system.
Takunda Chirau, Deputy Director of the Center for Learning on Evaluation and Results for Anglophone Africa (CLEAR-AA), reflects on CLEAR-AA's journey to a systems-based approach for strengthening M&E in the countries where the Center works.

Dr. Takunda Chirau is Deputy Director at the the Center for Learning on Evaluation and Results Anglophone Africa (CLEAR-AA) at Witwatersrand University in South Africa. His role is to establish and nurture partnerships for strengthening M&E capacity in English speaking African countries. 

The Center for Learning on Evaluation and Results for Anglophone Africa (CLEAR-AA), established in 2011 at the University of Witwatersrand, initially focused its efforts on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) training for government ministries, departments, and agencies. While the importance of training to improve M&E knowledge and skills cannot be overstated, we found that focusing predominantly on training did not produce long-term improvements in monitoring, evaluation and evidence use.

After internal reflection and an external evaluation, CLEAR-AA started to shift towards a systems-thinking approach around strengthening M&E in the countries where we worked. Instead of focusing on isolated interventions, systems thinking helped us shift to an approach that looked at the whole national “ecosystem” for M&E, where components (e.g., policies, laws) and stakeholders (e.g., private sector, civil society) interdependently influenced each other. Systems-thinking helped us see the bigger picture and identify “leverage points” that had more of a chance to create system-wide impact. 

Our first systems-based strategy in 2018 focused on diagnostics of a country’s M&E “ecosystem” that needed to be strengthened for robust monitoring, evaluation and evidence use to happen.  For example, after a system diagnostic in Namibia by the National Planning Commission and European Union, we identified that the establishment of a National Monitoring and Evaluation Policy would create a large-scale positive impact on how seriously the government took action on M&E and on the flow of M&E information within government agencies.  We worked closely with the National Planning Commission, supporting them as the lead agency on this effort for the Namibian government, to design the policy. The policy was co-created with different stakeholders from government institutions and development assistance partners.

Although shifting to systems-thinking paired with diagnostic analyses was a crucial step in the right direction, we soon realized that our approach did not go far enough to support our country partners with their goals.  We also needed to help with developing a structured approach to implementing the diagnostic recommendations. Consequently, in 2019, as part of our work with country governments, we started including support for the development of capacity-strengthening strategies and implementation plans that would put diagnostic results into action.

An illustration of this approach can be seen in our recent work supporting the government of Tanzania on their M&E efforts. After supporting a Monitoring and Evaluation Systems Analysis (MESA) diagnostic process, we helped with the development of a Capacity Strengthening Strategy and Implementation Plan.  Based on this plan, we ran a Training of Trainers workshop for the Tanzania Evaluation Association (TanEA), focused on “Parliamentary M&E Capacity Building.” The aim was to help TanEA strengthen an evaluation culture among Parliamentarians and Parliamentary staff. In addition, we developed a “TanEA Communication and Visibility Strategy and Plan” – a document that sought to raise the visibility and advocacy role of TanEA within the M&E ecosystem in Tanzania. In April 2022, TanEA - working in partnership with the Tanzanian Presidents’ Office for Public Service Management and Good Governance (POPSMGG), hosted an M&E week for the first time in Tanzania’s history.  The POPSMGG is the central agency providing oversight and coordination of the public sector M&E efforts. 

Finding the best way to support the strengthening of M&E systems in the countries where we work has been a journey of learning, reflection, and adaptation.  Below are some of my thoughts on what we have learned along the way.

  • Conducting a diagnostic analysis creates a strategic foundation for strengthening the national M&E system. A diagnostic process creates a shared understanding of the state of M&E within the government and within the wider M&E ecosystem in the country. It also provides a strategic foundation for developing capacity-building and implementing plans, identifying key stakeholders and leverage points for system-wide impact.
  • BUT, be flexible about the entry point. Not every partner government will be immediately open to a system-wide diagnostic because of the necessary resource and time commitment.  In those cases, it is important to show value first on a smaller-scale – such as through a training, or a stakeholder workshop – before asking for them to support a system diagnostic.  But even if our work is just to support a training, we always keep the wider M&E ecosystem in mind.
  • It is necessary to work with a capable public sector institution (i.e., the Office of the Prime Minister in Uganda or POPSMGG in Tanzania) that has a mandate to oversee the implementation and practice of M&E. This is important for getting buy-in and ownership for strengthening the country's M&E system. It is also important for informing the diagnostic process and subsequent plans. 
  • Mixed funding is necessary for better system-level results. A systems-strengthening strategy may be beyond the resources of a single institution, so CLEAR-AA approaches its work with countries using a mixed-funding approach, in which its in-country partners co-invest in the implementation of the strategy.
  • Capacity strengthening is a long-term effort and a multi-pronged, complex process. It takes considerable effort and time to build rapport and trust with key stakeholders to start and implement a national evaluation system strengthening program. Be patient and have the final goal in mind when small setbacks happen.
  • Identify powerful champions at the political and senior administrative level. They help to promote and demonstrate the value of M&E and the evidence that it generates for governance and development success. Their influence on attitudes, behavior and decision-making plays a vital role in system change.
  • Strengthening M&E systems is also about changing people’s attitudes and behavior. Attitudes around monitoring, evaluation and evidence use influence peoples’ behavior – for better or worse. It takes time to change negative attitudes that may influence M&E use. It also takes time to create incentives or reduce barriers for behaviors. Local culture and previous experience with M&E play a part.  A diagnostics process can help identify these attitudes and behaviors as well as pivotal stakeholders who may have influence.

 


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