Two things I remember about my job at the Police HQ in Timor Leste. First, a 25ft live crocodile in the middle of the building. “She’s called Maria: you can feed her if you want.”
Second, the Commander General: ramrod straight in a pale blue shirt, dark blue jacket, gold epaulettes and shiny buttons. “Lucia”, he said, leaning forward. “Why do you do this M&E thing? I can’t help feeling that you could do something better.”
It all started in 2010. Freetown, Sierra Leone: an assignment to design a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project. The project aimed to help poor Sierra Leoneans to access justice: a difficult thing to achieve in a country brought to its knees by war. After 11 years of horror—the hacking of limbs, the burning of villages, the destruction of infrastructure, brain drain and economic freefall—Sierra Leone had become the poorest country on earth. Violence was so common that it was considered normal. Many women didn’t know that they had a right not to be raped, and many of the poorest people didn’t know that they had the right to life-improving services like health and education. Our UNDP ‘access to justice’ project aimed to change that: to end the impunity in which injustice flourished by helping victims to win victory in court. To offer people unaware of their rights and afraid of the government help to create a better future by getting their entitlements—like alimony for divorced women, inheritance for orphaned children, pension payments for retirees.
My first task was simple enough: prepare an annual report of the previous project’s results.
The sun shone low in the sky—shades of orange and gold over bright red earth—then sank quickly below the horizon. It was dark in the office: pitch black but for the glow of the computer screen. Outbreak of war in Libya meant a shortage of fuel in Sierra Leone, little oil in the office generator, and a desk pitch black but for the glow of the computer screen. Surrounded by paper—project briefs, meeting reports, newspaper clippings and scrawled notes of interviews with colleagues—I thought to myself: “what the hell am I doing?” I’m a British woman in West Africa, writing a report for donors in Sweden and Switzerland about how their money helps people in Sierra Leone. So why not ask them? Ask people that the project serves what they think? Ask Sierra Leoneans themselves: did we help?
So began an effort that aimed to make the humble task of reporting more honest. Alas, it also made it more sweaty. More sweaty, more expensive, and more time consuming.
After weeks of repeated visits, texts and calls to police stations, court houses and people in remote communities—under the heat of a tropical sun, through the traffic and dust of roads under construction, and with little scratch-cards of credit purchased from Fatima the road-side vendor—we got data to show that the project had led to a 165% increase in prosecutions of crimes for gender-based violence (GBV). This was the highlight among pages of results summarized by one woman’s testimony: “tell God tenki fo sake of UNDP.” (thank God for UNDP).
This is assessment, monitoring and evaluation (M&E): the process of collecting information to understand what people want, what institutions need, and ‘what works’ to achieve it. It’s a specialism grounded in curiosity, conversation, and careful collection of data. In Sierra Leone, that curiosity and conversation led to me to stories and statistics of lives changed.
It’s a pattern I’ve observed in every duty station since then. Stories and statistics help projects to raise money. They help them to target the right people and needs; identify and incorporate the innovations that change lives and societies. Within two years of the drafting of that report, international law changed to encourage global use of the legal aid innovation responsible for that massive increase in prosecutions for GBV crimes in Sierra Leone.
Money, ideas and motivation: M&E generates all of these drivers of change.
In Sierra Leone, my colleagues were tired. Tired of having to prove their value to senior management. Tired of hustling for funds. And tired of trying to deliver on their workplans while managing the daily challenges of life in the poorest country on the planet: finding water, fixing the toilet, and figuring out how to solve a rat problem that doesn’t involve what neighbours advise: ‘Wap ‘am!” (Running after the creature and hitting it with a hand).
In the context of this daily struggle to make a difference, the effect of “this M&E thing” was to re-energize colleagues with the knowledge that they were, and why they should keep going: the evidence that it matters.
What we do in service of a better world does matter. And the reason I “do this M&E thing” is to find the stories and statistics that prove it. Imperfect, patchy and non-linear though our progress may be, “without a doubt,” as the Dalai Lama said: “love is increasing on the earth.” Love is increasing on earth—and there’s data to demonstrate it.