by Simon Mercer
In our 1st blog post of 2017 Vicki gave a great account of all of the monitoring activities that keep us busy throughout the year here at LTS. With ever increasing scrutiny of the effectiveness of UK aid spending, the importance of effectively monitoring projects has never been greater. The Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) component of the Darwin Initiative and IWT Challenge Fund programme, led by LTS International, uses a range of tools and approaches (outlined in Vicki’s article) to support projects to gather the data they need to demonstrate their impact. At the same time these activities give us the chance to identify and capture lessons on project implementation and design that can be shared across the Darwin community to foster learning.
Towards the end of 2016 I flew out to Nepal to visit two Darwin-funded projects, one based in Kathmandu led by BirdLife International, and the other by Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in the Far West of the country, led by the Zoological Society of London. These projects were selected for Mid Term Review (MTR) based on a range of criteria, including the potential for lesson learning, the scope for M&E support, and the organisations involved. Geographical focus was also a really important consideration, as it is vital that we are able to visit more than one project at a time during these visits. This helps to keep costs down and maximises value for money.
In technical terms, MTRs are formative evaluations that follow a rigorous evaluation framework based on the DAC criteria for evaluating development assistance, focused on project effectiveness, impact and sustainability. In practice, these visits are used to assess project progress against its logframe objectives. In addition they provide an important opportunity for us to provide technical support and assistance where needed, and to engage with project teams to influence project implementation. Importantly these visits also offer a great opportunity for lesson learning.
For those of you who are interested in finding out more detail about these recent visits, the full MTR reports will soon be available on the Darwin Website. These reports will provide a detailed technical account of the MTRs including data collection methods, key findings, and recommendations. For those of you who can’t wait for these to be published a selection of key lessons is presented below.
1 – Clear logframes with SMART indicators are vital for demonstrating project progress. This was a clear lesson that emerged from both projects visited, in slightly different ways. The project in Suklaphanta was using its logframe and robust monitoring and evaluation systems to effectively track progress, making sure the project remained on course and adaptive to changing circumstances. This enabled the team to accurately report project progress. The logframe for the BirdLife project was less clear; over the years we have found that the selection of appropriate indicators is a common challenge facing Darwin projects with a strong policy component. These weaknesses in the logframe had led to reporting challenges that suggested that the project may be struggling. The MTR gave an opportunity for some focused logframe and theory of change support. The project was also able to demonstrate that progress to date has been good, the challenge created by the weak logframe was in clearly reporting and communicating this progress.
2 – Engaging partners in project formulation and design brings real benefits. With its focus at the policy level, success for the BirdLife project is dependent on the strength of interaction with Government of Nepal partners. Any risks associated with this have been significantly reduced by involving key government stakeholders right from the start. Whilst the focus of the ZSL project is very different, it has demonstrated similar benefits as a result of early engagement. Partner interactions at the national park level are working well, with different stakeholder groups working efficiently towards a single shared goal.
3 – Darwin projects can achieve more than originally planned. Interacting with other Darwin and non-Darwin projects working on similar issues can enable projects to make savings, leverage additional funding, and broaden their impact. For the BirdLife project, this was evident in the selection of project sites to complement ongoing work by Bird Conservation Nepal, the local BirdLife partner. This has allowed field level activities to get up and running quickly, whilst making sure some of the associated costs can be covered.
For the ZSL project, shared meetings with key local stakeholders including other conservation organisations and donors is allowing knowledge to be effectively shared, new funding sources explored, and impact to be extended to new sites, beyond the original scope of the project.
A key personal lesson from this latest batch of MTRs is that even in its 25th year, Darwin continues to carry out vital conservation work in the most challenging of contexts, and remains at the cutting edge of conservation thinking. This blog can only provide a snapshot of the achievements and key lessons coming out of the current batch of Darwin projects – remember to keep an eye on the Darwin website for the reports of these and other MTRs.
When you think that there are well over 100 current Main Darwin Projects, and almost 1,000 have been funded since the scheme began, the achievements of the Darwin Initiative are truly staggering. Monitoring and evaluation remains the key tool for projects to demonstrate and provide evidence of these achievements more widely.