Monitoring & Evaluation: The Voice of the Beneficiaries
Project Initiation: In initiating a Development Project, such as current fad for “agriculture value chains” to alleviate poverty for smallholder producers, it typically takes up to two years and costs nearly a million dollars to bring it from conception to implementation, and involves a four level Hierarchy starting with the donor and ending with the beneficiaries. Such projects are often based more on the social desirability of what is perceived to be “politically correct” within the donor country, and do not necessarily relate to the Suppressed Economic realities of the host country. Such “politically correct” innovations can be heavily supported by the donor academic community. While I don’t question the sincerity of the academic community and individual faculty members’ interest in rural development, it has to be recognized that faculty commitments to their university for teaching, university sponsored research, student advising, prevents full time career commitment with multi-year residential assignments in host countries. Instead they can only have a “puttering” commitment to development through multiple short term assignments timed mostly for breaks in the academic year. The result is that the projects being conceived really represent more the developers and promoters of innovations, instead of the end users even in the donor country. This often conveys the impression to the host country of considerable more extensive acceptance in the donor country than reality. For example if one goes into a supermarket in the USA, what percent of the goods on display represent the terminus of an “agriculture value chain” traceable back to specific farmers or farmer organizations as envisioned in current emphasis on value chains. My guess it is less than 1% perhaps only 0.1%. Also, overlooked is the Farmland Debacle in which the effort by a conglomerate of farmer cooperatives, following the value chain concept, to vertical integration from producer to consumer with a nationally recognized brand name, resulted in the most massive cooperative bankruptcy in history. Not really the best reference for promoting similar innovations in the suppressed economies of developing countries in which business efficiency is essential to produce and deliver consumer goods at a Fraction of the USA Price.
During this project gestation period the beneficiaries are mostly represented by host government officers. However, because of Limited Budget the government officers may not be in as close contact or as well informed on the plight of the beneficiaries as desired, and perhaps have Personal Vested Interest in how the project develops. This results in their not providing the best representation for the beneficiaries, and making assumption that are taken as fact without need for verification. Sometimes this is expressed in near slanderous terms like the blanket vilification of private traders with statements such as:
Increased market opportunities to enable farmers to improve their produce (both in quality and quantity/variety) and prices by eluding unethical middlemen dictating exploitative prices to farmers will provide a conducive environment for sustained farmer participation and growth.
If no contract provision is made to verify such statement or the implementers do not do so on their own, with some solid business comparisons analysis showing the project is offering a sustainable (non-subsidized) more competitive business model, the smallholder beneficiaries could simple and wisely avoid the project resulting in projects with very limited overall impact.
Thus, by the time a project is contracted for implementation there has been very little if any input from the beneficiaries. The lack of beneficiary input has to be understood and appreciated as logistically impractical, but ultimately it results in very top down projects based largely on what the donor considers the “politically correct” development mechanism, endorsed by the host country civil officers with possible individual vested interest, being imposed on the voiceless beneficiaries. Projects will than require substantial facilitation with some possible subsidies to assure at least some apparent success, but ultimately collapse shortly after the facilitation effort ends.
During Implementation: Similarly, once contracted and there is a real opportunity for extensive participatory interaction with the beneficiaries, most of the conceptual decisions have already been made and the implementing team has no real option but to leverage the participatory process to conditions specified in the RFP, agreed upon in the implementation contract, and for which they are professionally staffed to carry out. This would include accepting as fact such slanderous vilification as mentioned above, and not taking time to confirm the accuracy of such comments, that could show the vilified service providers actually provide a more competitive advantage for the beneficiaries than the innovation being imposed, which might be too administratively cumbersome to be competitive. Furthermore, the implementing team then has little choice except to appease the donor and spin any reports toward the preconceived mechanism for development. A process is greatly encouraged by donors’ regular demands to “show us your success”. Basically this is a mandate to spin the results but with plausible deniability if questioned. It also substantially shifts the projects commitment to the mechanism for assisting smallholders at the expense of the intended beneficiaries, and reduces the beneficiaries to pawn in the modern version of the “Great Game”. Any variation on endorsing the donor imposed mechanism would bring into question their competence as implementer’s and question if their contract can be extended or future contract awarded. However, such spin reporting will encourage a continuation and expansion of project models in future projects even when they have minimal impact. At no time is it really possible to effectively question if the development mechanism is fundamentally flawed, and alternative mechanisms need to be developed for consideration. Basically comply with the donor’s perspective or go home!!
Monitoring and Evaluation: Considering the beneficiaries potential weak representation during project development, and the implementing team’s need to leverage any participatory procedure to support the project processes, then spin results to appease donors, it is really left to the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) process to provide a voice to the beneficiaries that will determine how well any project is appreciated and utilized by the beneficiaries, and thus the potential for the project to be sustained beyond donor assistance. As representative of the underwriting taxpayers, for whom they are the stewards of the taxes entrusted to them, it is really their mandated task to assure that the taxes be it dollars, pounds, euros, etc. are well invested. Thus they are specifically tasked with determining the evaluation criteria that will demonstrate if a project will succeed and be sustainable well beyond the end of the donor assistance, or dissolve once the external facilitation and support ends, and ultimately be little more than a publicity opportunity expressing the donor’s good intention. In doing so they must accept most of the responsibility and perhaps liability for perpetuating projects and initiating new projects that beneficiaries have basically avoided, and not assuring new projects evolved in response to beneficiaries accepting or rejecting active projects innovations. This can only be done by becoming the voice of the beneficiaries, independent of the project officers, contract officers and implementing team. In so doing they need to clearly establish criteria that monitors the degree of reliance the beneficiaries place on the projects. This would require establishing specific targets for the various criteria that will demonstrate the effectiveness of the project in serving the needs of the beneficiaries and insisting implementing contractors report these criteria with solid explanations for why targets are not reached and plans to reach them including the timeframe to accomplish this.
For “value chain” projects a set of criteria might be those outlined on a Separate Webpage of this site. While I consider these criteria to be basic business parameter anyone providing a business service should undertake prior to opening the doors, these criteria are basically non-existent in any project reporting including both progress reports and published articles. These criteria have actually been acknowledged as important by the USAID Assistant Inspector General for Audits, but claimed collecting the data would be too costly. This followed a direct inquiry facilitated by former Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. The Assistant Inspector General’s comment about the data being too costly to obtain I have trouble accepting as with no budget I can get some good estimates using published articles, some simple internet searches, and some basic (non-rocket science calculus) computations. The webpage with the suggested criteria contains values the interested public expects for the various criteria. These were obtained over several years from pre-lecture surveys of students of my credited course or participants in my continuing education course and would serve as reasonable targets for each criteria.
What the M&E officers need to prevent is the tremendous degree of spin reporting that attempt to make programs smallholders are really avoiding appear to be major succeeds, but can be Highly Deceptive Bordering on Dishonest. For value chain projects this often involved using aggregate data so the numbers appear more impressive, but when divided by the stated group members are really trivial, or stopping the accounting of benefits short of the farm gate, which basically allocates much of the overhead costs as direct financial benefits. Why should tax payers, particularly USA tax payers that I have a vested interest in, be burden financing development projects the beneficiaries are not interested in!!!??
If the M&E programs did require the suggested criteria or something similar for value chain projects, it might quickly show that projects were attracting only minimal participation from the intended beneficiaries, and those participating were only committing a relatively small percent of their goods to the project, while diverting the bulk of their business to private service providers that may have been initially vilified by the project. However, given the administrative cumbersome business model and resulting high sustainable overhead costs that exceed any negotiated benefits from consolidated input purchase or produce sales, those vilified private service providers where able to provide a financially more competitive service to say nothing of greater convenience, and more consistent with a reasonable well-conceived overall Financial Management Strategy. A strategy that emphasizes retaining goods in kind, then marketing only what is needed to meet immediate cash needs, but requiring immediate cash on delivery. Ultimate the value chain projects are having a minimal impact of host community and the development community needs to look at other options to assist the smallholders.
The bottom line of this, if the M&E process is not willing to effectively represent the beneficiaries and more concern with assisting project officers in accepting spin reporting is it left to the concerned citizenry to use the court system to assure their taxes are properly invested?? After all in the USA the constitution still reads “Of the People, By the People and For the People”.
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