How Can We Integrate M&E Across Sectors?

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I was very excited to attend the MERL Tech Conference. I’m from Egypt and currently work at UNICEF, and one of our biggest challenges with development programs is M&E. The lack of M&E resources and proper technology makes an already hostile environment to NGOs even more hostile when they can’t clearly and efficiently measure their impact.
Although there was a lot of interesting breakout sessions to choose from, the “How can we Integrate M&E Across Sectors?” session by Brian Dooley from FHI 360 really hit home for me. Integrating M&E across sectors is a no brainer, and it makes perfect sense to me that poverty and human wellbeing in general is a multidimensional equation. But can it really happen? Is it actually doable from an execution standpoint? That was the question I had going into the session.
What is Integrated Development?
Dooley defined integrated development as “An intentional approach that links design, delivery and evaluation of progress across disciplines to produce amplified lasting impact.” He also talked about how an integrated approach increases accountability. Is there really a difference between poverty and education?
Here’s an example: you can know the exact number of females who dropped out of school in Egypt, but you don’t know that one of the reasons why is because their family needed to save on school fees in order to pay for a clean water connection to their houses.
In this scenario, you end up with a very specific intervention that doesn’t tell the whole story. You end up hosting awareness sessions on the importance of girls education and early marriage in the village and pay no attention to water issues or spending priorities. Only an integrated approach can address the larger issues (such as WASH, nutrition and health) that impact parallel problems, such as girls education.
We Need to Break Away from Sector Specific Programming
Why are we, as international development organizations or non-profits, designing programs that are sector-specific in the first place? We all know the answer: it’s based on donor structure, and we can’t run programs without funding.
Another reason is that it’s the easiest and simplest way to isolate a problem and measure progress. In the past 30 years, the complexity of doing things (the “complexity of knowledge” is the fancy name for it) has increased tremendously.
As Mr. Dooley mentioned, two brothers (one of them dropped out of high school and the other just finished it) invented the airplane in 1903. Fast forward to 2015, where it takes numerous highly educated engineers to construct just the engine of a plane.
So we want an integrated solution, but then what? Dooley stressed that the evidence for integrated development doesn’t exist yet, but it’s something we need to start thinking about critically. We are facing more sophisticated challenges: rapid urbanization, the increasing youth bulge and climate change. Add this to the huge data revolution we’re experiencing, and you couldn’t have a better time to engage in these types of discussions.
Is it doable?
When you look at this much holistic data, it’s overwhelming! Especially considering that our silos are false constructions too well established and fortified by the accumulation of technical knowledge. In my experience, it’s incredibly exhausting to coordinate a multi-sector activity.
Despite the executional challenge, I’m still keeping an open mind about it and I’m willing to dig deep into the possibility. Should we integrate M&E across sectors? Absolutely. But the lingering question is: how?
By Heba Ghannam, a State Department Professional Fellow with TechChange.