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The 'Photosynthesis' of Implementer-Led Learning and Results Measurement

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

In the new results measurement landscape, implementing organizations, rather than donors, should lead

By Malaika Cheney-Coker

Other than boasting prolific acronym generating abilities (M&E, MEL, MEAL, MERL, MERLA, anyone?), the field of learning and results measurement is not typically known for its trendiness. Nonetheless, if you are congratulating yourself on having sorted out your outcomes from your outputs, your theory of change from your theory of action, now is not the time to rest easy – there’s more to catch up on.

Some changes in learning and results measurement have been long-simmering: For example, the acknowledgement that social change is a wilderness of dead-ends and winding roads, though our log frames and blueprints try to depict otherwise. In fact, despite the stubborn persistence of linear thinking in program design and implementation, complexity and unpredictability are increasingly accounted for in the learning and results measurement approaches of several institutional donors — for example, in USAID’s Collaboration, Learning and Adapting approach.

Another change rocking (or at least rippling) the waters around the learning and results measurement boat is a focus on equity-awareness This can roughly be described in terms of how an organization’s learning and results measurement answers questions related to equity and how it challenges rather than reinforces inequitable systems and structures. Equity awareness has not permeated the learning and results measurement mainstream to the extent of constituting a definitive approach (which may not be necessary, anyway), but it is catching on.

If there is hope that these changes will be transformative, that could rest in part on whether the underlying paradigms have changed. If social change is more broadly understood as something done collaboratively with people groups, than done to them, then learning and results measurement must follow suit. That would involve moving from an outsider (etic) perspective of social science research to an insider (emic) perspective. The latter positions the evaluator as a co-learner and -agent within the groups creating change, be those groups smallholder farmers or incarcerated persons. While both perspectives have their place in social science research, there’s an attractiveness to positioning social change organizations centrally in determining what and how they want to measure, in collaboration with those for whom the change is intended. Donors, of course, have an important role to play in encouraging this shift; see for example, Towards a Trust-Based Approach for Learning and Evaluation.

In this implementer-led arrangement, learning and results measurement, rather than being compliance-based and reactive, becomes enlivening and generative. While it still might not produce blueprints for change, it can help orient the organization towards impact, like a plant towards the sun. That impact-facing posture in turn creates a sort of organizational photosynthesis. As the organization learns (e.g., what works to cultivate political champions, whether or not its public-private partnerships are successful, whatever it is that is most important for it to learn) these revelations nourish and strengthen the organization and fire up further results-making. This concept will be familiar to many as adaptive management. In fact, in a recent multi-country study by Christian Aid, the organization found that adaptive programming improved development results and that, “72% of partners surveyed described adaptive programming as the most useful approach to program management that they have used.”

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