Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ups and Downs of Monitoring and Evaluation

        Today I conducted the first part of the Nest Monitoring and Evaluation surveys and gathering testimonials for 4 of the women at Aklala. Due to the recent nature of Aklala’s business development, there has been a lot of employee turnover as Chantal has conceived her path to organizational maturation.  Furthermore, Chantal is the only actual Nest loan recipient, meaning that she was the only source through which Nest’s physical lending could be evaluated. However, interviewing her other three employees was still beneficial in terms of seeing the greater impact of Nest programs including market access and business training.  The problem is that out of the three employees I interviewed, Liza and Akouvi are fairly recent additions, while Beatrice, is Chantal’s daughter and thus only helps during the summer when she is not at school studying to be a doctor.  While there are many women who are impacted by Aklala and Nest’s programs, most of them are done so on a piece-work basis and are called in when Chantal has big orders to fill, as she currently does not have the production space nor a steady flow of orders to sustain multiple full-time employees.  Beatrice and Akouvi don’t have enough experience with Nest to fully understand all of our programs and the ways in which they are affecting Aklala, as Akouvi is still in the basic skill training portion of her apprenticeship and Beatrice just does basic seamstressing just to aid her mother. To further complicate matters, Elam, another apprentice left Aklala indefinitely last week to go back to her village until the health of a sick relative is restored. It’s difficult to accept that women’s lives here are tied to so many different obligations, as even though she has a commitment to Chantal and to Aklala, her social responsibilities trumped her employment.  This is a cultural mentality that is going to take a long time to overcome, or at least find more of a balance. Etoname, Chantal’s final apprentice is currently working with two different matrons, Aklala and Madame Augustine’s, so she will be interviewed Saturday when she is next at Aklala.
Another difficult aspect of the process for me was our assigned roles of interviewer and interviewee, or in more accurate terms of service provider and service receiver; as imbued within these roles are inherent power differentials.  I understand that it can be difficult to remain objective, remove bias, and try to accurately evaluate everything the women say, as well as foster an environment where they feel open and safe to share all of their thoughts and feedback, whether it be positive or negative. Obviously we want our programs to reflect successes, but who is truly benefitted in the long run by false and euphemistic outcomes? It's understandable why a recipient would give misleading and evasive answers because they fear losing funding if they told the truth about the difficulties of the work. So I tried my best to convey to the women that their responses wouldn’t affect their future prospects with Nest, rather it was being used as a measurement of how we could improve our services to them by seeing what works and what doesn't.
This monitoring and evaluation process is so important in development work.  Too often traditional aid devastates when guided by good intentions alone and not based on vetted metrics of success or indicators—Nest uses the Grameen Progress out of Poverty Index as a basis for the survey.  As such it is important to measure both qualitative and quantitative impact, its not just about pleasing stakeholders, its about making sure the program is truly aiding in the poor’s development and independence by giving them the necessary tools so that they can fulfill their own potential—and by holding them accountable so that they become active participants, rather than just dependent service recipients. 
BUT—despite all of the difficulties in the process, despite conducting the surveys in 3 languages, despite feeling powerless when the interview was conducted in Ewe and I was totally reliant on the translator, despite all of the cultural sensitivities to bear in mind, I am so lucky I got to be able to be a part of this process.  Hearing these women’s life stories completely reaffirmed my choice to leave my comfortable and privileged life to come to West Africa, and to not slave away at some high return summer internship in law or finance like the majority of my peers. While I understand the worth and necessity of these professional fields and I do want to eventually get into business and learn pragmatic industry skills, I’m at a point in my life where I can afford to spend a summer in Africa, something I can’t guarantee in the future when I’ll be bound up in web of attachments:  job, bills, rent, etc. Today, their testimonials have given me such a renewed sense of purpose, I feel so much more connected to them, so much more focused on what I can do to help. Seeing how much adversity they have overcome and how their lives are finally being put on track as a result of working with Aklala and Nest is so rewarding.  I know there’s so much work to do to really get Aklala where it needs to be, but sometimes you have to celebrate the little victories; be happy that things are going in the right direction even if you aren’t at the end destination yet.
Sorry I know this post is such a tease but I will post their stories tomorrow after I finish gathering up the last of the testimonials and pictures. I figure the women deserve their own post that isn’t accompanied by my ramblings!

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