Seeing impacts in a complicated trade landscape requires learning and adapting
Monitoring, evaluating and learning, or MEL, is the bedrock of a results-driven and adaptive programme. For trade development work, there are specific considerations and complexities. Add to that the capacity constraints in least developed countries (LDCs), and such monitoring must be robust, yet context specific.
Effective monitoring enables work that is focused on delivering impact. In the context of LDCs, specialist skills and access to international best practice is often constrained. In a world deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of strong MEL systems in institutions that work globally and at national levels for adapting development programming is even clearer. Effective systems facilitate checkpoints for course correction as well as playing a key role in learning. Whether adapting to risk or maintaining relevance to current circumstances, MEL in LDCs is an evolving process. For countries with limited resources, depth needs to be balanced with usability of systems, often in an environment of constrained resources.
Having worked across the complex trade environments of 51 least developed and recently graduated countries for more than a decade, the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) has continued to take the lessons learned from this partnership to better address what LDCs need. In this light three core areas can be drawn from this experience.
Here’s what we’ve found.
1. Learning and adapting within changing trade environments
Any business owner knows how critical it is to learn and adapt to ensure relevance and effectiveness. Every year or even day will be unique. The same applies to programmes and projects that support trade. Specific mechanisms should be employed, like regular evaluations of initiatives such as those to strengthen ministries of trade or support export development, dedicated risk assessments and monitoring, as well as other analytical exercises to promote learning and adapting.
A rapid assessment of EIF’s MEL systems in 2018 led to the further strengthening of processes, including updates to the programme's logical framework, a key tool that sets out objectives and specific indicators to measure progress. Regular results monitoring has meant that the programme is able to increase ambition where targets are being met, and allocate resources to result areas requiring further investment. A 2019 analysis yielded important lessons that resulted in the strengthening of project-level evaluations, which in turn play a key role for learning at the project and programme level. In 2020 as part of the COVID-19 response, a dedicated task force established a regular process to assess new risks, learn, initiate and capture programme-level change, including documenting and sharing how countries were adjusting to the pandemic. With such information and by continuing to seek feedback, tools and training methods can be adapted and new and improved ones developed into the future.
Partners and institutions doing similar work are always a valuable source of information and expertise. A working group on MEL is bringing together EIF partners that focus on trade to spark ideas, create opportunities to work jointly and further improve systems. Recently, best practices from partners were incorporated into updated EIF project evaluation guidelines, including new management response templates based on partner experience.
2. Building capacity in the LDCs
Learning always goes both ways. EIF has recognised that trade teams in LDCs require specific support, and also that central systems should learn from those on the ground.
2020 saw the start of a secondment programme whereby MEL officers from trade ministries in EIF countries were attached to the Executive Secretariat for a period of intense training and practical exposure. In addition to building skills, EIF benefits from first-hand country perspectives that can be incorporated into programme tools. For instance, two recent secondees from Senegal and Tanzania identified reporting challenges faced by EIF countries. Working with colleagues, the secondees assisted in updating reporting templates to include clearer language and more explicit guidance.
LDC capacity with MEL is an essential compliment to effective systems. Individual teams and trade officials should be equipped with skills through training and practical involvement so MEL ecosystems in countries are boosted. Direct coaching through virtual missions and one-on-one support sessions is one way, as are group training events where experience is shared, as well as connecting teams to local and regionally based MEL experts.
3. Investing in results-focused systems
Strong MEL systems underpin processes supporting the delivery of quality results. Trade-related projects include a range of interventions from building policy to working with export-oriented farmers, all the while keeping a focus on cross-cutting priorities such as women's economic empowerment. This diversity of interventions and results makes the need for strong systems even more important.
At the project level, specific tools for data collection to assess change as a result of projects can fill gaps in national or other systems, and can be used for other trade-related projects. With recent investments in such tools, EIF now has ready means to systematically capture results from trade activities, such as contacts and orders made at trade fairs or new markets accessed.
With a large number of trade-related projects implemented directly through national mechanisms, MEL needs to work with and complement existing systems within individual countries. As such, it is necessary to work with teams over time, minimizing the duplication of requirements while ensuring consistency.
Programme-level MEL needs to be flexible enough to account for the wide variety of interventions. In the trade world, this includes capturing results from investments in studies, trainings and the injection of new technology, with each contributing to changes that span institutions, policies, exports and more. For an outcome focused on increased access to international markets, for example, one would need to capture the contributions of supporting participation in trade fairs, unlocking trade facilitation barriers, the use of e-commerce and the leveraging of resources to support scale.
Over the last year and into the future, many programmes have had to adjust and refine due to COVID-19’s disruptions, maintaining a focus on sustainable impacts and supportive systems. In such an environment, strong MEL frameworks are more important than ever.