Can we understand COVID-19 fast enough – and well enough – to make a difference?

Guest post by Lavinia Tyrrel, Linda Kelly, Chris Roche and Elisabeth Jackson

In Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez plays on the themes of love and passion, comparing them to a plague like cholera. Referring to the two lovers in the story he notes “…if they had learned anything together, it was that wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.”

Will the same be true of COVID-19? Or can monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (MERL) generate the wisdom we need to respond to the pandemic before it’s too late? Governments, development agencies and citizens are having to make decisions about how they will respond now. They cannot wait for wisdom that will be generated in one, five, or ten years’ time. They are also being bombarded with data, information and rumours.

In a new working paper we argue that the COVID-19 pandemic provides us with a critical juncture for aid and development practice, and for the kinds of MERL that accompany it. This means that – for a relatively short-period – there is scope for aid actors to work collectively to embed more locally-led, politically-informed and adaptive types of MERL in aid and development practice.

What does locally-led, politically-informed and adaptive MERL look like? In the Pacific, for example, governments and NGOs are using talanoa and tok stori to undertake needs assessment and real-time monitoring for both the COVID-19 response and responses to other recent disasters. These methods – which are grounded in Pacific traditions of conversation and storytelling – can be powerful tools for generating detailed, context-rich understanding. They can therefore provide valuable information to help programs be more effective. But although they have been used as research methods for decades, they have been under-utilised in MERL, where Western models of scientific inquiry and research – often requiring expatriate experts – prevail.

Similarly, in the Ebola emergency, communities drew on existing cultural practices and community networks to implement hygiene, protection and sanitation measures to effectively combat spread of the disease. This required health experts, front-line responders and officials to consult, listen to and learn from communities.

We believe these kinds of MERL, many of which pre-date COVID-19, are particularly well suited to the global pandemic context. They offer ways for decision makers and practitioners to make sense of their rapidly changing operating context, navigate uncertainty, and effectively monitor and evaluate COVID-19 responses in real time.

However, whether the opportunities afforded by this critical juncture are realised will depend on both the technical quality of MERL as well as the degree to which actors can use this opportunity to promote change in the deep incentive structures within which development agencies are embedded.

As a number of commentators have suggested, this will require, among other things, giving up the illusion of control and predictability, investing appropriately in strategic learning and adaptation, and allowing for ‘navigation by judgement’ by front line staff and partner agencies. These are issues that many both within and outside the sector have been suggesting for a long time. While a range of factors make this shift difficult, we suggest there is more scope to change internal ways of working in development agencies than is commonly acknowledged and suggest some practical ways this can be done.

We do not pretend that making a case for investing in this kind of MERL will be easy. On the one hand, the pandemic exposes the limits of current approaches to risk management, efficiency, and linear understandings of change which underpin many orthodox approaches to planning, design and associated MERL. One would hope that in the future as much emphasis would be put on the ability of organisations and systems to cope with uncertainty and shocks, and to learn and adapt, as on trying to predict what outcomes they will generate in three or five years’ time.

This might lead us to seeing COVID-19 as providing important lessons for addressing climate change, and for monitoring and evaluating our capacity to respond to it. Not least, we might already be thinking about the deliberative spaces that would bring different interests and different forms of knowledge together – including the experience of citizens and marginalised groups – so that we can collectively learn about how well we are addressing common problems and what we could do differently.

Putting the MERL in Merlin?

On the other hand, political, public and emergency pressures are focusing MERL on meeting immediate needs and information demands. There is also a vested interest in the status quo. Shifting towards localisation and away from externally-driven change inevitably means giving up control and relinquishing power.

It also means admitting that many things in aid and development simply cannot be predicted. This requires us to recognise that the essence of MERL – that is, the ability to assess progress, learn and adapt – is not something external to social change, but rather is central to it.  These are large conceptual and political changes.

It therefore remains to be seen if the ‘opportunity structures’ provided by COVID-19 result in a realignment of the fundamental ideas and power relations which underpin much international development and the MERL approaches which are based upon them. There is no time like the present to advocate for a ‘new normal’ for MERL.

The authors have put up their PowerPoint on YouTube, accompanied by a soundtrack that suggests that at least some of them spent a serious amount of time clubbing at some point…..

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


4 Responses to “Can we understand COVID-19 fast enough – and well enough – to make a difference?”
  1. (a point made by others, which I am repeating…) Risk and uncertainty are two different things. Risks are events with identifiable probabilities and which can be planned for with relatively specific responses (e.g. influenza epidemics). Uncertainties have unknown probabilities and require a different kind of response – a robust response – one which can cope with a variety of developments, which is unlikely to be optimal, but which nevertheless may be sufficient. An old example of the latter is James March (1963) concept of “organisational slack”

  2. The issues you bring up are, indeed, true. But the suggested locally-led, politically-informed and adaptive types of MERL” you suggest for a reinvigorated process have been around for many years. As you note, such a practice has been used predominantly in research, but certainly (from my experience) in MonEvs as well. Impeding factors for using this approach, aside from the “technical quality of MERL as well as the degree to which actors can use this opportunity to promote change” may include a different type of communicative ability plus more time requirement, hence greater cost. Certainly if such concerns not be necessary, then your suggestion is desirable. I shall also read your full article in case some of this be covered. Thanks!

  3. Chris Roche

    Thanks Ivan, we were trying to say that these approaches have been around for some time in the M&E and research fields, but their widespread adoption is constrained for a number of reasons which include what some might call the ‘politics of evidence’, but you are right there are of course other factors including cost, time, etc. I also think you are right that the ability to communicate and engage different players is critically important.