How to Monitor Political Context – some practical advice

I’ve been chatting to Johan Eldebo at World Vision about its work on adaptive management/systems thinking. WV is the 1000lb gorilla of INGOs – four times bigger in terms of income than Oxfam, last time I looked, and does some really interesting thinking in this area, especially in humanitarian response, where things are often chaotic and fast moving – discussed in this 2019 post by Tom Kirk. Johan recently sent me its internal guidance on ‘context monitoring for adaptive management’, which is being used increasingly for its Fragile Context Programme Approach in several countries. Sounds a bit dry, I know, but I found it really interesting. Some excerpts, full (10 page) document here:

What is context-monitoring? At its core, context-monitoring is about understanding your surroundings well enough to be able to actively make good and timely decisions on how to act as a team.

When we monitor the context, a helpful distinction can be to think about it as (1) indicators of the past and present and (2) signals of the future.

Both can be pre-selected linked to particular scenarios but it is also good to allow scope for monitoring other things that may come up unexpectedly.

  • Indicators ‘indicate’ something that is currently happening or has happened in the context, which may require a change in project. This can be something that happened right next to the project or something that happened in a different country.
  • Signals suggest that something is about to happen. They signal a future development, which may need to be prepared for. Similar to indicators, they can be geographically close or distant.

For example, your car speedometer may tell you that you are driving at 50km/h. That is an indicator of your current speed. Next to your speedometer is a warning light telling you that you are almost out of fuel. That light signals that something is shortly about to happen in the future.

For World Vision’s work this could look as follows:

  • Number of demonstrations in the last week (indicator)
  • Location of demonstrations taking place today (indicator)
  • Number of protestors on the street today (indicator)
  • Motive for demonstrations taking place today (indicator) and next week (signal)
  • Likelihood of demonstrations occurring next week (signal)
  • Nature of demonstrations today (indicator) and next week (signal). For example, they may have been unarmed and peaceful last week, but are likely to be armed violent next week, signalling increasing unrest

Signals and indicators may monitor the same issue but are distinct in their purpose and utility. Indicators can be easier to measure quantitatively but should never be limited just to this. They often still require wider context and human analysis to explain and understand why they are occurring and what impact they may or may not have on current or future project activities or approaches. They can and should change as operations and contexts evolve, and should often include items that are not necessarily directly related to an operational area.

Signals are more important for the future-orientation of a project and require skilled human decision-making, often by staff as well as the community, to be utilised well. They are more likely to be qualitative because they can be less precise. Both indicators and signals may monitor rapid changes as well as ones that develop slowly.

Signals can for example relate to the attitude of key actors in a context, or more intangible observations such as the public mood that are challenging to pinpoint but critically important, especially during this time of pent-up frustration from the pandemic. They can be insights such as that an anticipated lack of savings in communities will lead to a food crisis within a few months if rains fail. Or that an anticipated growth in armed protests instead of unarmed ones will lead to a scenario of more forceful policing and violent clashes.

Principles for effective context monitoring
A culture of flexibility, and subsidiarity of decision-making: Subsidiarity, or making decisions at the lowest practical and appropriate level is key to effectiveness. This is also why the individuals who make those decisions are the primary users of context-monitoring. Global and regional staff are often secondary users. As such, the design should be as simple and pragmatic as possible to minimise complexity, increase agility and save time and effort at the local level. It needs to be designed in such a way that makes sense to the leaders who are in place and also tries to collect data consistently so that trends and changes can be assessed over time.

Good context-monitoring is contingent upon a culture of good decision-making (which is outside the scope of this paper). It empowers the design and usage of insights and data in a range of decisions on whether adaptations are necessary or not, including project choices (sectors, locations and scale) and wider support services (e.g security, finance, logistics). This can be at organisational and individual levels and in different time frames ranging from day to day actions to longer term strategic choices.

Finally, this is a culture that requires and allows leadership and decision-makers to act on context-monitoring at senior as well as community levels. This provides for agility for the project to respond in real time.

Demonstrable willingness to support change by leadership: Context-monitoring works best where staff are convinced that leadership is willing to reassess the current approach if circumstances change or are likely to change and support it as required (such as being having flexible funding available to support as needed). Staff who believe that their managers will listen to them, the information they bring in and their thoughts and support the changes they make will be more likely to engage in creative context-monitoring.

Tolerance of ambiguity: We monitor the context because we are not sure what may happen next. The future, as well as the present, is ambiguous and our monitoring should reflect that lack of certainty, and we should not overstate our confidence. When during monitoring we notice something important but unclear, we should note it as such and not try to make it clearer than it is nor ignore it for the benefit of something less important but clearer. Monitoring uncertainty, through looking at multiple sources and applying good judgement, is important.

Relationship-building and trust with communities and with donors: Many of the important insights that will guide good context-monitoring will come from key individuals who are well-connected and well-informed. It will be important to build and maintain those connections, and ensure that the insight from key people are given the weight they deserve in the monitoring. The relationship building will contribute to community acceptance, which further helps other project operations and access.

Listening to the voices of communities and staff: Sometimes the best source of information will be seemingly unlikely individuals such as shop-owners or taxi drivers, or generally well-connected persons with the communities we are working with, including front line staff members. For example, drivers will often have a very good understanding of check-points, traffic patterns and road conditions. If asked, they can often add a lot of day-to-day insights. The local supermarket staff will know how their supply chains work, and can often quickly tell if the prices are going up in the area. Identifying people like this is essential to having good, local information that is available quickly.’

The paper then goes on to set out some practical steps in setting up a context-monitoring plan, including how to choose indicators and signals, who should collect them and how etc.

What I liked about this was that it took the kind of hand-wavey ‘you need to understand the changing context/dance with the system, people’ advice that I and others often dish out, and turns it into something much more concrete and actionable. Nice work.

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