Tiina Pasanen
Pablo Yanguas

We created this MEL system for you, now please own it!

Guest post by Tiina Pasanen & Pablo Yanguas

External consultants, learning partners or critical friends -whatever we call them- can seldom change the system or organisational (learning) culture from outside. So, how can Monitoring Evaluation and Learning (MEL) consultants support real change instead of creating tools or processes that are quickly forgotten without any real institutional ownership?

Most development organisations struggle with monitoring performance and using evidence to inform decisions. Despite growing attention to beneficiary feedback, donor agencies, NGOs, implementers and philanthropies cannot rely on market signals from consumers or investors to course correct, like businesses do. Moreover, their actions often have at least some principled motivation, which makes it easy to overlook the added value of having a coherent plan with explicit assumptions and clear metrics. As a result, a lot of MEL in development is lacklustre: mistaking activities for results, counting meaningless things like participation in events, or generalising from isolated anecdotes. Though one would not guess it from reading annual reports, most organisations can’t really tell how effective they are.

‘Who you gonna call?’

The expansion of results-, evidence-, and learning-based approaches to development over the last two decades has made many organisations see the writing on the wall. They are now working frantically to improve their MEL – or at least look like they do, for the benefit of funders and competitors. With limited in-house resources, external consultants are often brought in as catalysts, someone who can ‘fix’ MEL.

That’s when people like us come in: the kinds of MEL experts and learning advisors who are contracted to design tools, frameworks or processes for a team or whole organisation.  Unfortunately, we tend to work best with those who need us the least.

When organisations bring in external help to address MEL gaps, it is highly unlikely that imported practices will be owned by anyone accustomed to the status quo. Custom and habit are powerful motivators, and when new formal procedures are introduced that clash with existing practice, chances are they will be abandoned in due course. In contrast, those organisations which already have a burgeoning learning culture are unlikely to think they need the services of external consultants. That means that many MEL professionals continue to sell their services to (failing) clients, with little hope of having an impact.

Why doesn’t it work?

All too often MEL systems are deployed in a purely extractive manner, harvesting results and narratives that can be used for reporting and fundraising. When upward accountability is the overriding priority, organisations often engage in performative or retroactive MEL. It is performative when it creates the appearance that learning is taken seriously, in so far as the same claims are made over and over again in increasingly flashy reports and presentations. It is retroactive when MEL consists in sifting through past documentation and probing staff for anecdotes and titbits that could qualify as results. And sometimes measuring for reporting can become obsessive, almost displacing implementation work.

This is not to say reporting is not important (it is!). But when the primary aim of MEL is something else than just reporting or fundraising – like, say, learning – it is typically done in a different manner. True learning approaches are much more interactive and co-productive, involving a change in mindset as much as a change in tools. The introduction of a learning agenda can only succeed if it is done as part of a broader change management process: a top-to-bottom rethink of staff capabilities and culture, day-to-day practices, and what counts as ‘the job’ for people who would usually do not do ‘the MEL thing’ (after all, James Bond didn’t write reports).

Both MEL consultants and the organisations that hire them are well aware of the importance of ownership in order to make meaningful, sustainable changes. That is why we are seeing in consultants’ terms of references and funding proposals a growing emphasis on how ownership can be strengthened or introduced:  participatory approaches, consultation meetings, opportunities for feedback, and so on. But the bottom line is the same: MEL tools or processes are still often created primarily by external people and then handed over to programme staff to be ‘owned’.

So when and how does it work?

MEL needs to be a part of organisational vision, structure, and processes.

It’s about timing

The challenge of ownership is easier to tackle during a critical juncture, such as strategic review or internal reorganisation process, when almost everything is temporarily unsettled and there is a consensus on the need for change. During such critical junctures, existing habits and customs have already been challenged, and there is no ownership yet for a clear vision or a new organogram. Fluidity in goals and practices makes it more likely that new ideas will find purchase.

And about tailored, fit-for-purpose and co-designed options

Don’t hire MEL consultants to sell you tools or tell you what to do. Hire them because you need a critical friend along the path of organisational change. Own, then learn – not the other way round.

For external support to have an impact, it must be given the requisite access and space to understand an organisation’s identity and needs. The complexity inherent to an unsettled team calls for context-sensitive and tailored tools and processes, instead of ready-made, off-the-shelf MEL products. MEL experts should not behave as salespeople or motivational speakers, but as critical friends: trusted outsiders who can accompany an organisation during a critical time, co-developing ideas, trialling them, and iterating on what works. They should assess whatever MEL already exists – either formally or informally – and build on it, identifying inefficiencies that can be abandoned and incrementally tweaking what already works.

Ultimately, it’s about understanding the boundaries of what external people can do

Consultants and learning partners can seldom change a learning system or organisational culture – it just does not work like that. What they can do is interrogate existing practices, introduce new ideas, and support change processes already underway to ensure lasting, transformative impact. They are a multiplier for homegrown change initiatives, not a substitute.

So don’t hire MEL consultants to sell you tools or tell you what to do. Hire them because you need a critical friend along the path of organisational change. Own, then learn – not the other way round.

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.


18 Responses to “We created this MEL system for you, now please own it!”
      • Duncan Green

        Reply from the techies ‘Sadly the answer is ‘yes’. We are using the Google CAPTCHA – so I expect it to learn from other places. E.g. if someone is logged into their Google account then I doubt they’ll get that.’

        • P S BAKER

          Thanks! I find it somewhat humiliating to have to make the extra effort to prove to a robot that I’m not a robot; I bet Alan Turing didn’t think of that possibility.

          I’m looking now at ways to use AI to write pedantic and annoying ripostes so that there will be at least some robotic content in what I write.

          An online AI writer just gave me this for example: “If you’re new to MEL, the good news is that you probably already do some sort of MEL, even if you don’t realize it.”

  1. Pete Nash

    This article has some really well articulated, commonly held – but rarely implemented – ideas, and some good new perspectives. The idea of a company’s “critical juncture” as a good opportunity for change, and to embed new Monitoring Evaluation and Learning (MEL) processes is ambitious but rings true.

    (I also am a chimney identifying non-robot)

  2. Excellent article and exactly where my organisation is at the moment. It felt like it was written for me, to give me some great quotes to take forward in the organisation! We are currently in a strategic planning cycle and as part of that are reviewing our MEL systems and approaches. We have realised that we primarily measure what we do for donor reporting. We have been thinking that we need to evolve this to measure the things that will demonstrate change and impact, then look at how our programme performs towards those measures…and then apply learning mechanisms (meetings, workshops, consultations, data analysis etc) around it to adapt the programming to deliver better results…and to ensure our frontline staff have capacity and are empowered to be driving this process of learning and improvement. not the other way round of ‘we measure what we do’ because thats what our donors are paying us for’ Thanks for the article :0)

  3. Couple of points from my experience developing MEL systems for a range of clients:
    – It’s less an issue of MEL systems being ‘extractive’ and more a case of them placing an additional evidence collection and evidence analysis ‘burden’ on those in an organisation who are already very busy. Very few organisation have ‘spare’ in-house MEL capacity to counterpart the MEL consultants.
    – The ‘L’ in MEL adds an additional burden on top of more ‘traditional’ M&E and cannot simply be outsourced to consultants. The ‘learning’ rests in the minds of the organisation’s staff and stakeholders, not the MEL consultants!
    – Sensemaking and collaborative learning processes are time-intensive to design and even more so to deliver, particularly when dealing with issues which are complex, dynamic and contested. Even when actively facilitated by external consultants, they require considerable buy-in and commitment from across an organisation, not just its MEL person. Most organisations just don’t have this space (or MEL capacity). That said, most organisations become big proponents of sensemaking and collaborative learning if the first couple of rounds are designed and facilitated for them.
    – That’s why practical MEL approaches, tools, and templates ARE super important. Get them right and the MEL system and process can be practical, efficient and fit-for-purpose. MEL consultants like to talk concept, very few like to talk ‘tailor-made’ practice.

  4. Henrietta Miers

    This is such an insightful piece for anyone in the Monitoring Evaluation and Learning world. I particularly like the reference to what so many organisations do – the meaningless counting of activities like ‘participation in events’. This is so common it has become mainstream in development. Beyond anecdotes it is quite rare to hear the back stories behind the reported ‘activities’ – from which we can learn valuable lessons for the future. Going broader, this is particularly relevant in the UK today with the outcry around the government’s reduction of the UK aid budget. Surely it should not be about how much we give, but about how effectively we spend our budget?

  5. Brendan Halloran

    As someone working in an organization that is both working with an external consultant as a critical friend to assess our P(for planning)MEL while also very clear about ensuring institutional ownership, this is a timely reflection. Especially important is thinking about this in the context of broader change management and critical junctures, to link various processes and issues, and more deeply embed the resulting shifts. Thanks for the insights!

  6. Excellent write-up! What I would add is that even if the intent of the evaluators is sound, and the cooperation of the evaluation commissioners or evaluands is honest, optimal success and relevance of an evaluation in most projects hinges on a participatory process. This means not just reading the resulting reports after a month or two and lamenting the inaccuracies therein, but ab initio having representation of all stakeholders being able to have input to the process, plans and implementation; having built in opportunity to review a draft so as to prevent major errors and possible embarrassing claims by the evaluators; and timely sharing of the final report with the stakeholders. Yes, this would be more time intensive and add to the cost; but the satisfaction and understanding that would emerge from the beneficiaries would – in my experience—considerably optimize the chances for true ownership and enable such evaluations to be sustained in locally adapted ways.

  7. Ajoy Datta

    Great article Tiina and Pablo, it reminds me of the idea that for one to learn about what’s going on ‘out there’ one needs to learn about what’s going on ‘in here’, which calls for a degree of regular reflection and reflexivity. I wrote something about this a while ago in relation to strategic planning which I’ll paste here if of interest: https://onthinktanks.org/articles/strategic-planning-its-just-as-much-about-the-present-as-the-future/

  8. Thank you all for sharing your views and experiences! Our post included a few points that are painfully obvious, but still unacknowledged due to incompatible incentives. We both believe MEL consultants can play a crucial role in organisational strengthening – otherwise we would not be in this line of work! But it is also important to make the constraints explicit so that TORs and contracts can be better calibrated, and more focus put on the how rather than solely on the what. The more we speak openly about these challenges, the better off the community will be.

  9. Buba

    An excellent write up dissecting a lot of the issues. Thanks for the insights. I’ve always struggled with the notion of “failure” in evaluation language and I think if anyone has the capacity to demystify this scary thing called failure, it should be evaluators. Is it when the data lends voice to itself in ways that doesn’t tell us what we want to hear that the project fails, or is failure an imaginary smokescreen used to scare organizations and justify certain practices? I think part of the problem is, the sector has succeeded to develop professionals at only one end of the development line

  10. Julian Hamilton-Peach

    Thanks for the post that made me laugh while nodding my head in agreement. What is stated applies to consultants offering any service. One has to become a ‘trusted adviser’. I recommend the book by the same name.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *