Participatory approaches can be used in each stage of programme and project cycles: during planning, while monitoring progress, and after a programme has come to an end.
In participatory planning, monitoring and evaluation the process of engagement is as important as the outcomes. It aims to shift power from development professionals to the intended beneficiaries of the intervention. With participatory approaches, it is these people who set the direction for change, plan their priorities, and decide whether the intervention has made progress and delivered relevant change.
There is now a long tradition of participatory approaches to development planning, practiced by donors, governments and NGOs. But the involvement of local stakeholders in the monitoring and evaluation of interventions lags behind; although Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation (PM&E) is nothing new, it is not as widely used as participatory approaches to planning.
In participatory planning, members of local communities discuss and prioritise their development needs, and external actors use this information to plan their projects and programmes.
Many development NGOs use some form of participatory approach to planning in their target areas, and some governments have legal frameworks in place for participatory local development planning. In Brazil, this goes as far as participatory budgeting for local government expenditure.
In places where national governments are required by international financial institutions to create national policies for poverty reduction, country-wide research exercises, Participatory Poverty Assessments, have been used to transmit the voices and opinions of poorer people into national planning and policy processes.
The level of participation in planning by local communities varies, as does the shift in power between different actors in the planning process. As in all participatory approaches, it is important to ask who participates. Power relations matter within all communities, and some groups or individuals always have a louder voice than others. Equally, imbalances of power between aid actors and communities, and amongst aid agencies, shape who is involved in participatory approaches to planning, and what they are able to achieve.
Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation (PM&E)
Monitoring systems are conventionally used to show donors and aid agencies how much progress is being made towards meeting the objectives of their programmes, and to highlight any ongoing problems. After a programme finishes, evaluations show the extent to which they achieved their goals, the shortfalls and lessons learnt. In this sense, conventional M&E systems tend to cater to the needs of external actors and have ‘upward’ accountability.
PM&E, by contrast, seeks to shift the focus from upward to downward accountability. The intended beneficiaries of programmes themselves set the indicators for progress and success. They discuss and decide how a programme brought about change and whether it improved their lives. A PM&E process helps to ensure responsible and accountable aid.
Conventional M&E activities need to demonstrate whether funds were used adequately and efficiently: whether the donor got ‘value for money’. The information from conventional M&E, usually based on pre-set indicators derived from the logframe, aims to be objective and quantifiable. It is usually produced by external consultants and reported to donors. As a result, the process of learning takes place outside the communities where the intervention was implemented.
PM&E includes a wider range of stakeholders, notably local people, and the process and outcomes are intended to be relevant to local stakeholders. Facilitators work with local stakeholders to formulate indicators for evaluation, based on how the intervention has been relevant or has had an impact. The dialogue or negotiation between the community and the facilitator is a crucial feature of PM&E, requiring trust and flexibility. Being actively involved in the PM&E process can be empowering, because the process builds skills and people’s views are listened to. PM&E requires time and energy, particularly if the participants’ involvement goes beyond setting indicators to include data collection. Care needs to be taken to nurture and sustain their engagement with the process.
PM&E leaves room for capturing and analysing unexpected outcomes and analysing complexity, as described here by Robert Chambers in a short video taken at the 2010 Evaluation Revisited conference. It also allows enquiry into factors that have led to change which cannot be directly attributed to the intervention. It has the advantage that it can not only evaluate the intended outcomes of an intervention, but also the effects of the process of implementation; such as how people gained self-confidence or changed their behaviours.