It is fairly easy to explain what AfricAid does and how we do it. But the “why” can sometimes feel emotional and subjective. Why is it important to mentor girls in life and leadership skills so that they stay in school and become empowered citizens? That’s where the function of Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) comes in.
MEL is the process of tracking our Scholars and Alumnae as they learn with us and move on to the adult world, analyzing the data we gather, and using the results to learn and improve. It results in concrete statistics that support our work and reason for being.
AfricAid engages in rigorous data collection and analysis. We use a variety of measurement tools to gather data on our impact and ensure our programs are making a difference. In addition to scouring national exam data, we use Scholar Surveys at the beginning and end of a participant’s involvement in the program. Rating “resilience competencies” is a particular area of focus. For Binti Shupavu, we also survey the parents/guardians to gauge opinions about girls’ education in general. We gather stories through “most significant change interviews.” Mentors ask Scholars, Alumnae, community members, and their fellow Mentors about the most significant change in their life that has resulted from involvement with our programs.
The entire AfricAid staff is involved in gathering this important and actionable information. The effort is led by Jess Littman, AfricAid’s Director of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning. AfricAid’s culture has always included feedback, adjustment and evolution, so that’s why including the “L”, the learning, in this job title is so important.
For more information about AfricAid’s approach to MEL and to see our significant and quantifiable impact, visit this page on our website.
Why did you choose to go into the international development field?
In high school I had the opportunity to participate in an internship in Uganda, working with a women’s microfinance organization. The experience opened my eyes not only to a type of life and community I didn’t know existed, but to the concrete and sustainable change that is being made every day by community-based organizations. I fell in love with East Africa and with working to support people who are advancing their communities. I went on to study International Development and Peace at NYU, and moved to Tanzania the year after I graduated.
Most non-profits refer to this area as M&E, but AfricAid adds an “L.” Why do you think the “Learning” part is as important as the Monitoring and Evaluation?
People talk about M&E as one concept, but “monitoring” and “evaluation” are very distinct. Monitoring is the process of collecting data, while evaluation is the process of analyzing that data. That’s a great start – but our goal is to learn from the evaluation, and to make improvements. I regularly meet with the program staff to point out issues in the data – for example, if there seem to be a lot of absences from a particular class or school, I point it out, and then the Project Manager works with the Mentor of those classes, and if necessary our Social Worker, to resolve the problem. The same is true on a higher level: if the surveys come back with responses that we don’t expect, then I work with the programs team to make changes to the curriculum or even the structure of the program to resolve those issues. If we do M&E without learning and making changes, then what’s the point?
How do you interact with the AfricAid staff, as well as Partner Schools, to gather the quantitative and qualitative information that you need?
At AfricAid, MEL is everyone’s job. Although I’m the primary person dealing with MEL, Mentors are actually the ones who collect all of the data. They give the surveys to their Scholars, and also update their records when they miss a class or take advantage of our emergency fund. The schools are also helpful in getting us the exam results for our Scholars. We’re also planning to start formally surveying and interviewing school staff in order to get their take on our programs.
How does MEL vary with the different groups of girls we work with (Binti, Kisa, Alumnae)?
Binti Shupavu and the Kisa Project aim for different outcomes: Binti Shupavu Scholars are younger and much more vulnerable, and our primary goals are to get them through lower secondary school and to get their parents on board with the idea of girls’ education and empowerment. Our Kisa Scholars, by having made it to upper secondary, have demonstrated that they’ll probably finish their secondary schooling, and that their parents are probably fairly supportive. Our goal with Kisa is to make sure that those Scholars take this amazing educational opportunity and bring it back to their communities as leaders and changemakers. As you can see, we’re measuring different outcomes here, so nearly all of the questions on the Kisa survey are different from those on the Binti Shupavu survey. We also survey the parents of Binti Shupavu Scholars to find out how the program is impacting them, which we don’t do for Kisa. However, we do survey Kisa Alumnae for years after the program has ended, and we add new questions on that survey, including ones about education and job status and about income.
What kind of skills does a person need to be able to do this job well?
In terms of technical skills, you have to have a basic level of statistical analysis skills. I’m not a statistician, but I do have to be able to calculate straightforward things like percent differences in survey responses over time, and to create charts that accurately and meaningfully demonstrate our impact. It also takes a high level of organization, because we give a minimum of 12 different survey types every year. Finally, I think empathy is key for anyone working in international development. This is important both for my work in MEL – for example, understanding the people behind the impact numbers – and in general, because I work in a multi-cultural office and need to be aware of people’s differences.
What is the importance of educating girls globally?
I firmly believe that girls should have excellent educational opportunities because it is their right. But if you look for other reasons, there are plenty: educating girls results in increases in national GDP, a healthier population, less violence, and even fewer and less severe impacts of climate change.
What do you like best about living in Tanzania?
I love Tanzanian people. Most people here have a great sense of humor – our office is full of laughter, and it’s easy to joke with strangers in the market or on the bus. People here also have a lot of grit and resilience, which I think has affected the way I see my own challenges. I’ve never seen a Tanzanian woman give up on something, whether it’s a colleague at AfricAid who’s trying to master a new skill or a lady in the market trying to sell the last of her stock before the end of the day. I think this has made me more determined, because I admire this quality in the people around me.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to read – I don’t think I could have lived abroad in the time before the e-reader was invented – so I spend a lot of free time doing that. This year I had a resolution to read one non-fiction book in between every novel, so I’ve learned a lot from that (although I still prefer fiction). There are also a lot of great outdoor activities here in Northern Tanzania. I go camping, and I’m hoping to take my (very unruly) dogs on hikes soon.