Locally-led MEL Week: Welcome to an Exploration of Locally-led MEL in International Development by Katie Sciarini

Katie Sciarini

I’m Katie Sciarini, a Technical Specialist with Social Impact Inc.’s Strategy, Performance and Learning Division coming to you from a humanitarian assistance and Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL)-focused background, including seven years based outside of the United States. Welcome to AEA 365’s theme week focused on locally-led MEL in international development, aligned to the upcoming (Re) shaping Evaluation Together conference and the Presidential Strand of Equity, Social Justice and Decolonization of Evaluation. This week is also a continuation of two previous theme weeks on decolonization of evaluation, but focuses on the unique aspects of this process in the international development sector. 

The international development and humanitarian assistance sectors have historically been dominated by institutionalized colonialism and racism, positioning western and white individuals and organizations with the power to affect funding and decisions outside of the U.S. with little to no opportunity for input from those most affected by these decisions. MEL has historically been an extractive exercise with benefits accruing to MEL organizations in the global north whose expertise is often valued over that of local evaluation firms. Recognizing the benefits inherent in one’s position is a first step in the power-shifting implied with approaching our work from a decolonization lens, and shifting to locally-led MEL. 

What are we talking about when we speak of locally-led MEL and ‘decolonizing’ our work? Though the concepts are not simple at all, these terms boil down to shifting power and ownership of decision-making around resources, purpose, questions, design, etc. to those most affected by evaluations and research and centering local firms and communities. This will require restructuring evaluation efforts in significant ways. 

The murder of George Floyd in June of 2020 accelerated the reckoning around power and racism in the aid industry, and though some concrete steps are in the works to shift power, such as USAID’s 2021 commitment to increase funding to local organizations, these efforts are a work in progress and increased funding is not necessarily synonymous with ‘locally-led’. Global north funders of MEL work, as well as MEL practitioners, have key roles to play in shifting power. This includes self and organizational reflection of privilege, examination of systems and incentives embedded in those systems that are barriers to locally led MEL, and development and execution of actionable steps to eliminate the barriers. This is not easy – it involves giving away resources and power and taking risks. 

The authors of each of the blog posts in this series are evaluators from a variety of organizations, backgrounds, and lived experiences with locally-led MEL who suggest a combination of tools to shift power, including examining the power dynamics of MEL actors, organizations and communities; building MEL skillsets of local actors according to the local context; and prioritizing community-led MEL from scoping to dissemination, participatory methods and feminist research approaches, inclusive design/co-creation and making sure stakeholders include more than just funders and implementers. These suggestions require flexibility, resources, and systems change from global north funders to encourage and promote greater participation and leadership by local MEL actors, and an intentional and tangible commitment by all global north MEL actors (funders and implementors alike) to disrupt and abandon the colonial mindset embedded in the industry. We welcome feedback and discussion on the topics we present. Thanks for engaging!

Rad Resources: 

For a deeper dive into the decolonization of international development see discussions here, here and here. It is also worth checking out this course from Population Works Africa, this Cynara virtual workshop and The Healing Solidarity Collective though there are many more resources and actors engaged in this work.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.e.

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