Locally-led MEL Week: Four Lessons on Localising CLA by Abhirup Bhunia

My name is Abhirup Bhunia, and I am an international development Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) Expert. I have worked on MEL and Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA; adaptive management) mandates across sectors for several years with many bilateral/multilateral institutions including USAID, United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and United Nations agencies. In this blog, I would like to take the opportunity to share localisation strategies I learned from my practice: 

Lessons Learned:

Spirited co-creation or co-design is localisation in action: MEL and CLA frameworks, templates and standards often emanate in the Global North, far away from communities that official development assistance seeks to serve. Some go on to attain international good practice status through sustained and successful application. For these conceptual frameworks to be relevant, effective and sustainable in the Global South, it is necessary but still insufficient to tweak them for context by using services of a local expert. Instead, when local stakeholders actively contribute to the designs themselves using indigenous research or program capacities, tacit local knowledge, and lived experiences – the analytical frameworks begin to respond better to complex ground-level realities. It helps to foster local input into design and implementation through horizontal relationships between donor and host country governments and Global North-South experts that are implementing the intervention. Empowered local experts also can take co-design a step further by facilitating deeper feedback from local networks of multidisciplinary experts. 

A wider group of local stakeholders can validate and enrich findings: The uptake and application of evidence generated through MEL (by experts) is sometimes incomplete or inadequate. CLA correctly emphasises strategic collaboration during policy/program design, implementation, and adaptation. CLA also rightly focuses on stakeholder experiences and reflections in conjunction with – or simply tapping into – MEL data. One powerful way to improve your work is to have the wider group of local stakeholders – i.e., program teams, partners, government counterparts, beneficiaries – critically engage with the findings that you produced. In a recent evaluation of a European donor’s private sector development (PSD) portfolio in India and Nigeria, we conducted sensemaking workshops to get all local stakeholders in the ‘system’ to grapple with, and offer critical inputs to, emerging findings before they were finalised. Incorporating these perspectives can enhance findings for organisations keen to learn from and adapt their programs and portfolios. This also elevates local stakeholders from being passive interview respondents or workshop participants to active collaborators in MEL or CLA exercises. If we do this, our intended users are more likely to buy into findings and actively apply, rather than passively consume – or ignore – them. 

Beyond MEL, conduct in-depth research on local ‘systems’ to enrich CLA: Beyond MEL’s intervention-centric insights, deep-dive research into local ‘systems’ within which these interventions operate can enrich learning. This body of contextual research – conducted locally – can range from sector studies and landscape reviews to political economy analyses and evidence syntheses. Provisioning for in-depth research of the local context ensures we are well-placed to appropriately respond to rapidly evolving realities in the developing world in a complexity-aware fashion. 

‘Local’ can be layered: In many contexts, the unit of ‘local’ isn’t just at the federal level, particularly when there is a legacy of decentralisation. Since CLA activities are high-level exercises probing strategic questions, it may be incorrectly assumed that local governments are too micro or granular to engage with. Local government voices can be independent, divergent and important enough to ‘listen to’ as we seek to collaborate and learn. So, when we attempt to localise, understanding the contextual history of localisation helps. 

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