Seven tips to decolonize your MEL practice, by Sabine Topolansky and JulieAnn Sickell

We are Sabine Topolansky and JulieAnn Sickell, monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) professionals with the International Republican Institute (IRI), a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing democracy and governance worldwide.

Though not experts on decolonizing evaluation, we recently reflected on our practices and identified 7 Hot Tips to decolonize MEL:  

Hot Tips:

  1. Acknowledge MEL’s historical use as a top-down tool for enforcing accountability of grantees and sub-grantees in international development, and that this practice can reinforce power differentials, distrust, and punitive measures. From a funder perspective, MEL is essential in making sure funds have their intended impact. To achieve this aim, it is imperative that we emphasize MEL as a tool for measuring outcomes and learning, not for control or punishment.
  • Reduce barriers for participation in MEL activities. English is not and should not be the default language for MEL terminology. Reduce MEL jargon, which often prevents communities from engaging fully and confidently in MEL activities.
  • Seek local evaluation experts. Break the cycle of conscious or unconscious reference to the work of evaluators from the Global North as the “gold standard.” Instead, seek out the technical expertise of local evaluators who intimately understand the culture, language, and communities that we evaluate.
  • Ensure participatory methods are transparent at every step in the monitoring and/or evaluation process. Our methodological choice, identification of participants and data analysis should be shared with the communities we work with. We are not the sole owners or users of data. Communities should have access to what we have learned, while maintaining protections for personally identifiable information and confidentiality/anonymity guarantees.
  • Go beyond “do no harm” and evaluation ethics. Decisions on evaluation questions and design are not neutral; what we choose to evaluate and the methods we select shape narratives about the communities where we work, affects the distribution of resources and power, and plays a critical role in acknowledging or ignoring the colonial past and history of inequality. Co-designing questions, especially those that interrogate whether current systems encourage equitable and just development, with communities is critical to ensuring evaluation questions are relevant, appropriate, and in line with values of affected populations, not solely based on donor and Western evaluator’s values.  
  • Call for funder support and flexibility to accept failure as part of implementing DRG programs. The culture of fearing failure is still engrained in most international organizations. This is a major barrier that prevents us from acknowledging when our Global North-driven assumptions and approaches are misinformed and ineffective. We need to encourage locally driven learning and adaptation in practice, not just on paper.
  • Recognize that bias is always present. Whether it’s social desirability bias when foreigners conduct evaluations or our own implicit and explicit assumptions about communities’ needs and capacities, it’s important to be transparent with ourselves and others that such biases are unavoidable.

While progress has been made in recent years to decolonize evaluation, there is much work ahead. Learning about the colonial past of international development and how it relates to MEL helps us systematically dismantle harmful practices. We believe there needs to be more meaningful conversations around existing biases, harmful power dynamics, and steps toward decolonizing our MEL practices. As two young professionals, we are carving out more time and space within our practice to implement these steps, even if it can be “uncomfortable” and result in Western evaluators stepping aside to uplift non-Western methods and evaluators.

If you want to join us in our work, please reach out to us at stopolansky@iri.org and jsickell@iri.org.

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.

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