By Ratna Sinroja
A summer internship in wildlife conservation may sound like niche social work far removed from human problems. However, my organization, Maliasili, seeks out and provides organizational development support to innovative partner organizations that put local people right in the center of preserving wild environments. This summer, I spent two months working with some of these inspiring partners in Tanzania and Kenya.
Maliasili’s approach makes sense, because ‘wildlife’ or ecological conservation closely overlaps with several other important development issues — basic land rights (including those of indigenous/tribal peoples), natural resource-based livelihoods, the effective functioning of local governance institutions for ecological management and, not least, mitigating climate change.
However, the dominant colonial and post-colonial form of conservation has overwhelmingly consisted of centrally-run national parks that attempt to separate local people from animals. In contrast, all of Maliasili’s partners embody some combination of three fundamental tenets of decentralized, community based natural resource management (CBNRM): a) securing land rights, b) improving effectiveness of local governance, and/or c) creating sustainable economic opportunities that are tied to wildlife preservation.
This approach is based on the principle that those who bear the costs of living with wildlife (livestock predation, crop destruction, danger to human life) should also have direct access to and control over the benefits, especially since most people in these two countries depend on natural resources, be it in the form of agriculture, pastoralism (e.g. Maasai), or the few remaining communities that are hunter-gatherers (e.g. the Hadzabe in Tanzania, the Ogiek in Kenya).
My work involved designing and strengthening Maliasili’s monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems as well as those of four of their partners. Spending two months on this work gave me a deeper understanding of the multiple less-obvious benefits that implementing such a system can bring to an organization. As in conservation, the process of collecting and analyzing information to demonstrate that some change has actually occurred involves more than meets the eye.
Most NGOs see M&E as solely serving the function of reporting to donors or supporting further fundraising. However, the most powerful benefit of running an M&E system is that it interrogates and streamlines your strategy. During my work with Maliasili’s partners, I would prepare by understanding the partner’s Theory of Change (ToC) and five-year goals. I would then sit for many hours with key team members to repeatedly ask them variants of the same simple question – why? Why have we chosen this goal and what change do we hope to achieve? How does it tie back to our vision and mission and ToC? What would the new circumstances look like after our program completes an implementation cycle? In other words, how do we define success?
Once we were able to articulate a reasonable description of this success, it sets the stage for the next step — thinking of innovative yet practical indicators to measure change. These indicators could be qualitative or quantitative or a combination of both, depending on the nature of the goal. For example, consider the aim of enabling the local community to find value in wildlife. One could track that based on the absolute count of active local informers or the proportion of poaching incidents reported by locals. However, the picture would be incomplete without a qualitative measure — perhaps in the form of surveys, interviews, or group discussions — in order to understand if the community’s underlying beliefs about wildlife have actually changed.
The power of data in M&E came to light when I spoke with Sam, the program manager at Honeyguide, a partner organization based in Tanzania. Sam had designed an extensive M&E system which required each of his program officers to regularly collect data in their respective domains and send back to him for analysis. The officers would not themselves analyze or look at the data before passing it on, and the burden of generating insights, making decisions, and directing any strategic or operational changes back to the officers fell entirely on Sam.
Sam and I discussed how an M&E system can be used to empower both the organization’s team and program participants. Collecting regular feedback from participants builds trust, keeps organizations in touch with sentiments on the ground, and enables program delivery improvement in real time. Honeyguide can groom junior staff members to not only to collect data but also to do some basic analysis and think through the implications for their daily work. Over time, this can encourage team members to make decisions independently and even innovate on the program delivery or the M&E system itself. Similarly, over the long term, an organization’s program can coach partners/participants to use data to understand the issues they face more deeply and, consequently, to take effective action on their own.
This embodies sustainable, resilient impact. One of Honeyguide’s main services is building the capacity and effectiveness of Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) — local governance structures that are meant to generate economic value from wildlife for their communities. We talked about the fact that while Honeyguide is currently collecting and analyzing data on behalf of WMAs, eventually the WMAs will need to set up their own, independent data systems that can inform and support their operations.
Finally, we often think of an M&E system as operationalizing after strategy and program implementation. However, it can also be set up to assess macro-level changes in the nature of the problem being addressed as well as the organization’s operating context. These insights would then feed into program design or, in a sense, come before strategy setting. I realized this while engaging with another partner organization called SORALO, which has been working in southern Kenya for more than 10 years. Part of SORALO’s mission is enabling the local Maasai community to maintain their traditional approach of un-divided, communally-owned and managed land, which underpins their pastoral form of livelihood. SORALO provides programs that support securing land tenure, strengthening local governance, and increasing income from livestock.
As we discussed designing an M&E system, a topic that often came up was how fast the context of their operations were changing. SORALO’s interactions with Maasai youth provided much to think about from a program point of view — the next generation had less sentimental attachment to cattle and the land (some were even calling for subdivision of the land into private property), and they struggled with high unemployment rates alongside changing lifestyle aspirations. While SORALO’s work attempts to increase the feasibility of maintaining the traditional way of life, they also needed to assess how and when their programs should shift to address new trends. They are now considering conducting a sociological, economic, and ecological ‘context’ scan as part of their M&E insight generation, particularly when setting five-year strategic goals. They are also in the process of exploring new legal frameworks for management of subdivided land and developing a youth leadership program.
I went in to my summer internship expecting to learn more about animals and to spend time doing calculations for metrics and indicators. Instead, I came away with a deeper understanding of the complexities of human life spent in close contact with nature, and of ways in which a supposedly data-driven process meant to come at the end can support people to grow and feed into new designs.
Ratna Sinroja is a Masters of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.