MERL in the time of COVID-19: A series

By Lorie Broomhall
June 14, 2020

In the six months that the COVID-19 pandemic has exploded around the world, our lives have changed dramatically, both personally and professionally. From a career standpoint, most of us who are privileged enough to still have jobs are continuing to work remotely from home, and, chances are, we won’t be traveling abroad anytime soon. With a plethora of digital communication tools at our disposal — Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp and Slack, among others — we do not lack for ways to conduct meetings, workshops and even virtual happy hours with our colleagues and others who are also connected to this digital river of information and exchange. For many, working remotely is not much different than working from the office.

But the river doesn’t flow to everyone equally, or even at all. Beyond the world wide web — which isn’t so worldwide — many do not have the advantage of such massive digital networks. This includes not only the vast majority of places where Plan International’s programs are carried out, but also in the U.S. And while Plan offices in these countries are connected to the internet, most of those we work for are not, and so reaching them at a time when much of the world is in lockdown becomes a huge challenge.

That challenge is particularly daunting to the Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning (MERL) teams at Plan International USA and their counterparts at other offices, whose job is to collect and report project results and carry out assessments, evaluations and research. For most Plan offices, routine monitoring is paper-based, meaning that the data collected at the project sites are extracted from registers, receipts and other program records. That information is then transferred by hand to data collection forms that are collected by the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) officer, who enters the data into an electronic form and subsequently sends to headquarters. Unless the M&E officers travel to the sites to record the data and send to the office, they sit at the sites uncollected, sometimes for several months.

One way to solve this problem is to adopt digital data systems that allow data collectors at the sites to report results, via electronic means, to the MERL manager at headquarters, who can then download the data directly into the project database. This system can be implemented remotely, thus greatly reducing the need for frequent site visits. So far, this has not been done for most Plan projects for a wide variety of reasons such as access to technology, internet capacity and the training needed to carry out these functions smoothly.

For research, the situation can be even more difficult. Studies using qualitative methods, such as in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and key informant interviews, risk being postponed or canceled due to researchers’ inability to travel to meet with participants face-to-face. Even studies using quantitative surveys encounter challenges. Although online surveys such as Survey Monkey and Qualtrics are ubiquitous in the West, they require stable internet connectivity and phone signals, not to mention computers and smartphones, which are often absent in low-income rural communities.

Other than putting research on hold until the pandemic ends — and no one knows when that will be — we need to find alternative ways to conduct research remotely using the tools we have. This goal is a huge challenge, particularly with respect to qualitative research, which traditionally relies on face-to-face communication between interviewers and participants. For focus group discussions, the requirement for interpersonal interaction between the facilitator and a group of people brought together to exchange their views about social and behavioral norms is not possible in its traditional format. How can an interviewer use a mobile phone to build a level of trust and safety that engenders the rich, detailed information for which these methods were designed?

A community nutrition worker uses a mobile app to log information on pregnant women in Rajasthan, India.

Right now, the Plan MERL team is rising to these challenges by trying out methods for remote monitoring and research, modifying traditional data collection and research techniques to adapt to these new parameters. We will report on our use of digital monitoring and remote research methods and explain how well they worked or didn’t work, and what we learned in the process. We’ll describe the establishment and use of digital data systems and compare them to current paper-based practices. We’ll also assess the effects of new remote research approaches on the rigor, accuracy and reliability of the data and face-to-face standards.

In our next issue, we will feature the Tusome Pamoja Endline Assessment, currently being carried out in Tanzania. For this exercise, we are conducting a survey with 1,190 parents of Grade 2 students and 33 focus group discussions with parents, teachers and community engagement mobilizers, all using mobile phones. We’ll tell you about the successes and not-so-successes, as well as the tips and techniques we discovered to improve results — and what we have learned that we’ll keep after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.


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