Mainstreaming MEAL Activities in Lebanon
BACKGROUND: THE CHALLENGES OF MAINSTREAMING MEAL
For humanitarian programming to be effective, it is critical to conduct monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning (MEAL) activities throughout the programme cycle. Although Action Against Hunger Lebanon has invested substantial resources into MEAL staff, this mainstreaming of MEAL activities beyond project monitoring remains a key challenge. The idea of MEAL as simply an ‘added-on’ activity for project teams has created two main challenges in efforts to mainstream MEAL throughout the monitoring and evaluation cycle.
Firstly, there is the misperception that MEAL does not need to take into account project details beyond what is logistically needed to monitor project implementation (such as the time and place of implementation). There is also a larger focus on monitoring the distribution of ‘hard’ components, such as NFIs (winterisation kits, shelter kits, etc.). As a result, MEAL activities have not systematically tracked ‘softer’ key logframe indicators, such as behaviour/knowledge change, or had enough focus on testing the assumptions on which the project design was built. This issue undermines efforts to capitalise on lessons learnt from monitoring and evaluation activities.
Secondly, the use of data is often limited to description of project results, without a deeper analysis of how these results should be incorporated into adapting project design, project management, and project impact. Thus, the ‘evaluation’ of projects occurs largely in procedure only; assessments and monitoring activities are rolled out without a strategy for how to uptake findings, and without an understanding of how results should influence Action Against Hunger’s planning and implementation.
HOW LEBANON IS INCORPORATING MEAL INTO THE PROGRAMME CYCLE
The Lebanon team’s strategy for addressing this issue has been a two-pronged approach: firstly, setting up standard procedures for project cycle management (specifically in linking project and MEAL teams); and secondly, targeted on-the-job training initiatives built into the roll-out of these procedures. Through the leadership of management at base and country-level we drafted roles, responsibilities and key deliverables for all stages of project cycle management.
At design phase, the grants team has increased the focus on early incorporation of MEAL. This includes a task force dedicated to the design of a consolidated “workbook” of lessons learned, organised by geographic area and sector, for easy reference and incorporation into concept notes and proposals. The programme is also currently mapping all indicators by assessment, and to consolidate this information, the programme team will rely on support from the Action Against Hunger UK and Spain teams to develop a data management system capable of consolidating electronic data.
At the planning phase, and to prepare for resource mobilisation and development of MEAL activities, teams across different departments now sit together to develop a unified plan that clearly identifies the timing, responsibility, and links between different project actions. Creation of this document is essential in ensuring that MEAL and project activities are aligned, with the aim to more easily adapt to changes in project implementation and produce high-quality information required for future monitoring and analysis.
Within this planning phase, there are meetings between technical and MEAL teams dedicated to developing an understanding of how indicators are related to project activities. By explicitly linking indicators to project activities, there is greater reflection at design stage of the appropriateness of MEAL tools and planning, as well as a boosted capacity for MEAL to produce analysis of project results. At this stage, MEAL tools and activities are revised as needed.
Throughout project implementation, data is fed back to teams with an increased focus on drawing out recommendations and lessons learned. The breadth of MEAL activities and analytical scrutiny varies based on project complexity, duration and funding. For example, a six-month project based only on distribution of supplies (e.g. winterisation kits) could include only a post distribution monitoring assessment. In contrast, a project with higher-level outcomes such as improving food security, would generally include a baseline and endline assessment of project outcome indicators as well as complementary evaluations of other project components. However, a standard end of project review is anticipated for all projects. In preparation, all teams are expected to develop lessons learned for presentation. These lessons learned should be explicitly tied to data, whether collected through MEAL or other sources. Lessons learned are used to inform future programming as well as improve the way we collect and analyse data.
At each step, the coordination team plans to work with the base to develop capacity-building measures required to execute expected responsibilities to a high standard. The emphasis at the start of this process is on the preparatory stage of MEAL activities, with greater interaction and understanding of the linkages between MEAL and project teams. So far, training plans for sampling design, logframe development, and report writing have been developed. A preliminary workshop between the MEAL and WASH teams identified the key questions to be communicated between the teams to ensure an appropriate sample size when requesting assessments (levels of disaggregation, confidence interval, margin of error, etc.) Establishing this guidance has already reduced previous issues where the sample size of an assessment ended up being too small to be representative once the sample was disaggregated.
NEXT STEPS FOR MAINSTREAMING MEAL
Now, with all these plans and procedures, where do we go next? The focus for our teams will be on continuous internal evaluations and reflections on which procedures work well, which do not, and how trainings can support the end goal of improving monitoring and evaluation of our programmes.
Understanding how these initiatives affect time management is a particularly critical question. Implementing teams at base will likely need increased support from regional and headquarter levels to support them, especially with roll-out and the expected “growing pains” as we push MEAL into the forefront of project activities. While Action Against Hunger’s support and operational tools are vast, coordination and exchange is often fragmented through a large and disjointed organisational network. Identifying available resources and the pathways to access them will be essential to successfully capitalise on these opportunities.