MEL – Impressive Numbers but for What Purpose: Deceiving the Tax Paying Public??

Overview 

Over the past several months I carefully attended the various MEL (Monitoring, Evaluation, & Learning) webinars with much concern. While, as I understand it, monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is designed to be an independent effort primarily to protect the underwriting taxpayers and make certain their taxes are wisely spent and not squandered on ineffective projects, which the beneficiaries largely avoid. This would also provide guidance for future projects to evolve to better serve the beneficiaries and as such M&E also has to represent the Beneficiaries as well as the taxpayers. However as presented in the MEL webinars, the effort appears to have reneged on its obligation to the underwriting taxpayers and beneficiaries to be more committed to data embellishment and assist with publicizing programs even if, by most standards, they are failures and largely avoided by a substantial majority of intended beneficiaries. The result being all development projects, particularly for poverty alleviation for smallholder farmers, appear to be highly successful, when more objective evaluations would show minimal, almost trivial, sustainable impact, with a high probability of forcing the intended smallholder beneficiaries deeper into poverty. This appears as a logical continuation of the Appeasement Reporting aimed at satisfying the donors at the expense of the beneficiaries, who see a lot of publicity for little benefit.

The whole process is basically the proverbial “bean counting” that reminds me of my advanced calculus proofs some 50 years ago, but without the confining limits. The idea is to sum an infinite (∞) number of small values to get an impressive but, without confining limits, ultimately meaningless numbers. This really only represents a massive investment of tax dollars and is easily done because there are a very large number of individual projects each working with multiple communities which with even minimal beneficiaries’ participation will sum to an impressive number, perhaps in the 100 of thousands. However, as a percentage to potential participants this could be a trivial representation, perhaps < 10% (Box 1) and well below the > 50% interested taxpayers assume are participating (Box 2). Thus, for every 100 thousand reported participants there could easily be a million potential participants wisely avoiding the project. This limited participation is not enough to have any serious impact on the participating communities’ poverty. It also must be noted while the counting is on individuals, the projects are community based and the overall objective must be community wide acceptance, and not just individual.

It only takes a few reflections on what criteria should be included and how it should be expressed to realize that the MEL may provide some level of monitoring, but no real evaluation, and certainly no learning other than how to embellish data to deceive the underwriting taxpayers along with their elected representatives who must approve future funding. Ultimately, the MEL effort has no means of guiding future projects to more effectively assist the intended beneficiaries meet the project objectives. Instead the process is inclined to more deeply entrench the current “innovations” even if a substantial majority of beneficiaries are avoiding them or providing minimal participation while diverting most of their business to the competing service providers, when possible. The result is continued squandering of taxes on ineffective projects largely and wisely avoided by a substantial majority of prospective beneficiaries. In addition, this propaganda-based MEL can frustrate new advisors as the proclaimed success of previous projects leads to the expectation that once the “wonderful” new project starts the beneficiaries would be queued up outside the office door and well around the corner to join, only to end up having to persuade individual beneficiaries to participate, and once joined only to have them side-sell the bulk of their business.

Justification for Concerns

This provocative or perhaps highly provocative overview can rather easily be clearly supported with some simply consideration of what is missing and simple computations. No rocket science or even advanced calculus required. Just simple objective business arithmetic computations about the Basic Business Parameters that separate success from failure, that even a humble agronomist can do, and the smallholder beneficiaries intuitively understand even with their opportunity (not intelligence) limited formal education.

Agronomic Inputs

A couple examples from the poverty alleviation efforts for smallholder farmers where the MEL effort, as defined in the webinars and referenced handbooks, are misleading the public, their legislative representatives, perhaps worst of all themselves. From the production perspective the concentration is micro-finance of production inputs. This again was an open-ended summation of the individuals participating in various projects providing assistance with micro-financing for fertilizers, improved seed, etc. Omitted were the total number of potential participants within the project communities nor the percent of the area over which the inputs were applied. Likewise, the total number of funded projects included in the summary is excluded. Thus, a probable scenario was that the inputs were provided to 10% of the potential beneficiaries, and the inputs were applied to a relatively small percent of their lands, where timely planting was possible. Thus, since time of planting is typically spread over 8 weeks or more the total input usage could be less < 2% of the communities’ cultivated areas and comes close to the trivial impact projected at the beginning.

Extension

Similarly, the extension/educational effort was an open number of individuals they were able to contact with an administrative valid link. This again can was summed into an impressive number of smallholders reached. However, overlooked was if the technology could be widely adopted or only on a small percent of the area. This endorsed the genocidal assumption that poor hungry farmers would exert about twice the Caloric Energy they had access to and can manage their 1 to 1.5-hectare farms with the same ease as modestly salaried research or extension officers could manage the 0.1-hectare research/demonstration plots aided by a hire labor crew. How ridiculous is that assumption? No concern is expressed as to whether the extension message was appropriate for the famers or what compromises were necessary to Integrate the promoted message to the farmers’ specific economic situation including available operational resources.

Operational Feasibility

Completely overlooked was the most critical concern for smallholder farmers, the Operational Feasibility of innovations. This falls into an administrative void between production and social scientists. It is a historic exclusion from the agriculture research & development process, which does an excellent job of determining the physical potential of an area but says nothing about the operational resources needed to expand the 0.1 ha. research/extension demonstration plot to the whole field, farm or smallholder community. The unfortunate default assumption is that it is not a problem. With highly mechanized developed countries agriculture, it may not be a major problem, but for manually operated developing countries it is a major problem and could be a major reason for the pesky yield gap between research/extension plots and smallholder farmers. This yield gap as historically been addressed in terms of response to various production inputs covered by the micro-finance loans, while ignoring the limited available labor or other operational resources (Box 3). The operational limitations can be easily identified by adding a timing parameter in the evaluation process. This would pick up that initial crop establishment is distributed over an 8-week period with declining potential yield with each day’s delay until the farmers no longer have any prospects of meeting their domestic food security requirements, let alone a surplus to market up the value chain. If the evaluation process picked up the timing delay, future projects could focus less on specific crops and more on enhancing the operational resources available to smallholders with an emphasis on Drudgery Relief such as improved access to contract tractors for land preparation that would expedite all crop establishment, minimize time of planting delays with associated yield loses, increase food security and provide additional produce for sale up the value chain. Would this be a much better approach to poverty alleviation? Without identifying and addressing the operational limitations of smallholder, development projects will continue attribute planting delays to Risk Aversion instead of hunger and exhaustion then continue to badger smallholder farmers with information they are already familiar with but cannot take full advantage off. This might make for good “bean counting” of farmers contacted and “educated” but with limited, if any, sustainable advances in farm production, crop or animal enterprises alike and ultimately poverty alleviation.

Support Services

Market Volume

Shifting to the support services business model for smallholders and the problem might be worse than for production. Support services usually center around micro-finance in the form of production loans to participating members to obtain inputs like certified seed, fertilizer and crop protection chemicals, with a by-law mandate that the participants rely on the project to market all marketed production for both programs emphasized crops and other crops they produce. Noticeable missing are funds to hire mechanization for land preparation that will expedite crop establishment for all crops. Again, the MEL has summed up many presumed beneficiaries without limits as to what percent of the smallholder population is participating, or how much are they relying on the services provided vs. side selling to the often-vilified competition. As mentioned previously for the production most projects only attract at about 10% of the potential beneficiaries, and in this case the participants, when possible rely on the projects business services only for in-kind Loan Repayments while side-selling the bulk of their business to competing private service providers leaving the total market share for the project at < 10% of the participants business and < 1% of the total communities market share, which would constitute a trivial total impact. This is well below the underwriting tax payer’s minimal expectation of >50% potential beneficiaries participating and relying on the project for >70% of participants’ business. Thus, while they may be accounting for hundred thousand participants and marketing hundreds of tons of produce, there are millions of potential participants wisely avoiding the projects and thousands of tons being marketed outside the projects even by the presumed participating beneficiaries.

The lack of interest in the cooperative model is often blamed on farmers’ previous experience with state-imposed cooperatives that were more for supervision and input control, then a sincere effort at assisting farmers’ production. While this is true in many countries, and rightfully so, it only takes a few minutes of analysis to show the donor promoted cooperatives are nearly as poor a business model, and the Envisioned Financial Benefits are quickly lost as the overhead costs to obtain the benefits exceeds the benefits so relying on the cooperative business model will push the farmers deeper into poverty, and the projects will never be able to pay the promised “dividends” as heavily promoted as reason for joining. At least not as dividends are normally defined.

Comingling Private Sector Entities

This is confounded by the comingling two very different private sector entities. First would be what most people initially consider when mentioning the private sector. These are the highly efficient private service providers that quietly handle most smallholder business needs. They are often Family Operated Agri-Dealers that are indigenous to the communities they serve and probably were originally smallholder farmers that for various reasons drifted into various support services.
The second is the administratively cumbersome cooperative business model favored and heavily promoted by development projects for their social desirability, but for which, as mentioned above, the overhead costs to achieve the much promoted but never quantified financial benefits exceeds the benefits. The overhead costs put the business model much closer to the highly discredit government parastatals such as Malawi’s ADMARC, then the efficient private service model centered on the family enterprises in most smallholder communities. Also, with the emphasis on consignment marketing to allow the cooperative to bulk produce for highly promoted higher price, are inconvenient and out of tune with the overall Financial Management Strategy most smallholder farmers adapt that emphasis retaining crops in-kind as long as possible, marketing only what is needed to meet immediate cash needs but requiring immediate cash payments. The result is that cooperative market share is mostly confined to in-kind loan repayments with the bulk of the business being diverted to vilified private traders. With a little forethought the loss of the envisioned financial advantage of the cooperative model can easily be Itemized as mentioned above. Thus, the development projects imposed cooperatives Invariability Collapses immediate after donor funding ends, probably before the last advisor clears the airport departure lounge for the flight home. These are two very different business models that need to be clearly separated. Most likely what are included in the MEL analysis are the cooperative models, but it should be clearly stated.

Analysis

The result of the current “MEL” is to promote a much rosier impression of success than reality. While this may convey the donors’ good intentions for assisting the beneficiaries, but with limited sustainable accomplishment extending beyond external funding and facilitation, as prescribed in most Request of Proposals (RFP). This only serves to more deeply entrench projects that by all normal evaluation methodology would be recognized as mostly failures. This in turn prevents project from evolving to better serve the beneficiaries. Since the beneficiaries are not really benefiting from these programs, the result of the total effort is mostly “toying” with a fragile vulnerable population rather than assisting them out of poverty. As such the heavily promoted success instead of failure could be a major incentive of anti-donor terrorism instead of promoting national security. The need here is for future MEL efforts to use a more Objective Set of Criteria, with specific targets for the level of participation by beneficiaries and degree of reliance on the projects’ services offered. Such targets should be consistent with the expectation of the underwriting public. This will require “biting the bullet” on decades of embellished ineffective entrenched projects.

It is very difficult to conceive that the donors imposing the MEL with staffed with “professional” full time M&E personal, writing massive multi-volume guidebooks, are not fully aware the open ended accounting is more about publicity than independently and objectively assuring the taxes committed are wisely invested, nor despite a 4-Tiered Isolation from the beneficiaries, and only well-orchestrated site visits are so far out of touch with their implementing contractors and beneficiaries to be unaware of the misrepresentation discussed above. Thus, it must be considered as mostly a deliberate effort to mislead the underwriting taxpayer and their elected representatives. I believe that is called a “cover-up” and contains Potential Liabilities for which it might be prudent for those involved to discuss with their respective personal attorneys. Hopefully, this concern gets these issues address and corrected enough to avoid the unpleasantries, massive expense and publicity of having to do this through class action litigation that can only be judicated by the taxpayers whose taxes are being squandered and view litigation in terms of deviation from their initial expectations.

One might also seek spiritual guidance to see if it is still possible to receive enough deliverance to avoid immortal soul spending all eternity immobilized in the frozen River Styx, at the Ninth and lowest ring of Dante’s Inferno, reserved for the worst sinners: those who have sinned against themselves.

I am very much looking forward to the next round of MEL webinars, and will be much better prepared to question any excessive embellishment. Hopefully, this writing will stimulate a much more effective set of MEL criteria that will lead to substantial program changes and we can effectively assist the beneficiaries instead of toying with them. Perhaps we can have potential beneficiaries queued outside the project headquarters door and around the corner, instead of having to seek them out individually. I would like to think that those implementing contractor would look forward to more objective MEL criteria that would guide projects toward more effective activities. They originally joined the process with a sincere intention of assisting with poverty alleviation, and even if they were biased by academia’s bias for cooperative based on social desirability without considering the cost effectiveness of the business model. Once it became clear the business model was non-competitive they will eagerly accept change. Afterall once they are set up it should take only about 30 minutes of thoughtful computation to realize the cooperative system is far more likely to enhance poverty then reduce it. Aren’t overhead costs something that virtually everyone substantially underestimates!!
As it is won’t highly publicized but ineffective projects be more an incentive for anti-donor terrorism than enhancing national security!!

Post Script: Please recognize that my interest in solely in promoting more effective development poverty and not seeking a reduction in development funding, the need is still important.

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