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Engaging Mandela Fellows on Key Challenges in Monitoring and Evaluation

By: Nishi Dsouza (Dornsife School of Public Health); Joe Amon, PhD (Dornsife School of Public Health)

Mandela Washington Fellows are a diverse group of young African leaders with backgrounds in government, entrepreneurship, and private business, as well as public service and community leadership. Despite these different contexts, members of the 2021 cohort all need an understanding of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) concepts and skills.  Working with the Office of Global Engagement, Drexel University put together a session on key challenges in monitoring and evaluation that discussed core principles and the challenges of policymaking amidst uncertainty – especially appropriate in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic. While our backgrounds are in public health, the principles of M&E are cross-cutting, and we wanted everyone to feel that they could apply what they learned regardless of their professional position.

We started our session emphasizing four key M&E principles, developed by the non-profit research organization Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA): credibility, actionability, responsibility, and transportability. M&E systems are credible if they collect high quality data and analyze the data accurately. They are actionable if they collect the right data – data that can be acted upon. They are responsible if the benefits of data collection outweigh the costs. And they are transportable if the data that is collected can generate knowledge for other programs, or help others design or invest in more effective programs.

These principles were developed with the recognition that resources (human and financial) for M&E are often limited and that M&E efforts should be appropriately calibrated to the questions being asked and the timeliness and precision of the answers needed. In their position as global leaders, Mandela Fellows operate in roles requiring decision-making, so we thought it was best to dive in first with a presentation on the need for people to collect data and use it guided by the four principles.

Boiling down M&E principles to one short presentation was a challenge, as we could spend days, months and years talking about M&E. But we felt that it was equally important to talk about how values shape issues around what data is collected (and what is not). These decisions in turn determine what evidence is collected, what is considered credible and actionable, and what lessons are drawn by donors and others implementing programs. That focus – on values, challenges, and conflicts in determining the focus of M&E systems is reflected in the saying that “what is counted counts” and the response, that “not everything that counts can be counted.” These questions were the focus of a wide-ranging panel discussion with Professors Irene HeadenSharrelle Barber, and Ayden Scheim, which drew upon research and engagement with communities in the US, Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. The conversation also brought up the politics of M&E systems – for example, when policymakers do not want to know information about certain populations or public health problems.

The next part of the session was the presentation of a virtual communications toolkit – recognizing that a key part of research is communicating the results. This part stressed the importance of effective communication to both policymakers and community members. The toolkit was intended to be a one-stop shop of resources, something short that can be passed around and shared widely as Fellows return to the challenges of their jobs.

The final session was question and answers, with more than 80 Fellows joining the session from countries across the African continent. A large number of questions from the Fellows returned to the issue of credibility – how to ensure that evaluation results are of good quality and accepted by policymakers despite limited budgets for research. Another area where questions were raised was the challenge of developing an M&E framework that met both ‘local’ needs and one that met the needs of global donors.

Overall, the session with the Mandela Washington Fellows was lively. The level of engagement, despite the challenges posed by the virtual setting, was high. The examples, best practices and lessons learned in the synchronous session were bidirectional: we were inspired by the resilience, tenacity, and passion of the Fellows and by the impressive work they do. Every indication was that the Fellows found the session helpful. But we’ll wait for the results of the evaluation before we know for sure.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX.  Drexel University is a sub-grantee of IREX and implemented a Leadership Institute as a part of the 2021 Fellowship.  For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, please visit the Fellowship’s website at