So far we have explored the benefits and challenges of each individual M&E approach, as well as those that can be experienced across M&E approaches. We now move on to surfacing a few key tensions surrounding M&E for building sustainable communities. Whereas challenges are well established from experiences in literature and research studies, key tensions deal with contested factors that inherently have a direct consequence in every M&E project. They do not have a set solution, but require careful consideration on how to navigate in each M&E project.
1. There is no exact recipe for conducting M&E
The first key tension is that there is no exact recipe for conducting M&E. Efforts have been made to develop practical and consistent M&E systems within and between disciplines, often with mixed results (Bamberger et al., 2016; Naidoo, 2012; Reed, 2008; Stem et al., 2005). Tensions arise regarding how to conduct M&E because real-world sustainability projects operate in complex and dynamic contexts, and thus different M&E needs require different approaches (Reed, 2008; Stem et al., 2005). The approach chosen depends on the overall goal of practitioners. As Reed (2008, p. 2419) states “different levels of engagement are likely to be appropriate in different contexts, depending on the objectives of the work and the capacity for stakeholders to influence outcomes (Richards et al., 2004; Tippett et al., 2007).” However, it is up to the project lead, or project members to make key decisions about which M&E approach will be used, as well as when reflection and corrective actions will take place. Again, these decisions will be different depending on the context of the project, the people involved, resources available, and so on.
2. ‘Success’ looks different for each project
Second, ‘success’ looks different in every community project (Davis, 2014). The very concept and definition of ‘success’ is often debated in literature. It can vary between disciplines, within disciplines, and even among similar projects. Different project members may even start out having different ideas of what a ‘successful’ project looks like (Reed, 2008). This is common, and it is ok! In order to move forward with your project in a good way, it is important to start by considering your own context and goals, and what success means to those involved in the project. You must come to an internal decision about what success looks like for your specific project in order to be able to move towards it.
3. Who’s views are being represented?
Finally, who’s views are being represented? Although the level of stakeholder engagement is different in each M&E approach, representation must be considered carefully. As demonstrated throughout the project cycles, this is a key decision that affects, not only the remaining activities in the project, but may also have consequences for how project results are used or implemented, or even accepted by different groups (Bennett, 2016; Estrella & Gaventa, 1998; Shah et al., 2006; . However, it is not always clear exactly who should be involved, and/or when they should be involved (Estrella & Gaventa, 1998; UNDP, 1997). Again, this is a critical internal decision that needs to take place near the beginning of a project. A key question you might ask to help you identify key stakeholders and rights holders, and ensure appropriate representation in your project is “Who will be affected by this project?”. Think about who might be affected in terms of ongoing activities, and results. It will be especially important to communicate and engage with these groups to understand their perspectives and ensure their views are being represented. You will also need to ask what legal requirements you may have to engage or consult with rights holders in this context.