Countries are making headway on setting up monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) systems as part of their National Adaptation Plan (NAP) processes. At the NAP Global Network, we have observed that while MEL systems look different in various contexts, they should all carry one essential—yet often overlooked—characteristic. In the early development stages of these systems, countries need to consider an important factor: simplicity matters.
National-level MEL systems take years to develop and operationalize, and countries are working with limited resources and capacity constraints. The impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are also amplifying these constraints. Simplicity helps ensure the longevity of MEL systems, which is vital in the context of climate adaptation. Indeed, it is difficult to predict if a particular intervention will support adaptation in the short term since climate change unfolds over a long timeline, and uncertainties are associated with its impacts.
Given the complexity of measuring climate adaptation efforts at the national level, starting simple is far from an easy task. Getting a comprehensive understanding of progress and results in national climate adaptation actions requires collating data and information from different actors, themes, and geographies. This effort creates huge coordination and analytical challenges—far more than for project-level MEL systems.
Based on the technical support provided by the NAP Global Network on MEL systems in 10 countries between 2016 and 2021, here is what we have learned about how countries can apply simplicity in crafting effective MEL systems for national climate adaptation.
1. Get Straight to the Point
Clarifying the purpose and the objectives of the MEL system before jumping into data collection is essential to identify what type of information is needed and the most appropriate tools for data and information management.
By definition, MEL systems should focus on three overarching objectives—monitoring, evaluation, and learning. Countries need to unpack what that looks like practically for climate adaptation at the national level and clarify the relative importance given to each factor. Some countries may want to put more emphasis on learning, others on monitoring.
Then, countries need to define what to monitor, evaluate, and learn from, as well as for whom and why. For example, is monitoring about tracking changes in the climatic context? Is it about tracking which adaptation actions are being implemented at national and subnational levels? Both?
Once a more detailed framing of the objectives of the MEL system is established, it will be easier for a country to determine the best approach going forward, including in terms of data and information requirements. For example, in 2020, the Fijian government developed a MEL framework to lay out how the country intends to define progress on national climate adaptation.
2. Be Boldly Pragmatic
Be boldly pragmatic about what can realistically be accomplished in the short term based on a sound understanding of the current MEL culture in the country. This approach can prevent developing systems that are too theoretical, overly sophisticated, and not grounded on existing capacities and practices.
While most countries still have relatively limited MEL experience, it is important to build on what already exists based on mapping active MEL systems at the national, sectoral, and subnational levels. If an operationalized system is in place to monitor and evaluate the national development plan, for example, a country can consider how to integrate climate adaptation into this system instead of creating a standalone system. Similarly, if a ministry already has a system in place for MEL, integrating climate adaptation into that system should be considered.
It is often easier to pilot tools with actors who have great influence and high interest in the MEL of climate adaptation, such as a sector ministry and/or local government that has already integrated adaptation considerations in its sectoral or local development plan. These first movers can then influence other actors to participate in the MEL of national climate adaptation.
Pragmatism is also involved when making informed trade-offs, for example, when considering the level of detail versus the need to advance MEL systems or the resources available for data collection versus for data analysis and communications. More data and information alone will not influence how governments make decisions, especially if the resources and capacities to analyze and communicate the results appropriately are limited.
3. Pilot, Learn from Piloting, and Expand Gradually
Piloting the approach and tools developed can help to identify what is working and what is not—and to adjust accordingly. The approach and tools used at the beginning can evolve with changes in the country’s resources and capacities. Using an incremental approach can help navigate the complexity of measuring climate adaptation efforts at the national level by testing methods and gradually building ownership and capacities among key actors.
If a country decides to take an indicator-based approach, it is recommended to start with a few high-level indicators that can be measured with readily available data or data that can be produced with minimum effort in 1 to 2 years.
Various countries are starting the MEL of national adaptation by focusing solely on monitoring instead of evaluation because assessing impacts will take more time and require more resources and capacities. For example, the Government of Tonga uses a questionnaire to measure the implementation progress of its NAP document. The questionnaire includes four key questions addressed to sectoral ministries: Is this activity in your corporate plan? Has there been progress in this activity in the last 3 months? What is the status of this activity? Are there potential issues that need to be addressed? There is also the opportunity to add comments and lessons for advancing the activity going forward. It is expected that this standalone questionnaire will be progressively integrated into the ministries’ corporate plan reporting process.
4. Use Reporting as a Starting Point for Troubleshooting
Progress reporting can be a practical starting point to inform the development of a country’s MEL system for climate adaptation through learning-by-doing. The development of such reports can offer a reality check for what is feasible in the short term and where the gaps are. It can help raise awareness of MEL and the NAP process, increase collaboration and data and information sharing among government agencies, and ultimately provide a useful basis for designing a MEL system for national adaptation. Many countries have already published, or are in the process of publishing, progress reports for their NAP.
Importantly, simplicity can encourage creativity for effective solutions. One of the most powerful ways to get people to care about and act upon a critical problem is through stories—not hard facts and figures. Ultimately, we think that MEL is about storytelling through compelling, meaningful, and evidence-based narratives around progress and results in national climate adaptation actions. Looking at MEL as a storytelling process may help to focus on measuring what matters based on the adage that “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.”
Find out more about our work on monitoring, evaluation and learning.