Meet the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Officer 2018/19

My name is Anand Talwar, the CDI Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) Officer 2018/19.

As a humanities student (in Politics and International Relations) with a scientific brain (having dabbled in Psychology and Mathematics) I developed an interest in international development during my first year of university. Ironically, I knew that didn’t want to pursue a career in international development by becoming a politician. Therefore, my inner scientist was drawn to the field of MEL.

At the same time, I’ve always wanted to live and work in a multicultural environment. This stems in part from the multicultural world that I grew up in, and my keen (and amateurish) interest in foreign languages (before coming to Tanzania I was shamefully trying to learn 5 languages at once… Which inevitably failed… I have now limited myself to 2…). CDI therefore appealed to me as a development organisation because of its operations in Tanzania and collaboration with Tanzanian university students.

Lastly, I admit that I’ve been involved in some pretty ‘voluntouristic’ charities in the past which have involved flying out UK volunteers to a developing country to take away local labour then disappear after a few weeks, leaving nothing behind. CDI is completely different to what I have experienced, given its much more sustainable model of creating projects that are then handed over to Tanzania-based partner organisations for them to run all year round.

So, you’re probably wondering: what does being a MEL Officer actually involve? At the beginning of the last academic year I, alongside my awesome KITE Dar es Salaam MEL Officer counterpart, had to come up with a focus for MEL this year. We decided to give MEL a long-term focus which meant following up on previous cohorts of beneficiaries to see if the impact of previous projects has lasted. This involved a lot of research into appropriate theoretical frameworks to guide this follow-up. We decided on a nifty technique called Outcome Mapping – I will not bore you by describing in depth the function of progress markers or boundary partners or contributing factors and actors… (an example of our approach can be found here)

Each of CDI’s projects has a volunteer focused on the MEL of the project – in advance of the summer, I helped the MEL volunteers develop their MEL frameworks. The beginning of the summer has involved checking a lot of surveys and interview questions. This is much more complicated than it sounds. You have to think really carefully about the comparability of the answers to the questions – can we compare the response to this question to responses of future questions that assess the same outcome? You have to exercise a lot of cultural humility – is it culturally appropriate to ask certain questions? Will there be a perceived power dynamic that will make participants give ‘expected responses? How can we overcome this? You have to remain focused on long-term projects whilst at the same time be ready to think on your feet when things escalate quickly. This happens a lot: People can be unpredictable, and respond to your surveys and interview questions in ways that you completely did not expect. Whether that be through not completing a tick box system as you expected or not having as much time for an interview as they originally anticipated or a survey getting no responses. In these situations, I have to think and work rapidly with MEL project volunteers to think of ways to modify surveys and interviews to fix these errors in good time to allow information to roll in.

Despite these difficulties I really do love my role because I’m always thinking on my feet and responding to unexpected challenges. These situations also give me insight into the culture and worldviews of our beneficiaries – what they deem appropriate to talk about, their daily challenges which prevent them from being able to dedicate time to complete surveys, etc. There is so much more to the role than sitting behind a desk and rolling out an ‘on a scale of 1 to 10’ survey in 5 minutes!

I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in development, and my experience with CDI so far has given me the confidence that I can actually be effective in responding to the challenge of working in a development career abroad. I am now eager to find a development job overseas whereas before CDI I honestly lacked the confidence and courage to work abroad. Admittedly, I think graduate job overseas is an unachievable dream. But hey, isn’t the whole field of development built on a bunch of dreams of a better future that, with a little hard work and patience, slowly become reality?

By Anand Talwar, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Officer 2018/19
Anand is a second-year student studying Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) at St. Catherine’s College.