When it comes to monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL), we often fixate on quantitative data, prioritizing results as numbers. While these data are useful to answer program-related questions regarding what, when, where, and how many, they don’t fully address questions around how or why.
Enter qualitative data.
Qualitative data can provide rich stories and evidence to help us understand how and why change happens over time. Qualitative methods acknowledge humanity in MEL by accounting for small, yet significant, behavioral shifts within complex systems.
Using Outcome Mapping to Capture Nuance
Capturing how and why change occurs is foundational to understanding systems, as evidenced by the Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS) funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Since 2017, the eight-member SWS consortium has been developing, demonstrating, learning about, and sharing evidence on systems-based approaches to improve the sustainability of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services in Ethiopia, Uganda, Cambodia, and Kenya. As a learning partner, Environmental Incentives collaborates with consortium members to capture stories of systemic change through MEL.
SWS primarily relies on outcome mapping, a comprehensive qualitative methodology, in tandem with routine quantitative data collection, to capture nuanced information. This dual approach enables SWS teams to regularly synthesize observations regarding project goals to find and reflect on emerging trends and themes.
The Why: Identifying and Explaining Trends
SWS partners use progress markers to guide reporting on incremental individual and organizational behavior change. Team members regularly journal observations of those markers and then comb through the full data set biannually to reflect on and highlight relevant information.
Whave, an SWS partner organization, works to professionalize water hand pump maintenance systems and services across Uganda and provides preventive maintenance in over 600 rural communities. Elizabeth Buhungiro, Whave Solutions Communications and Learning Coordinator, describes how outcome mapping provides context to explain the why behind quantitative trends in hand pump maintenance systems and services:
“If we talk about the number of communities decreasing [contract renewals] exponentially in a certain reporting period, what explains that trend? What explains the fact that communities have not signed [a service agreement]? The explanation is in the qualitative data that we collect through journaling.”