Twelve years of working with third-party monitoring (TPM) in fragile contexts has taught me a crucial lesson: TPM agents are more effective when they collaborate with – rather than police – project implementers.
The Role of Third-Party Monitors
TPM is an increasingly common feature of the monitoring, evaluation, and learning landscape. It is most often used in non-permissive delivery environments to supplement monitoring data, with the TPM agent acting as a donor’s eyes and ears in the field.
The main services provided by TPM agents are 1) verifying the reports of implementing partners by assessing the extent to which goods, commodities, and equipment have been delivered and services have been provided as indicated by the implementing partners, 2) collecting feedback from beneficiaries, 3) triangulating and analyzing data to determine if delivery is on track, and 4) collecting data to track broader socio-political and economic dynamics in the delivery context.
"Third-Party Monitoring is the systematic and intentional collection of performance monitoring and/or contextual data by a partner that is not [a donor] or an implementing partner directly involved in the work." – USAID
The Importance of Being Supportive
Attitude is crucial in TPM. There is a tendency to assume that TPM is important because it allows for the identification of problems and the raising of red flags. But the real value of TPM comes from collaborating with implementers, deeply understanding the issues they are facing, and providing recommendations to improve program design and delivery.
Closely collaborating with implementers and fostering a supportive relationship with them yields a number of benefits:
Access to information. If implementers believe the TPM agent is only there to report on their failures, they are unlikely to facilitate site access or volunteer information. And if the implementers are uncooperative, the TPM agent can be forced to rely on the donor for access, which can delay the whole process and decrease the frequency of visits. This adversarial relationship also yields negative working conditions for the TPM agent’s monitors. I have personally seen monitors refuse to deploy to certain sites where they are treated poorly. However, if implementers feel that the visits might also benefit their work, they typically welcome the monitors. They are also more candid and honest with the monitors, volunteering information to increase the effectiveness of support.
Complete picture. when the TPM agent focuses on supporting implementers rather than identifying their mistakes, they prioritize a deeper understanding of the issues. If a discrepancy between reporting and observed conditions is identified, a supportive TPM team will stay in the field, talk to the implementer, and try to understand what is happening. For example, I worked on a project where we were verifying the receipt of microloans. We found that some individuals had received loans who were not on the list of beneficiaries. Rather than immediately raising a flag, we spoke with the implementer and discovered that some younger family members had received the loans on behalf of their elderly disabled mothers/fathers and had started to establish businesses that benefitted the entire family. These intra-familiar replacements were allowed under the program, so we asked to meet with the originally registered beneficiary, we verified the stories we were told, visited the place where the businesses were operating, and verified the documentations against the records and lists. As a result, we did not report this situation as a problem; instead, we noted these intra-familiar transfers and reported them as positive developments.
Fresh insight. If implementers – and the beneficiaries of their programming – believe that the TPM agent is truly there to help, they may also entrust it with information that would not otherwise be shared. For instance, I worked on a project where farmers informed us that they were receiving insufficient amounts of agricultural suppliers from the implementing partner and, as a result, they were purchasing further supplies from the market. These purchases had negative impact on their business because the supplies were expensive and of lower quality than those provided by the implementer. They had not reported this shortfall to the implementer or donor because they did not want to appear ungrateful for the current support. But they volunteered this information to us, understanding that we were speaking with them to ensure that the support being provided was as effective as possible. As such, we highlighted to the donor that, due to no fault of the delivery partner, it was necessary to amend the budget and increase the amount of agricultural goods being provided to each farmer.
How a TPM Agent Can Create Supportive Relationships
Relationships of trust need to be carefully nurtured, especially because the TPM agent needs also to maintain a degree of distance from the implementers to ensure objectivity and independence.
To achieve this beneficial relationship, TPM agents should consider a few factors:
Starting on the right foot. During first contract with the implementer, it is crucial that the TPM agent (and the donor, if possible) makes it clear that it is there to help and support programmatic improvement and learning in whatever way possible. The agent has to therefore encourage the reporting of negative feedback – and assure the implementer that the feedback will be used to push for positive improvements.
Problem solving, not raising. The TPM agent and its monitors need to demonstrate that the identification of a problem is not a victory. Instead, it is simply the beginning of an investigation to properly understand the issue. When a discrepancy is identified (as in the microloans example above), the monitors need to demonstrate a desire to understand the issue, not simply raise a red flag.
Focusing on clarification. It is vital that identified issues are discussed with the implementer. This means not only undertaking full investigations in the field, but also giving implementers a chance to explain situations more comprehensively before reports are submitted. In the first episode of Proximity’s new “What the MEL?” podcast, co-host Richard Harrison noted that TPM should involve triangular communication between the donor, implementer, and TPM agent. Communication between all parties is essential. Of course, identified issues need to be reported to the donor, and monitors need to stay vigilant for signs of corruption or safeguarding issues, but communication between the TPM agent and implementers ensures that 1) more accurate information is conveyed, 2) the perspective of the implementer is included, and, thus, 3) a more collaborative process is created.
TPM offers many advantages in non-permissive environments. Beyond providing access, TPM yields robust and independent data, reduces project and financial risks, and helps improve program design and delivery.
The last point is the most crucial. But this potential for learning and improvement can go unrealized if TPM is not approached with the right attitude.
In the end, it is in everyone’s interest for TPM to focus on helping implementers to learn from identified issues, grow, and improve their delivery.