The Balanced Design, Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (BalanceD-MERL) consortium, under the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning Innovations (MERLIN) program at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is identifying solutions to the D-MERL challenges posed when resources are limited but programs or country contexts are complex. The consortium hypothesizes: (1) A deliberate balanced integration of MERL activities with program design, strategy, and implementation will lead to a team’s ability to rapidly and iteratively learn from their program implementation and incorporate lessons into their program design and (2) Applying four principles – relevant, right-sized, responsible, and trustworthy – into D-MERL can enable continuous learning as well as sustainable integration of MERL with program design, to subsequently improve the program through good program management.
The BalanceD-MERL consortium is testing its hypotheses through the delivery of technical assistance to USAID programs. To this end, this document describes the 15-month technical assistance provided to the Women + Water Global Development Alliance (Women + Water) and resultant learning and recommendations. Commencing in 2017, Women + Water is a five-year collaboration among USAID, Gap, Inc., CARE, the International Center for Research on Women, Water.org, and the Institute for Sustainable Communities. The goal of their collaboration is to improve and sustain the health and well-being of women and communities touched by the apparel industry.
USAID engaged the BalanceD-MERL consortium to provide longitudinal MERL support to Women + Water in India. Following an initial review of program and partner MERL documentation, as well as discussions with the Women + Water partners, the BalanceD-MERL consortium determined that the program design and MERL planning were nascent. However, because the Alliance and its management structure were complex, and the program would be multifaceted, the BalanceDMERL consortium proposed and was commissioned to deliver a MERL strategy – a framework for MERL decision-making and implementation that presents an overarching program learning agenda and strategic priorities for performance management. The MERL strategy was to be developed through a structured, participatory process involving Women + Water program staff and the MERL team, commencing with co-development of the program’s theory of change. Because Gap, Inc. had not worked with USAID previously and had limited D-MERL capacity, the consortium also was commissioned to provide MERL mentorship to Gap, Inc. throughout the engagement.
The BalanceD-MERL consortium found that the technical assistance pilot with Women + Water provided limited evidence to support its hypotheses about the benefits of integrating MERL activities with program design and about application of the four BalanceD-MERL principles. The findings are limited because, as of September 2018, the program and MERL implementation activities on Women + Water are in their beginning stages. However, early feedback from the partners about the implementation of the MERL strategy are suggestive that integration is ongoing, and there is evidence of adaptive management.