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Three questions about MEL for projects dealing with complexity

Last week I wrote to the Peregrine Discussion Group on Better Evaluation with a couple of questions on M&E or MEL of initiates that try ton address complex social and development problems. I have received many very interesting replies which i am posting below together with my questions.

My questions

1) What do you think are the key principles that we need to have in front of us when designing MEL systems for complex and adaptive (and uncertain) projects and programmes?

2) Do we need a different MEL system and tools?

3) What do you suggest I should read on this topic and question?

The answers

Russel Gasser

1) What do you think are the key principles that we need to have in front of us when designing MEL systems for complex and adaptive (and uncertain) projects and programmes?

Complexity is not cleanly separated from and unrelated to the causal and chaotic domains, the boundaries are not clear lines much of the time, and trying to put in clean separators between what is complex and what is not, is itself a causal/linear approach to a complex issue. Trying to define a fixed set of MEL principles for the complex domain is a causal/linear approach that is necessarily doomed to failure,  both in terms that (a) it assumes that it is possible to predict what will be needed and also (b) it is based on an assumption that a finite range of methods can cover every case.  Both of these assumptions are false in the complex domain – that failure of these assumptions is one way to define what complexity actually is, and separate it from “complicated”, “difficult to understand” and “nothing like what I have experienced before”.  Neither of the first two is complex (other than in everyday conversational use of “complex”) and the third may be complex but actually describes the previous experience of the person, not the complexity of the situation. Causality is a one-way street in the complex domain – it can only be seen with hindsight. If it is truly “complex” then measurement of predicted results can only really measure the degree of luck or skill at prediction in guessing the outcome, not the value or success of the intervention.  Perhaps the most important question to answer for the real world is: How can we create the link from funders who are locked in to the linear/causal model, to providing funding for and using an evaluation that is based on complexity ?  Until you get the complex domain evaluation (or MEL) funded, and until there is the possibility that organizations change what they are doing as a result of evaluation in the complex domain, then it is academic research that lacks clear application. Nothing wrong with academic research, but this forum isn’t likely to be the best place to address it.

2) Do we need a different MEL system and tools?

MEL is not a single process or system.  The toolkit is already huge. Some of the processes and tools are suitable for use in the complex domain, some are not. Answering this question has the same issues as mentioned above:  (a) it assumes that it is possible to predict what will be needed and also (b) it is based on an assumption that a finite range of methods can cover every case. A better approach might be to ask: “What do we need to know and understand in order to be able to decide which tools and methods are likely to be useful in the specific complex intervention we are looking at?”  The specific nature of the complex domain means that we can only really consider one intervention at a time.A really important feature of complexity is that solutions are NOT transferable.  The MEL that works on one complex intervention is unlikely to be useful without changes for other complex interventions (that is the nature of complexity) and we can be certain that it will not be useful for all possible interventions in the complex domain. Monitoring is about the measurement of what is happening. There may be no reason to significantly change this from previous practice, beyond being far more obsessive about knowing what is going on right now and being able to respond quickly to build on success and damp-down failure.  If monitoring is not providing useful information in the causal domain then that won’t change when moving to the complex domain.===Evaluation in the complex domain can’t ask “did we achieve what we expected to achieve?” as that is largely meaningless.  But evaluation can still be any one of a range of approaches, and parts of the OECD DAC are still useful (e.g. “unforeseen consequences” in impacts).  Evaluation in the complex domain can usefully ask questions about what changes resulted from what aspects of the intervention, what was cost-effective and what was a waste of resources, how the intervention approach could be improved, etc.  Techniques like Outcome Harvesting and various story-telling techniques that are capable of identifying what really made a difference, what changed as a result of any intervention, and for whom, may be able to capture outcomes and impacts if scope and focus are correctly set. Learning is still much the same, it involves many of the same core skills for people to appropriate new information, internalize analysis and consequences, reinforcement to embed the knowledge, and a willingness to change beliefs and practices in the light of new information and experience.  If a causal/linear system is not supporting learning and producing new insights and approaches within an organization then transferring it to the complex domain won’t change the lack of learning. Selecting who might learn what, and for what purpose, needs even more detailed attention as complexity increases. Politics and social interaction are examples of interactions that are mostly in the complex domain, insight into “learning” in political and social contexts may provide useful guidance. 

3) What do you suggest I should read on this topic and question?

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework publications and videos, and the Cognitive Edge website.  If you are interested in the theory behind the Cynefin view of complexity then Max Boisot (a tough read…)- Jonny Morell’s blog- John Mayne specifically on Attribution by Contribution- Outcome Harvesting website and blogs – Better Evaluation website on “What is evaluation”. Any web search engine will turn up plenty of other content on complexity as you search for these, and probably lead you to other useful sources – if you find anything really useful then maybe you could share it on Peregrine ?


Silva Ferretti 

Current RBM are totally not fit for purposes. They allow very little space to understand the meaning of results within context and the processes through which they are achieved. Unfortunately, changing approach requires rewiring our way of thinking. From an idea of linear change (if i do A then B happens) and control (I plan, I achieve) towards an idea of complexity (many diverse forces drive change, and they can play differently) and adaptiveness (we have a purpose, we navigate options). 

It also requires us to put our principles first, and to understand and integrate different worldviews. 

As some students in a training c told me; “we had really to stretch and twist our thinking. we feel we, ourselves, changed”. 

If done properly, principled M&E exploring complex and adaptive systems is not only about setting a different way to collect data or process them. 

It is about asking the whole organization to think and work differently in relation to change. To decolonize our thinking. 

And this is the real challenge. 


Bruce Boyes

Hi Arnaldo,

Following on from Russell’s good advice, I would suggest exploring iterative impact-oriented monitoring, as recommended in one of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) complexity publications, see https://realkm.com/2020/08/17/taking-responsibility-for-complexity-section-3-2-2-iterative-impact-oriented-monitoring/

Because of the uncertainty and unpredictability that occurs in complex environments, continuous and iterative M&E and the related adaptive management readjustment of actions aimed at achieving the original impacts is much more effective than hoping for the best and then doing MEL at the end. For an example of where I’ve successfully used this iterative MEL approach see https://realkm.com/2016/03/03/case-study-an-agile-approach-to-program-management/

For an analysis of RBM in the context of complexity see Box 2 in https://realkm.com/2019/11/11/managing-in-the-face-of-complexity-part-3-1-tailoring-management-approaches-to-complex-situations/


Thomas Winderl

I agree: RBM hasn’t turned out to be the revolution in adaptive management that it was supposed to be. But my feeling is: it’s not the idea that is flawed, but the implementation. In most cases, RBM turned into a fill-out-the-boxes, “do the same but give it a different name”, increasingly bureaucratic exercise.

That’s a shame. I think there IS value to the basic idea of RBM. My proposal to ‘rescue’ RBM: Follow five simple rules. These are:

1.      A relentless focus on outcomes, outcomes, and outcomes

2.      Keep adapting what you do based on what you learned from outcome monitoring

3.      Involve stakeholders at every step to create quick feedback loops

4.      Budget for outcomes and outputs, not for activities

5.      And overall: keep RBM simple, but not simplistic

I’ve written a longer post about this a few months ago. If you want to see more detailed argument, check out http://results-lab.com/five-rules-for-results-based-management.


John Hoven

Bruce, have you investigated qualitative methods for iterative, evidence-based investigation of cause-and-effect in a one-of-a-kind situation? The dominant method, process tracing, is used almost exclusively for backward-looking causal inference. However, it is easily adapted to forward-looking design and implementation of a context-specific development / peacebuilding project. Iterative updating of the causal theory proceeds at the pace of learning (every week or two, not every 6 or 12 months.) See https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324507012_Adaptive_Theories_of_Change_for_Peacebuilding.


Alix Tiernan

Hi Arnaldo

This is one of our favourite questions 😊.

Here are some practical thoughts on your three questions:

1) Key principles

a) Design the system around processes that repeat regularly and often, and expect to review project documentation at least twice a year, allowing for new strategies, approaches, and activities to creep in, and other originally planned ones to fall out – that’s the essence of adaptation

b) Try to avoid using targets if you possibly can – or if you can’t, then try to use the targets as a comparison to where you are at but NOT as a performance management tool

c) Find creative ways of triangulating and validating your data to ensure that you are taking account of all the different and changing variables and voices (ie. complement surveys with research studies, focus group discussions in communities with meetings with ministers, etc.)

2) Different MEL system and tools

a) you can adapt results frameworks to an adaptive approach but you need to identify some very good qualitative data collection mechanisms that allow you to take into account the effect of the complex context on your project/programme (we have been using Outcome Harvesting for that)

b) make sure you don’t use targets as a performance management tool, because not hitting your target could be the best possible indicator that you are being adaptive!

c) we like using theories of change instead of logframes or results frameworks, because they don’t have to be linear and don’t prescribe specific outcomes – whatever tool you use, make sure you have a way of picking up unexpected results of the work that relate to the expected outcomes, and that you analyse why they happened. Ideally that analysis would then lead to adaptation of further implementation, in an iterative manner.

3) What to read

I will just point you to this document: https://www.odi.org/publications/11191-learning-make-difference-christian-aid-ireland-s-adaptive-programme-management-governance-gender, which we co-authored, but there are many more from ODI exploring adaptive programming, if you google it (it’s sometimes called adaptive programming, sometimes adaptive management). 

Hope these (rather hands on) thoughts are helpful.


Bob Williams

I’m sorry if I appear to be trolling everyone on this list.  Maybe I’ve been around too long and have seen some of the histories and backstories the ideas being discussed here.  My understanding is that Adaptive Management was developed and adopted because of the widespread failure of RBM rather than being part of the adaptive management story.  

RBM has been criticised as a really bad idea both in theory and practice at least since the mid 1990s.  I recall a hugely negative evaluation of the use of RBM in the UN agencies written at least 15 years ago.  It concluded that it was a very bad idea because it wasn’t sufficiently adaptive for the kinds of circumstances that UN agencies.  The formal response from the UN was that RBM was a problem of implementation not the basic concept, without giving a single piece of evidence.  Hence my dismay to find myself working with a very large UN agency last year that was just introducing RBM at enormous cost.

None of which necessarily undermines the advice given by Thomas.  Just that a bit of history (or at least my version of it) might help a little.


Leslie Fox

… and yet, here we are with most of the major multi- and bilateral donor agencies not to mention a good number of international and local CSOs – those who pay our consultant fees — very much committed to an RBM approach. I’ve worked with most of these organizations and while evaluations have required an RBM approach (achieving results vis-à-vis measuring change in indicators), none of them has been limited to a single methodology to arrive at a full picture of whether change has/is taking place or why. I believe it’s called mixed method.


Frank Page

HI Arnando,

I am going to take a bit of a different tack than others who have answered this question more from the technical side. I am going to look at the institutional side. 

The simple answer I would give is to turn MEL systems into MIS – because, ultimately, M&E data/information is management information. 

For organizations to adapt quickly and effectively in complex environments a number of organizational practices are required.  Some organizational practices required include (this list is not complete) combining authority and responsibility in each position as far down the chain of command as to the right places in the organization possible (in other words, and I like this term, all positions has the agency to do their job and improve their performance) and then provide them and give them access to the information they need to make the best decisions. 

In other words, all staff from field workers, to project managers, to program managers, to VP’s and CEOs should be monitoring and evaluating performance in relation to the vision and mission and making adjustments themselves – as low down the ladder as possible. The M&E function of analysis (at least) needs to be integrated in their jobs, not in a separate department. In addition, doing this also moves much of the learning function into the chain of command, and the parts of the learning function that don’t go into the chain of command could very well go under R&D.

The current practice of separating program and m&el introduces many, some serious, coordination problems that are difficult overcome. 

Thus M&E when becomes MIS, it focusses on collecting original data, pulling data from the organization and its stakeholders, pushing data and information to where it is needed and allowing those in the chain of command to pull the data/information they need.  Then, those who are responsible for actually achieving goals in a complex environment have the information to make changes and adapt quickly. 

Photo credit: Tim Johnson on Unsplash

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Solving problems versus changing systems

I went for a run last week and listened the interview with Nora Bateson on the New Books in System and Cybernetics podcast.

Nora Bateson is the President of the International Bateson Institute and her web bio mentions “she is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and educator based in Sweden. Her work asks the question: How we can improve our perception of the complexity we live within, so we may improve our interaction with the world? “

The interview was about the book she published in 2006, Small Arcs of Larger Circles, a collection of essays, reflections and poems where she writes about systems and ecosystems and where she applies her own insights and those of her team at International Bateson Institute to education, organisations, complexity, academia, and the way that society organizes itself.

There are several points that struck me from the interview. One is that, solving probelms requires seeing the system in which the those problems emerge. This goes beyond understanding context and circumstances that produce a certain problems. The solution to a problem requires looking at the contexts / systems that contribute to the problem.

Here is an example. Say, I want to get or stay fit and decide to go for runs every second day. That is good for my body (system A). However, if the neighbourhood where I live (system B) has no green areas, just asphalt and cement and the air is polluted by the factory at the outskirt of the city. That will affect how fit I can become. If I struggle with finding a job to due to a recession or maybe robots taking up my job (system C), I might put running and getting fit on the back burner. So, in this example there are three systems that interact and in which my running will be part of. In reality the systems would be many more.

I need to change my behaviour to get fit and stay fit through running. But the systems around me, or better, the systems in which I exist determine how fit I can be. They can help me become more fit.

Photo credit: Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

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Snapshots from my journey into systems

When did I start to think about systems?

It goes back to mid 2017, when I was finishing writing with some colleagues the concluding chapter of Knowledge, Politics and Policymaking in Indonesia.

While the whole book is about the evolution of the knowlede sector in Indonesia (i.e. the institutional landscape of government, private sector, and civil society organisations that provide research and analysis to support the development of public policy), when we were writing the final chapter we realise that instead of the knowlede sector we had been writing about the knowledge system in Indonesia.

“This is a subtle but significant difference. The term sector, particularly when applied to actors, systems and processes related to evidence-informed policymaking, is reminiscent of a linear approach to the design and implementation of policy reforms and programmes to tackling persistent problems. This approach has often resulted in technocratic interventions that are solution-driven and measured by inadequate behavioural indicators. Utilising the sector definition of Indonesia’s knowledge sector carries the risk that the design of programmes and reforms by the Indonesian government and development partners will reflect traditional bureaucratic structures and accountabilities. Traditional sectors such as health and education have a ministry in charge of designing and implementing policies and managing the policy cycle for specific reforms. However, this is not the case for the knowledge  sector which, as mentioned above and in Chap. 1, is horizontal in nature with no one ministry or department responsible. The complexity, the politics and the diversity of actors and types of evidence in the knowledge sector are more reminiscent of a system or, to borrow a term from big data, a knowledge systems or evidence ecosystem.

Why is it important to see the knowledge sector as an evidence ecosystem?

First, to see the knowledge sector as an evidence ecosystem means to accept that the actors in the system are linked in a complex web of interlinked relationships whereby they not only want to produce and use evidence but also want to influence each other. This web cuts across policy areas and policy sectors. It is wider than any individual sector.

Second, it is because changes in capability within the evidence ecosystem are evolutionary, rather than linear and based on the principles of engineering, which are so common in development programmes (Green 2017). The evolution of a system, as noted by Jacobs (2000), involves a process that constantly produces increasing diversity and co-development relationships. As it evolves, it generates greater complexity. Importantly, the evolution of such a system is governed by uncertainty, rather than the certainty and linearity of results-based programmes.”

To be continued

Photo credit: Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

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The evolving higher education system is Somalia. In conversation with Guglielmo Giordano, Director of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation in Mogadishu

War and conflict have systemic impacts on higher education: there is physical damage as universities are attacked or occupied by armed groups; loss of life and forced displacement of academic staff and students; and institutional weakening as post-conflict financial resources are allocated to basic services first. Although this is slowly changinghigher education systems are often not a priority during post-conflict recovery.

So, how can we support higher education systems damaged by years of conflict? In this blog, I suggested a portfolio approach, where different funders support experimental solutions in different areas of the higher education system. The key is to see these experiments as a portfolio of interlinked initiatives that, together, and in close collaboration with policy actors at federal and state level, can help accelerate the strengthening of governance and research capabilities of the higher education system, not only individual universities.

To discuss these ideas and problems in the higher education system in Somalia, as well as the role of Italian development cooperation, I reached out to Guglielmo Giordano, the Director of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation at the Italian Embassy in Mogadishu

Arnaldo Pellini – Let’s start with your background. Can you tell me about your experience in international development and your work in Somalia?

Guglielmo Giordano – I started working for development cooperation as a volunteer in South America immediately after my graduation, for almost three years. Then I worked for nearly 10 years in Haiti with the United Nations (i.e. FAO). Later, I was appointed by Italian Cooperation (at that time IC was under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and remained for almost 16 years at HQ as a regional desk officer for the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran and Iraq) to which were added, in the latest period, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since February 2015, I’ve been serving in Somalia.

AP – What are the policy priorities of the Italian development assistance to Somalia?

GG – The action of Italian development cooperation in Somalia considers several factors, among which it is useful to recall the alignment with national development plans, cooperation with local authorities, and coordination with other donors. This said, the very first priority is enhancing employment, as 75 percent of the population is under 39 years. Contributing to the employment of this huge mass of young human resources means to contribute to stabilisation. Somalia needs, in a very short term, a new generation of managers and officials.

Bilateral action is necessarily limited due to the extreme fragility and unreliability of security conditions. The bilateral activities are therefore, so far, limited to the important commitment of contributing to the reconstruction and adaptation of the infrastructure of the Somali National University (SNU). This support has evolved from an initial phase of exclusive professional updating of the teaching staff to the current infrastructural support. It is useful to remember that Italy is currently the only donor involved in the development of state university education for the formation of a new managerial class and officials.

A second program is the creation of a digitalised archive (Somalia Archive) that will make the important number of documents present in Italian archives (audio, video and paper) accessible to everybody via the internet. A second phase is now underway, aimed at networking the body of Somali legislation, which is currently unavailable in the country.

An integral part of the bilateral action of Italian Cooperation in the country is humanitarian and emergency aid, mostly carried out thanks to the collaboration and involvement of Italian Civil Society Organizations present in the territory. This ensures an excellent cost/benefit ratio and enhances the Italian Cooperation System in Somalia.

On the multilateral action front, the thematic focus is then maintained on employment through activities aimed at professional training, and in consideration of the widespread youth unemployment and irregular migration through dangerous routes and trips. For this reason, support to the development of primary sectors, such as agriculture, zootechnics and fishing is foreseen, together with commitment in the private sector for the development of processing and export activities, promoting the full participation of women.

Even when intervening in emergency situations, an approach linked to development activities is preferred, with a view to improving food security indicators through the use of appropriate agricultural techniques and the construction or rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure. This is intended to promote resilience building for the local population, whose vulnerability to recurring adverse climatic phenomena (climate change) remains unfortunately too high.

Another sector of essential importance on which the Italian Cooperation’s action continues to focus is the development of infrastructures, in particular productive ones (ports and airports). This is done through support to the multi-year program of the African Development Bank and other essential initiatives to foster the recovery of the local economy. It is aimed at economic and commercial integration within the country (north-south axis) and fostering regional trade, in particular with Ethiopia (east-west axis) and with countries of the region.

The health sector is one of the traditional sectors of excellence of the Italian commitment in Somalia. This is of primary importance in a country that is among the lowest placed in the world for quality of life indicators. In this sector, investments are made with an ‘all-inclusive’ approach, considering both the provision of medical, essential and emergency services and the rehabilitation of health facilities. This is an essential requirement for the provision of services, with a focus on maternal and child health and the abolition of traditional practices harmful to women’s health, such as female genital mutilation.

In line with the priorities of the Somali Government set out during the Somalia Partnership Forum (Mogadishu, 1–2 October 2019), the primary importance of promoting the rule of law and strengthening government institutions is recognised as part of the broader ‘forces generation’ discourse in Somalia. The AICS intervenes with programs for the advancement of rule of law, for the promotion of human rights, of which women’s rights and children’s rights are an integral part, and in the consolidation of democratic processes. This is in order to contribute to institutional strengthening for greater stability and peace and promoting long-term development.

Finally, confirming the financial commitments made within the funds managed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, support is maintained for the process of institutional and regulatory strengthening necessary for macro-economic development. This, combined with progress in the rule of law, respect for human rights and respect for democratic processes, is among the conditions that can enable Somalia to access debt cancellation.

AP – Italy has had a long presence in Somalia. When researching for the report for SIDA I learned that in the 1950s Italy was involved in establishing some of the first semi-professional schools for high-school graduates. These included the School of Politics and Administration (1950), the Higher Institute of Economics and Law (1954) and the Scuola Magistrale, etc.  How has Italian support to the higher education system evolved since the end of the civil war in 2004? What have the priorities been?

GG – Italian support to the Somali National University has deep roots of more than 50 years and is still today the main reference for the future readjustment of the Somali university system. It should be remembered that Italy is currently the only financier of higher education in Somalia.

There was already Italian support in 1954, with the creation of the Istituto Superiore di Discipline Giuridiche, Economiche e Sociali (Higher Institute of Legal, Economic and Social Disciplines), an institute that produces almost all of the Somali intelligentsia currently in the country and around the world.

In 1969, the Somali Government, in collaboration with the University of Padua, established the faculties of Law and Economics, and later in 1973, the Italian Cooperation and the Federal Government of Transition of Somalia established the Somali National University (SNU). This had the faculties of Medicine, Agriculture, Veterinary, Engineering, Chemistry and Geology, and later, Languages. 

In the 1970s, the Italian Government donated 90 hectares of land to SNU in Gaheyr, within the territory of the Municipality of Mogadishu, on which the academic structure called Campus Gaheyr (at the time financed by EU funds) was established. In the design, carried out by renowned architects Quadroni and Dierna, the campus included the Rectorate, buildings housing six faculties, services and accommodation for students and teachers. The campus was inaugurated in 1985, however at the end of December 1990, activities were interrupted by the outbreak of the civil war and could only continue through forms of assistance to Somali refugee teachers and students in Italy. Students who graduated from the SNU travelled all over the world, occupying responsible professions and becoming highly respected managers or professors. Most of the Somali presidents graduated from the SNU. It must be stressed that such a program should be considered the biggest effort of Italian cooperation in its history. 

Subsequently a scholarship program funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs enabled to continue the collaboration and exchange between Italian universities and SNU.

Following the establishment of the Federal Government of Somalia, and therefore greater stability in the country, in 2014 the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the first of the new programs to support SNU, a financial contribution to the realization of the project ‘Somali Web University’ promoted by the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’. As part of the project, which is still in progress, the Italian-Somali Scientific Committee, hosted by the Italian Geographic Society, was set up, with the participation of several Italian universities (Bari, Florence, Roma Tor Vergata, Roma Tre, Pavia, Trieste, Politecnico di Milano, Politecnico di Torino) and in strategic coordination with the Conference of Rectors of the Universities of Italy. Another two programs, proposed by the University of Roma III and including 16 scholarships for the first SNU graduates, followed in rapid succession, again as programs exclusively related to the training and updating of Somali teachers in Italy, as well as some instrumental equipment (technical-scientific laboratories).

In the meantime, the situation in Mogadishu has gradually evolved, first with the ability of the SNU to secure a temporary physical location downtown, with some classrooms, teachers and already two sections of students admitted to the preparatory semesters, and then, in July 2017, with the return of the Gaheyr Campus, occupied by AMISOM for about 10 years and returned with about 15 additional buildings (barracks and offices of AMISOM). These are now used as classrooms and temporary offices. 

It was therefore deemed necessary and feasible to move to a more concrete phase of real reconstruction of the campus and, to this end, the best Italian engineering institution, the Politecnico di Milano, became involved. As part of this project, PoliMi, in collaboration with SNU, will define the general master plan of the campus, and will technically support the renovation of the remaining faculty blocks (Law, Economics, Political Science), as well as the construction of the new rectorate and new buildings that will host the other faculties of the campus (Veterinary, Science, Engineering). The program also plans to give continuity to the scholarships program in the years to come.

AP – An interesting finding from our study that separates Somalia from other post-conflict countries is that the number of universities has boomed since the mid-2000s. In other countries the higher education systems have struggled to re-emerge from conflict because of a lack of resources. What do you think are the drivers behind this rapid increase in the number of universities in Somalia and Somaliland?

GG – Even though there are, at least nominally, more than 120 private universities in the country (or so they claim), there are no systematic data to assess the level and real situation of tertiary education in Somalia. These are mostly paid technical vocational schools, very often of an integralist religious matrix and with low or limited female participation. Our intervention responds to a specific need of the Somali Government for a rebirth of the SNU as accessible, public and secular, and an alternative to the above-mentioned institutions. In this light, and also in light of the progress made by the Somali Government in terms of stability and security in the country, in October 2018 the Minister of Higher Education invited the Italian Government to sign the Scientific, Cultural, Technical Convention between Italy and Somalia, the latest version of which dates back to 1970.

AP – In your opinion, what are the main problems in the higher education system and where do you think there is greater political room to address some of these problems?

GG – The whole higher education system is managed by the private sector without any actual control by the government. A few years ago, a unique final test for high schools was approved, which represented a great step forward. The monitoring of the whole education system is mandatory, in order to assure a homogeneous quality level from the primary to the tertiary level. Higher quality physical institutions and facilities, demanding more preparation of the teachers and professors means more investment. But this will permit the users (students and their families) to focus their investment (money and time) on something valuable. Currently, too many institutions are just ‘typography’ of certificates and diplomas, without any actual value.

AP – Where is the focus of the Italian development assistance to the higher education system?

GG – To support the SNU to reform its curricula to join the international educational university system. To improve research capacity, with the aid of Italian universities for the moment, but the final aim is to join the international research network, 

AP – Supporting the capacity development of academic staff and researchers is important, but it addresses only one area of the higher education system’s capability issues. How do you see development partners coming together and collaborating with the government to address the problems with a systems approach?

GG – The master plan we are preparing has the ambition of serving other donors to discover their opportunities to invest in the SNU. More than 10 years ago, Italy was the founder of the ISTVS in Sheikh, Somaliland. This is an international tertiary institute for veterinary sciences and agronomy in dried land. Now, the Institute is also funded by Denmark and the EU. 

The Italian cooperation is very conscious of not doing everything alone and a bilateral partnership has to be considered as an impediment to the full expansion of the SNU. Nobody in any sector can imagine standing alone in the present globalised world. The Italian initiative must be considered as facilitating the joint working of a European initiative, where Europe has dialogue with our Somali partners and institutions.

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What is a system?

I am working with some colleagues at the EdTech Hub on defining EdTech systems. We are reviewing general systems literature as well as literature on systems more specific to EdTech. I went back to read something I wrote on knowlede to policy systems (or evidence ecosystems) three years ago in the book I co-edited, Knowledge, Politics, and Policymaking in Indonesia.

I quoted Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, and her definition of systems:

‘Donella Meadows defines a system as ‘an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something’. In brief, a system consists of elements, interconnections and a purpose. The elements are the easiest parts to see, because they are visible and tangible. In the knowledge system, elements include, for example, universities, policy research institutes, policy analysis units, ministries, local governments, civil servants, researchers and data scientists.

Interconnections are the relationships that hold these elements together. It is more difficult to understand these interconnections and why elements are linked as they are. Interconnections often reflect information flows. The government, for example, needs information about the economy, social problems, education and health to decide on policies and fund programmes. The purpose is the hardest part of a system to spot, as it may not be articulated orally or in writing. The purpose must be deduced from behaviour, rather than rhetoric or stated goals, for example, a commitment to use more research-based evidence in policymaking followed by the establishment of new funding mechanisms for think tanks and policy research organisations.

Changes in a system require mapping and understanding all three aspects of the system. Government interventions and development programmes often focus on changes to the elements (e.g. new research organisations, trained civil servants, etc.) − which usually have the least impact on the system but are easier to measure and report on. Some interventions venture further, looking at ways to change or influence interconnections in the system (e.g. forums between researchers and policymakers, coalitions among advocacy organisations and knowledge producers, etc.). This can have a positive impact on the system but may not last. Very few interventions venture so far as to try to influence or change the system’s purpose, which is the level capable of instituting the most profound changes to the system.’

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