Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Sea is Life

Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation and Why I Love Going to the Beach
by Yeb Sano

            Ang dagat ay buhay. (The sea is life)

            Of all natural wonders, I love the sea. For me, the sea is a refuge which takes away the toxins of urban life. A few hours by the shore where water greets the land is enough to ease the tensions of one who have become hardened by the daily grind of so-called civilization. A dip in the cool clear waters of our countryside coasts is a magical experience that loosens up every muscle and every bone. The sea absorbs my frustrations, and transforms my inner torments into waves of hope. And this enchanting experience is even multiplied hundredfold when I descend beneath the glassy surface of the sea into an underwater realm…a truly awesome sight that reveals the Creator’s sense of humor and beauty.  Yes, the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen are beneath the waves. That is why I always look forward to a trip to the beach.

            A few years back, I was involved in a monitoring and evaluation of a Community-Based Coastal Resource Management (CBCRM) Program, and I anticipated a half year of abstract concepts, tedious logframes, matrices of inputs and outputs, heaps of goals and objectives all of which are not peculiar to monitoring and evaluation. My expectations were failed. The excercise turned out to be an exciting exploration. I was not dismayed. My anticipation of tedious matrices slowly but surely transformed into eagerness. I was eager to learn, to have fun. As soon as I realized I would be near the sea once again, I decided it was going to be a meaningful experience. And meaningful it was. After being armed with the tools for monitoring and evaluation, I was raring to go and filled with fervor as I looked forward to my trip to a community of fisherfolk.

            It is not surprising if many people believe that monitoring and evaluation is a worthless activity that wastes time and money. Many people are keen to believe that monitoring and evaluation is complex and overly technical that can only be done by technical experts. Monitoring and evaluation is often seen as a monster. It is often seen as a program’s autopsy.

            And I don’t blame people who do so. Because for the longest time, monitoring and evaluation has been done in a way that it wastes time and money, and exceedingly complex that only evaluators understand what they have done.

            My experiences have taught me that monitoring and evaluation can only have value if it is PARTICIPATORY. Oh yes, this term again. What is participatory? And how can evaluation be participatory? All these WE learned during those months.

            Our group laid down a map and drew our route, and set out on our course for several weeks of gathering data, talking with fisherfolk, taking pictures, talking some more with wives, kids, sisters, brothers… and just being with them.

            On our first visit, we were warmly welcomed by the leaders of the federation of fisherfolk peoples’ organizations in the town. I know of Filipino hospitality, and these fisherfolks gave it a great touch of sincerity. Their faces were mirrors of fervor, zeal, and hope for the future.

            Our purpose was to evaluate their Program in the context of a participatory framework. We were expected to develop this framework and apply the basic concepts and processes in the evaluation of a community development organization and its programs. We would have to find solutions to issues that we unearth.

            Yes, a trip to the beach is a welcome respite from the day-to-day grind in Manila. But that time, the trip to the beach was not merely about a personal retreat. It was both a refuge and a foray. A refuge from the ugly insincerity that pervades urban society, and a foray into the struggles of our sisters and brothers who dwell along the sea in a cycle of poverty and peripheral neglect. CBCRM is not a simple concept. It is a cyclical process that demands us to understand the situation of the coastal communities, to absorb the immediate objectives that we have to aim for, and to get a clear picture of the tools and strategies that should be used to address the situation. Since CBCRM was not a simple thing, evaluating one such a program was surely a challenge.

            Our evaluation of the program turned out to be rewarding for a host of reasons. For one, we enjoyed the pleasure of the sunny disposition of the people and we were touched by their passion for their work. They were very candid in sharing their weaknesses and magnanimous in sharing their strengths. They delighted in telling their stories of transformation from meek uneducated citizens into zealous and self-assured leaders of the fisherfolk.

            In the midst of all the fun of our visits, I found meaning in what we were doing. In particular, I found three strengths of evaluation that is PARTICIPATORY.

1) Participatory evaluation is not difficult. It is worthwhile. I learned to see the situation through the eyes of the people. I have seen monitoring and evaluation done by technical experts and I must say my stomach churns with disgust at the way traditional evaluations have alienated the people from the very objectives of their program. Traditional monitoring and evaluation has hindered effective assessment of programs and has impeded genuine people empowerment. We no longer need the super-egos of those technicians who think they’re the only ones who can do monitoring and evaluation.
2) Participatory evaluation is empowering. It promotes the participation of more stakeholders. It promotes a process of continuous self-assessment and quality improvement. The people become aware that the participatory approaches they employ in their everyday work can be used for monitoring and evaluation.
3) Participatory evaluation is efficient. Even without experts, and with only minimal cost, participatory evaluation can yield the needed information that can be used to assess the organization and its programs. Its strength also rides on the use of effective qualitative, participatory and gender-sensitive methods.

I have come to realize that participatory evaluation is not only beneficial to the people. It also spurs a transformation within my very own self. First, I become aware of the issues and the plight of our sisters and brothers in the fishing communities. I get to understand that issues such as environmental degradation and destruction of resources have root causes on more critical issues that the people face every morning they get out of bed. They have to confront the issue of restricted access, perhaps due to property disputes or to regulations. They have to compete for resources as small artisanal fishermen have to face big commercial fleets. They have problems on land tenure.  Faced with all these myriad of issues, the fisherfolks, by prodding or on their own volition, have awakened and bonded together to form their people’s organization which will ensure that their coastal resources remain viable for many generations. Community-based resource management IS being in control of your destiny. The people have decided that they can make a difference by becoming centrally involved in the management of their resources. As I realize how their group has risen from a small flock into a force to reckon with, I am compelled to reflect on my own struggles. The passion and sense of hope of these people are contagious.

            Beyond the melodrama of such experience, I derive some important learnings from the exercise in participatory evaluation. Among others, baselines are very important. Without good baseline data, evaluation will not be as effective. Another more important thing is trust. Trust lubricates relationships. In promoting participatory monitoring and evaluation, we should learn how to trust. Trusting in the people will facilitate the learning process. It destroys barriers and gives the people the opportunity to share their experiences in an atmosphere of sincerity and cooperation.

            Ang dagat ay buhay. The sea is life. AND the sea is alive. This is the reason why these fisherfolk continue to strive to push forward their community-based resource management program. To me, the sea is a spiritual gift. To them, the sea is the source of their life. As I went diving in the cool waters of that Batangas town, I witnessed the wonderful gift that the people had. Amidst each nook and cranny, outcrop, swaying anemones, and incredible coral formation, life thrives. I am delighted that I had the chance to know these people. I look forward to another trip to the beach…

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