Policymakers are increasingly taking a food systems approach to ensure access to a healthy diet. However, this food systems approach also requires a new approach to monitoring and evaluation: one that is more adaptive and integrated with programme management. This is the main conclusion of a conference organised by Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation.
'Not only can monitoring and evaluation improve our understanding of food systems but, more importantly, they can guide policy and programme management by helping us to think about the decisions we need to make and how to stimulate change. However, this requires a new approach to monitoring and evaluation', says Cecile Kusters, senior advisor at Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. She describes the lessons learnt from the conference in a conference report on how monitoring and evaluation can help inform and support the transformation towards inclusive and sustainable food systems for healthy diets.
Why food systems?
Hunger is increasing worldwide. To improve access to healthy food for all, transformation of the global food system is needed. 'A food systems approach presents the larger picture and provides an overview of all the factors that influence whether people have a healthy diet or not', continues Kusters. These factors include not only food production and other activities in the value chain, such as the storage, transport, processing and retailing of food, but also access to land and water and socio-economic drivers such as policies, markets and research and education. A food systems approach can also highlight the trade-offs in the food system, especially between food production and the environment.
Kusters argues that a food systems approach tends to focus on analysis and often fails to guide stakeholders in terms of the decisions to make or how to adapt policy to really change food systems. What is needed, therefore, is a new approach to monitoring and evaluation.
How can monitoring and evaluation transform food systems?
In the past, monitoring and evaluation was about measuring results using pre-determined indicators. To contribute to food systems transformation, monitoring and evaluation needs to be more flexible and adaptive. In other words, it needs to be able to change what is measured when the situation changes, for example due to altered market conditions, or a political decision. Different methods and approaches for this were discussed during the conference. One example is zooming in and zooming out: focusing on the details while also keeping an eye on the broader picture. Another is discussing scenario studies to see what effects interventions or policy may have in the future, instead of looking back to the past.
From measuring to collective sense-making
This means that monitoring and evaluation are no longer carried out just to inform a project donor about its progress, but are now a tool in the management of programmes and policy (see the book Managing for sustainable development impact). Important in this is collective sense-making, explains Kusters. An example comes from the Integrated Seed Sector Development programme in Uganda, where project staff organise quarterly and yearly review and planning meetings that are attended by seed-producing farmers, businesses, policymakers and other stakeholders, to discuss progress and problems in the programme and in the sector, and adapt the programme when needed. Data such as the sales figures of local seed businesses are not just used to report on progress, but also to learn how to improve the businesses, and the food system in general. Kusters: 'Collective sense-making means sitting down with stakeholders to jointly review the situation, based on the evidence that has been gathered. We have got the data, but what does it mean? Such collective sense-making also harvests collective intelligence, beyond what can be measured in specific value chains.'
New role for evaluators and researchers
This new approach to monitoring and evaluation also demands new skills from evaluators and researchers, says Kusters. 'Apart from being able to generate evidence on what works and what does not, they also need to be able to engage stakeholders and facilitate dialogue and sense-making. Specialists in monitoring and evaluation are increasingly the manager's right hand.' Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation has experience in using monitoring and evaluation as an integral part of managing for development in several programmes.
Insights for policymakers
National policymakers in ministries and embassies are increasingly adopting a food systems approach to improve access to healthy diets. However, Kusters often observes that the new food systems approach is not accompanied by a new approach to monitoring and evaluation. 'The measurement indicators are still often determined in advance. I understand that certain indicators need to be measured – for example the amount of jobs created for young people, or the number of farmers involved in a programme. But we also need to understand the story behind the change in the food systems.'
That means more room for manoeuvre for monitoring and evaluation, based not on detailed indicators but on the larger picture, which enables monitoring and evaluation to be more flexible and adaptive. It also requires a larger budget for monitoring and evaluation, Kusters argues; one that matches the larger role of monitoring and evaluation in the food systems transformation.
This is consistent with the current trend and larger-scale evaluations at the national level that transcend the level of individual projects.