Delivering in challenging times through an adaptive, digital approach
Gaborone, Botswana. © Justine Hubane.
Gaborone, Botswana. © Justine Hubane.
The good news in March last year that NIRAS had been contracted to conduct a review of the European Union’s cooperation with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was accompanied by reflections on how to execute an evaluation during a global health crisis with widespread travel restrictions. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the evaluation was completed – in time and with data from more countries than what was initially expected.
The EU has been a long-term cooperating partner of SADC in the regional integration process among its 16 member states. In order to evaluate EU-SADC cooperation between 2013 and 2019, field visits in six SADC countries were originally a key part, but travel restrictions meant that data collection methods had to be rethought. By swiftly deploying an innovative and adaptive approach, data collection was adjusted to include a survey and a meta-evaluation of 14 EU-SADC project evaluations, while field visits were replaced with virtual interviews.
“Limited time to visit six different SADC countries implied that it would have been hard to obtain a strategic and representative understanding of EU-SADC cooperation,” says Paolo Scalia, evaluation expert on the project. However, the adjusted approach led the team to focus and perform a more thorough review of the cooperation with data on more or less all SADC countries. In total, 80 interviews were conducted virtually, mostly at the political and strategic level, which is quite impressive considering the circumstances. “We tried to raise the target from what was meant to be a technical evaluation to see how the cooperation had supported local and national committees and developed trade regulations,” Paolo remarks.
In addition, a survey was rolled out, which had a response coverage of almost all SADC member states, with responses from academic institutions, think tanks, the SADC Secretariat, implementing partners, civil society organisations, and diplomats. NIRAS’ internal research assistant, Nichola Plowman, was available for the experts to support the setup, distribution, monitoring, and data extraction of the survey, and – in her experience – participants were very invested and thoughtful in their responses.
Nichola came onboard during the project’s inception phase. She started working with NIRAS in February 2020, so the EU-SADC evaluation was her first assignment. Not familiar with the evaluation field, Nichola comes from a very different background having earned a a PhD for her research on the ecology of ants in the rainforest canopy.
“The mentorship I’ve had from colleagues since I joined NIRAS, and from the experts on this project has been so valuable. I definitely learn best by doing, and their willingness to give me responsibility in the project has given me a far deeper understanding of the process and work in this sector, as well as the satisfaction of getting to use my analytical skills in a different context,” says Nichola.
I like to work as a freelance expert for NIRAS because people are committed, they believe in principles of development and values of development work, which makes working with NIRAS different from average companies working in this business who tend to be very focused on profit. I’m happy with my relationships with NIRAS colleagues, as I am able to network with people in locations all over the globe, from Belgrade to Latin America to Africa, and all are part of same team. It is working extremely well.
Paolo Scalia, evaluation expert on the project.
Initially, she was to assist with data collection, specifically in setting up the survey, while the experts focused on the interviews. Over the course of the evaluation, Nichola’s contribution to the research deepened quite a lot, as she was also made responsible for assessing individual member states and national strategies’ coherence, and the degree to which they were aligned with EU and SADC strategies.
The project was a quick learning exercise for the team, which showed that it is possible to successfully execute a review like this under restrictions imposed by COVID19. As a critical success factor, Paolo points to SADC’s, the EU’s and NIRAS’ commitment to adjust and support the team in this new modus operandi that, in this case, worked quite well.
Catarina Caetano, Programme Manager for the EU Delegation in Botswana who took over the assignment at the final report stage, agrees: “My experience in terms of the collaboration was very positive. In my view, people make the difference. Collaborating with NIRAS was a pleasure, not least because the project manager, Maria Mortensen, was extraordinary. She was always responsive, open to dialogue, and looking for positive solutions to the challenges. The experts were very professional and dedicated in their approach to the assignment. It was a great effort to put this review into place,” Catarina says.
In the end, NIRAS and the expert team were innovative and adaptive, which rendered a digital approach that suits projects in a context of COVID19-related travels restrictions and virtual meetings.