M&E and Learning at the Activity Level

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USAID Program Cycle Overview Partner Guide

This guide summarizes USAID's Program Cycle guidance for USAID Implementing Partners, including MEL Plan expectations.



Seven Steps to Developing a Monitoring and Evaluation Work Plan

From the Family Health International (FHI) Core Module 3, Facilitator’s Training Guide, this handout provides a useful overview of the elements of an MEL work plan without being too detailed with respect to the exact terminology to be used.

The Barefoot Guide

This series of three guides can help activity level teams integrate learning into their approach to project management as well as monitoring and evaluation.

At the activity/implementing mechanism level, USAID Implementing Partners are expected to develop and submit an activity MEL plan before major activity implementation actions begin. Key reporting indictors in these plans will be exactly matched to indicators in USAID Project MEL Plans and/or the Mission’s PMP.

USAID uses the term activity to identify project components that are being implemented by country partners or by other organizations USAID has funded to carry out specific tasks under a contract, cooperative agreement, grant or other arrangement, as outlined in the table below that links activities to projects and programs.

Program program is aligned with a CDCS Development Objective and includes all projects and other activities that are associated with a particular DO
Project project is a set of executed interventions, over an established timeline and budget intended to achieve a discrete development result (i.e. the project purpose) through resolving an associated problem. It is explicitly linked to the CDCS Results Framework.
Activity An activity is a component of a project that contributes to a project purpose. It refers to an award (such as a contract or cooperative agreement), or a component of a project such as policy dialog that may be undertaken directly by Mission staff.

The step-wise linkages from programs, through projects, to activities are also prominent in the way in which activity designs are prepared and in activity MEL Plans. For every program-level Development Objective (DO) USAID approves, there must be both a Results Framework and a Performance Management Plan (PMP). At the project level, the tools USAID uses shift, and for each project USAID requires a Logical Framework and an associated MEL Plan. Projects and programs are tightly integrated and share some of their key results and indicators as explained on the kit’s CDCS to Project Linkages page.

Close linkages extend downward as well, from Projects to the activities that support them with some results and indicators being shared between these two levels, as the USAID ADS 203 diagram below suggests.

MEL and Learning at the Activity Level graphic

As this table and ADS 203 indicate, an MEL plan is required for each USAID financed activity that includes key reporting indicators which match up with performance measures included in a project Logical Framework and, in some instances, are also found in a Mission PMP. The Agency’s Partner Guide, the USAID Program Cycle Overview highlighted in the sidebar on this page – provides a useful description of the distinctions between a program level PMP and a project level MEL Plan below. An activity level MEL plan, by extension, folds into a project level MEL plan in much the same way.

  • PMPs: A Performance Management Plan (PMP) is a tool to plan and manage the process of monitoring, evaluating, and analyzing progress toward achieving results identified in a CDCS and project LogFrame in order to inform decision-making, resource allocation, learning and adapting projects and programs. Each mission must prepare a mission-wide PMP that includes performance indicators, baseline data, and targets for the CDCS Goal and each DO and IR.
  • MEL Plans: The project MEL plans fold into the mission-wide Performance Management Plan (PMP), which includes Goal and DO level indicators from the CDCS Results Framework as well as the relevant indicators and evaluation questions from all project MEL Plans. Thus, project indicators (at the Purpose and Output levels from the LogFrame) and evaluation questions from the project MEL Plan are included in the PMP as they are developed.

Two other important pieces of guidance for the development of activity level MEL plans are included in other parts of USAID’s program cycle guidance:

Activity MEL Plans Submitted to USAID are not Necessarily Comprehensive

In ADS 203, USAID explains that “Activity MEL plans include performance indicators that are consistent with and meet the data collection needs of the project MEL plan and the mission’s Performance Management Plan (PMP). Activity MEL plans submitted to USAID should include only those indicators that the Mission needs for activity management, rather than the entire set of all indicators an implementer uses for its management purposes.“ In other words, country partners and other organizations that implement USAID funded activities may themselves have broader MEL plans they intend to use to manage these projects. The MEL plan sent to USAID would, in that case, be a subset of the full activity plan.

Evaluation is a Element of an Activity MEL Plan

Just as in a project level MEL Plan, evaluation is distinct from monitoring. At the activity level, USAID’s partners may plan to undertake evaluations in addition to whatever evaluations USAID plans to carry out. USAID’s Evaluation Policy recognizes this possibility:

Whereas most evaluations will be external, funding may be dedicated within a project design for implementing partners to engage in evaluative work for their own institutional learning or accountability purposes. In cases where project funding from USAID supports an evaluation conducted or commissioned by an implementing partner, the findings from that evaluation must be shared in written form with the responsible technical officer within three months of the evaluation’s conclusion.

USAID also looks to Implementing Partners to help the Agency identify when impact evaluations may be appropriate, i.e., when innovative interventions and pilots are involved, and for cooperation when USAID is using a parallel contract to conduct an impact evaluation, or other type of external evaluation. These too are topics an activity level MEL plan might cover in an evaluation section.

Learning Approaches May Be Integral Elements of an MEL Plan

Learning strategies and approaches that are integral to a country partner or other implementing partner’s MEL plan area also worth describing, including any linkages that may exist between a partner’s learning approaches and broader USAID learning approaches being used for the project to which a partner activity contributes.

 << Project MEL Plan: Learning Approach Up Project MEL Plan >>



A toolkit developed and implemented by:
Office of Trade and Regulatory Reform
Bureau of Economic Growth, Education, and Environment
US Agency for International Development (USAID)

For more information, please contact Paul Fekete.

Last updated: July 12, 2021

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