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Evidence of progress

Wendy Watson interviews a woman to evaluate how water and sanitation facilities have impacted on her village.

Within the complex world of logframes, baseline surveys and project indicators, Wendy Watson explains the value of relationships and the practice of patience.

'Boh penh nyang' is a Lao phrase that equates roughly to 'She'll be right, mate'.

It's a reflection of the laid-back nature of Lao culture, the acceptance that things happen at their own pace. It can also be a difficult concept for a results-driven academic to embrace.

Wendy Watson left behind a long research career in injury prevention and public health to fulfil a lifelong dream to live in Asia. Her assignment, through the AusAID-funded Australian Volunteers for International Development program, was to assist Lao Red Cross to standardise its information management systems. Or so it said on paper.

Lao Red Cross runs water and sanitation, blood donation, first aid and health care programs, all of which require information management. "The Lao Red Cross aims to support the most vulnerable people's needs on time," says Manivone Bounthongsy, Deputy Head of the Luang Prabang branch. "We work with communities to improve their health and livelihood and help them to prepare for and respond to disaster."

Wendy's assignment got off to a typically laid-back start. "I didn't have a computer for about three months, which made it a bit hard to manage information!" she laughs.

Initially chafing at the delay, Wendy spent the time trading language skills with Manivone and other colleagues, which turned out to be a highly valuable exercise. "Manivone's confidence has soared as her English improved and she's now tackling the translation of quite complex information," she says. "It's amazing that she can operate at that level and we can now work very productively together. I'm studying Lao, but finding it quite a challenge!"

The next step was to review how data was gathered across a range of projects and how it could be used for planning and reporting purposes. "In the first instance it's developing a logical framework for the planning, putting in all the indicators for each project, then creating a monitoring and evaluation framework that shows when and how we measure against our indicators … and the last part is developing the tools to measure all that stuff," Wendy explains.

Bread-and-butter stuff for academics, but extremely complicated for field workers, especially with a language barrier. Manivone and Wendy opted for a participatory approach that, while slower, engaged the staff team throughout.

"I discovered that Swiss Red Cross was coming over to do a workshop on logframes, which was handy," Wendy says. At the workshop, the team dissected each of their projects to identify objectives, outputs, outcomes and impacts - elements which are quite distinct from each other.

"It's easy to measure outputs - how many toilets or water systems have you put in, for example - but the next step up is to measure knowledge, attitudes and health practices - the things people actually do. And the next level is to measure how it impacts their health," Wendy adds.

A typical project, like the installation of water and sanitation facilities in a village, starts with a baseline survey. Wendy and the team spent hours developing their first baseline survey. "I'd propose questions in English, Manivone would translate them to Lao, and then we sat down with the whole team and went through every question. They had a lot of insight into the relevance and wording of questions because they've been doing field interviews for many years. This back-and-forth process was painfully slow but very effective and also a very good team-building exercise."

The survey helps Lao Red Cross to understand the current state of health in each village, as well as villagers' understanding of hygiene practices. As each project unfolds, progress is measured against key indicators to understand whether access to clean water, sanitation facilities and hygiene training actually improves health and reduces water-borne diseases and, if not, what further work needs to be done.

This slow, investigative process has given the Luang Prabang branch a solid foundation on which to build future projects. "The logical framework for the next four years has now been completed, indicators have been developed and progress has been made in developing our monitoring and evaluation system," says Manivone.

As for Wendy, she's learnt the practice of patience. "I had a fairly high-stress previous life and having the opportunity to be immersed in a culture with a different value system has been a real gift. While I still get things done, I've learnt to be more patient, relax and not stress about things, especially those out of my control.

"I'm also very happy about the relationships I've developed with the staff. They consider themselves a family and I'm part of that."


Photo credit: Australian Red Cross/Bart Verweij