Making an impact: Designing programs to strengthen communities

Evaluation is a field that can open doors across the world – just ask University of Melbourne graduate Marion Cabanes, who has a resume that spans multiple continents.

Originally from France, Marion has always had a global outlook, which has taken her to Australia, West Africa, Asia, Latin America and beyond. Last year, she landed her current evaluation role: Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) Advisor within the Humanitarian team of Oxfam America, based in Boston.

Marion Cabanes
Marion Cabanes

Monitoring and evaluation (ME) specialists are required across a range of industries – from international development to health to education – and play a vital role in shaping and assessing complex organisational projects, programs or policies. At international organisations and NGOs such as Oxfam, ME teams are now commonplace and help ensure development programs are having a meaningful impact.

A key project Marion has worked on at Oxfam evaluates disaster risk reduction and resilience across six countries.

“The program is to strengthen vulnerable communities’ capacities to be prepared, respond and recover rapidly when facing small-scale disasters in Central America and Asia-Pacific,” Marion says.

She says a key aim of the program is to develop local leadership: “Oxfam's approach in humanitarian is to strengthen the capacities of local humanitarian leaders, be they NGOs, government institutions or community committees.”

Marion’s goal as an evaluator is to help Oxfam build strong programs and interventions from the outset. Evaluators are now often integrated into the design stage of projects, establishing frameworks and processes to give programs the best chance of success.

“It's very rewarding to be involved in the process early on,” Marion says, “and to work with a network of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning advisors around the world to develop the most appropriate M&E system according to the context and our reporting and learning need at a global level.”

At Oxfam she has also created opportunities for cross-country knowledge exchange and is working on a project collecting data on the impacts of local humanitarian leadership efforts in El Salvador.

While Marion has already made an impressive mark on the field, she made a career pivot to evaluation only recently. After first gaining masters-level qualifications in international relations, she began wondering how she could channel her interests into a more specialised field.

“Because of this IR Master, I was a bit unsure of what I was able to do at the end of it,” she says. “I felt that international relations were too broad. It was very interesting, but I needed something to specialise myself in a more specific area.”

While based in Australia, she was involved as the Evaluation Officer in a program aiming to increase Indigenous economic participation and became interested in the field of evaluation.

To further her knowledge, she enrolled in the University of Melbourne’s Graduate Certificate in Evaluation and, after graduating in 2016, progressed to the Master of Evaluation. As both courses are offered full online, Marion was able to work and travel throughout West Africa whilst studying.

It’s an ever-evolving area with exciting opportunities to learn and contribute to a community of evaluation practice as well as rectify a few misconceptions about evaluation in the international sector.

“The online experience was great for me and worked well as it allowed me to work at the same time and still commit to my work travels,” she says. “I ended up doing a capstone project in West Africa because of this flexibility and my current work then.”

Marion says the course content was immediately useful: “I could always apply a few concepts that I was studying in my work – I loved that!”

She continues to use this knowledge in her work today. “Evaluation Foundations, Practice of Evaluation, Applied Research for Evaluation, Impact Evaluation and Evaluation Capacity Building are subjects that have been so useful,” she says. “I still use and reference some of the articles and books reviewed, as well as examples or cases used by professors.”

Marion says postgraduate study gave her a vital grounding in the practice of effective evaluation.

“The Master of Evaluation helped me develop my evaluative thinking and mind, which I also keep as we are designing an intervention and implementing it and monitoring it, so that everything will make sense at the evaluation time,” she says.

“This way, my team and I don’t think about evaluation at the end of the program only. The course made me aware of all the theories, methodologies and stakeholders that I should consider and include in the process to be a real learning and knowledge-generating experience.”

Marion recommends postgraduate study in evaluation and says it is a highly rewarding field: “It’s an ever-evolving area with exciting opportunities to learn and contribute to a community of evaluation practice as well as rectify a few misconceptions about evaluation in the international development sector.”

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