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Real-Time Monitoring: just another label?

June 19, 2012

Last week, IDS hosted a two-day global workshop together with UNICEF on ‘Real-Time Monitoring for the Most Vulnerable’. It is part of a larger study that the institute is undertaking in cooperation with UNICEF to map the wide array of initiatives and pilots that have been initiated in the last few years. This involved a desk study, six country case studies and will conclude with a synthesis report.

The workshop was attended by participants from UNICEF, IDS as well as external partners such as Save the Children and Oxfam. The two days were filled with interesting and, sometimes heated, debates about the current experiences with RTM and what we can learn from them for the future.

One of the key messages I took away from the workshop is that it is far from evident what RTM constitutes and what exactly it does and does not entail. There are issues around frequency; frequency of data collection as well as frequency of data reporting. A general way of thinking about RTM is that it should be more frequent than regular monitoring systems, both in terms of collection and reporting. But given current technological advancements, regular monitoring tools (such as large-scale surveys) are becoming more and more timely.

Technology is another aspect that is often considered inherent to RTM. In fact, a lot of the focus is on new technologies and the opportunities they offer. SMS for rapid health monitoring, using PDAs or tablets for filling and processing survey questionnaires, etcetera. However, at least two of the six country case studies undertaken by the IDS team did not involve any new technology at all. The case study I was responsible for – Romania – focused on a rapid assessment of the economic crisis in 2009 and 2010 and was based on fairly standard qualitative research techniques.

A final aspect is that of context. The discussion of RTM, and particularly for the most vulnerable, gained considerable momentum after the onset of the financial, food and fuel crisis in 2007 and 2008, and the recognition that we need to be able to assess the impacts of such a crisis more rapidly. But does that mean that RTM is only a tool to be used in such a context? What about the introduction of RTM tools in monitoring systems as standard practice? In addition, it was argued that monitoring in emergency contexts has always been ‘real-time’ because otherwise the information would be useless.

In other words, those two days offered a lot of food for thought. Whether RTM is just a new label for something that many development practitioners have already been doing for a long time or really offers a new set of tools, it is likely to have a prominent place in discussions on the post-2015 framework. Regardless of labels, technology or context, being able to improve the lives of those most vulnerable requires accurate, timely and adequate information.

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