Role as a Public Health Evaluation Specialist
My career as a public health monitoring & evaluation (M&E) specialist is an exciting one. As a public health M&E specialist, my goals are to help the organizations I work for and the projects we implement to show their successes, be accountable to the intended beneficiaries, to make corrections to the project’s approach and implementation plans in a timely manner, and to capture lessons that will be useful for the organization and other stakeholders’ future work. More specifically, my role is to establish M&E systems to achieve these goals. Whether the project intends to bring sanitation facilities to refugees fleeing a war, reduce malnutrition in children under five years in chronically poor communities, or strengthen health systems to ensure the safety of medical products, the general types of work I do are the same.
In my career in public health, I have had the opportunity to work across an array of subjects, or technical areas and countries. In the early part of my career, I supported many assessments that involved primarily qualitative methods to inform new and existing development projects. In Sierra Leone, I helped facilitate a participatory mapping exercise with youth to understand their sexual and reproductive health needs better. In Zambia, I conducted qualitative research at the midterm of a project intended to integrate TB and HIV program to understand the integration.
From Development to Emergency Public Health Projects
The next step in my career focused on building M&E systems and performing M&E work within a development project. As an example, in Uganda and Tanzania, for orphans and vulnerable children’s projects, I developed user-friendly data collection tools for communities to use, performed data quality checks, troubleshot data management issues and facilitated discussions with communities, staff, and other stakeholders to gather lessons to improve programming.
As my career progressed, I decided to move from development-oriented work to emergency-oriented work. What’s the difference? Development work is the long game, focusing on improving situations with a five to 20-year time horizon. Emergency (aka humanitarian) work, focuses on saving lives in the first days, weeks and months after a calamitous event occurs, such as a war or a natural disaster. The focus of emergency projects are to meet basic human needs, as opposed to changing the behaviors and attitudes of people in relation to an issue such as chronic malnutrition, transmission of HIV, or domestic violence that are the focus in development projects. As an M&E Technical Advisor for an emergency organization, I had to reframe my expectations for an M&E system, and quicken my pace. For an emergency such as the refugee crisis in Greece, the Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria, and the conflict in Syria, the ability of organizations such as the one I worked for to monitor and evaluate projects is limited by a variety of factors such as: the timeline to implement activities and the ability of staff to routinely visit project sites due to insecurity. Using SPHERE standards and other set criteria for what is expected, we rapidly assess, monitor and evaluate using and adapting the same sets of tools to assess conditions and explore contexts related to people’s basic needs and ability to access services. We use qualitative methods such as focus groups and key informant interviews to understand different population’s basic needs and quality of services provided.
Insecurity plays a major role in M&E work in emergency contexts. In Afghanistan, I was conducting an internal project evaluation, and was unable to lead the assessment in our rural districts of eastern Afghanistan because of insecurity. I had to train facilitators in the nearest, accessible city and call them daily during the data collection stage to manage the process. Similarly, for projects in the volatile region around Syria, we had to identify third-party monitors (i.e., people who work for other organizations or entities) to help us with M&E activities such as verifying procurement distributions, collecting health data from clinics, and meeting with beneficiaries to gather their feedback on the project.
Facets of an M&E Career
I recently changed jobs so that I can travel less and focus on my family, which just grew by one, beautiful baby boy. Having a career in M&E allows for this flexibility. Now I am working in M&E for an organization that is strengthening health systems to ensure the quality of medicines in low and middle-income countries. From the laboratory and science experts, I am learning the ins and outs of what it means to have a strong regulatory system in place to ensure there are no counterfeit, false and substandard medical products harming and killing people, and I am applying my M&E skills to develop SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) indicators, conduct data quality audits, and manage data.
The work of an M&E specialist can be rigorous and scientific, and it can be creative. M&E skills can be highly specialized in a technical area such as M&E for HIV programs, or they can be transferred from technical area to technical area with a bit of learning. Whatever you choose to focus on, a career in public health M&E will never be boring.
About the Author
Sara Davis Gopalan has over 13 years of international development experience working for NGOs such as CARE USA, CARE Sierra Leone, International Medical Corps, Center for the Prevention of Genocide, and the Salvation Army World Service Office. Currently, she is the Senior M&E Specialist within the Division of Global Public Health at US Pharmacopeia. She has traveled frequently to support the design, implementation, and evaluation of HIV, OVC and health projects in Angola, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Haiti, and has traveled with the International Medical Corps to humanitarian contexts such as Gaza, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sara holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health from Emory University and a Bachelor’s Degree in International Development from American University.
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