Why Zen?


So why ‘Zen and the art of monitoring and evaluation‘??

The truth is I’ve stolen the title from Robert Pirsig’s classic book, ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance‘.

Pirsig’s book is one of my favourites.  At a superficial level it tells the story of his trip across the United States on a motorcycle with his young son on the back.  But at a deeper level it paints a holisit philosophy of life…a ‘Zen’ philosophy.

While riding for hour-upon-hour, Pirsig muses the tension between very strong oposing (polemical) views of the world that can be traced to Aristotle and Plato respectively.  Aristotle’s view he calls ‘classical’, Plato’s view he calls ‘romantic’. 

A classical worldview is all about function.  It’s the view that underpins scientific and engineering thought processes.  It seeks to understand a ‘wall’ by examining the ‘bricks’ and ‘mortar’ (and perhaps the grains of said and cement).

A romantic worldview is all about human interpretation.  This view holds that as soon as you start to break something down into it’s component parts it loses something–it loses it’s beauty or elegance.  As a consequence with this view interprets life at a more intuitive level by appreciating the ‘whole’ rather than the ‘parts’…it appeals to human emotions. 

So what has this got to do with M&E?

Well, Pirsig grapples with the practical implications of these seemingly opposing views of life and the universe, and in the end reaches a place where he can accommodate both views.  Both philosophical outlooks provide insights that when brought together can shed new light.

This conclusion mirrors my perspective on international aid M&E. 

There have been many heated debates about the merit of qualitative v quantitative M&E methods…about the role of indicators v more interpretist/constructivist methods (e.g. MSC).  My position is that given the complexity of assessing the extent and merit of social changes that aid aims to foster in the world…we need to draw on and utilise the full suite of availabe resources, methods and philosophical outlooks. 

This is perhaps an art.  A zen art…hence, zen and the art of monitoring and evaluation!

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link to The 'theory of change' approach

The 'theory of change' approach

For a long time, I’ve been using the phrase ‘theory of change’ to express the idea that a project is essentially a social experiment, and that M&E is about testing the hypotheses implicit in the social experiment.  Recently I was challenged to succinctly elaborate what I thought embodied the ‘theory of change’ approach.  The following […]