Competition is intensifying at origin, and not just for roasters trying to source extraordinary coffees. It is true in the international development field, too. Donors are demanding more accountability and more compelling evidence that their investments are generating social impact.
In the area where I have focused most of my professional energies over the past eight years — coffee value chains — there are plenty of hard data we gather and analyze in assessing the impact of our work at origin: increases in productivity, reductions in production costs, improvements in coffee cupping scores, gallons of water used in post-harvest processing, etc. These are all important in telling the story of project impact.
And yet, when I have been asked about project impacts, my first instinct is not to cite these statistics. It is to tell stories.
The two stories I have told most in connection with our CAFE Livelihoods project are those of farmer-led innovation in Nicaragua and a commercial breakthrough in El Salvador. Today, I publish another CAFE success story from El Salvador. Unlike the others, this one was told by the farmers themselves during a visit to the field a few weeks ago.
It is part of an innovative approach to project monitoring and impact evaluation called the “Most Significant Change” methodology, or MSC for short. MSC is an elegant, story-based process that turns some key elements of traditional quantitative monitoring and evaluation on their head. The image above, which graces the cover of the MSC manual, captures the essential spirit of the technique.
Most quantitative indicators respond to the agenda of a donor or a development agency, and reflect our way of engaging with and understanding the communities where we work but don’t live. The limitations of this approach should be obvious enough.
MSC privileges the perspectives of the people in the communities where we work who participate in projects like CAFE Livelihoods. The field work is driven by a basic, open-ended interview question that allows respondents to define what project-driven changes have been most significant in their lives. Often, the responses are not the ones we spend the most money and energy trying to generate through our programming. Sometimes, the most significant changes facilitated by our projects are not positive. By identifying the unintended consequences of our projects, the MSC approach can help us improve the quality of programming and teach us a lot about the people we work to serve.
And as anyone who has ever visited origin knows, there is a particular kind of hard-earned wisdom in the coffeelands that often finds expression in memorable ways. When done well, MSC stories can demonstrate impact more compellingly than even the most impressive data sets.