Starting an ECHO or DIPECHO application under time pressure

In one of my previous assignments I had to cope with a 15-day deadline to deliver distance-facilitation services for the design of a new disaster-preparedness project in Asia for one of my clients (an international non-governmental organisation). The team was composed of staff members in different locations (Europe, national and sub-national levels). So, I had to minimise the working time of the client’s team as well as I could. I asked myself then: What are the main sections of the e-Single Form that one should start from when preparing an ECHO/DIPECHO application with a short submission deadline?

I present and explain in this post my attempt of answering this question. Why one should start in the order suggested here? In short, my answer is that: They are interconnected in a way that it is easier to design their contents in the order presented here. Although this post focuses on the design process of an ECHO or DIPECHO action, I believe that some of the ideas here can be helpful in writing proposals or offers for other competitive procedures as well.

ECHO and DIPECHO proposals need to be prepared in a special PDF file, the e-Single Form, which only works if you open the file using some Adobe Acrobat product (Linux and Mac users need to have at least the free version of Adobe Reader installed). Once the e-Single Form has been generated using APPEL (the application system for electronic exchange of information between DG ECHO and its partners), you will see its various sections (or chapters, if you prefer) such as: title of the action (“action” is how a project or a programme is usually called in competitive procedures by the European Union, incl. ECHO/DIPECHO), narrative summary, area of intervention, start date and duration, presence in the area, problem, needs and risks and response analyses, previous evaluations or lessons-learned exercises, among others. All these sections are very important but what would be the most important ones to begin with when you are about to start working on a new proposal?

In my opinion, the four most important points in sequential order are:

1) Problem, needs, risk and response analyses

2) Logframe + monitoring and evaluation design

3) Budget

4) Estimation of direct beneficiaries

Problem, needs, risk and response analyses

This should be the first step in the proposal development process. Depending on the information you already have, your team may still need to do some fieldwork after the publication of the humanitarian implementation plan (equivalent to a call for proposals for ECHO/DIPECHO actions). ECHO partners’ site explains this section in detail. In the e-Single Form, the indicators for the specific objective and results have fields for baseline and target values. So, ideally, you should already have such updated analyses ready by the time of the application, since they should inform the logframe design. Depending on their quality, important data sources are also endline studies or final external evaluations from past projects.

For this section, you will need to provide information about: a) the date when the assessment took place, b) the methodology employed in the assessment (e.g., sampling processes and analytical frameworks such as the food consumption score, which will depend on the focus of your proposal); c) problem, needs and risk analysis, and d) response analysis, which explains how you plan to respond to the aspects mentioned in the previous point (problem, needs and risk analysis). The length of the text you can add to the form is limited (usually a maximum of 2,000 characters) but one may add an annex. Although it is optional, such annex can help ECHO to assess the quality of your analysis and response strategy in more detail.

Logframe + monitoring and evaluation design

The logical framework (or logframe) is a table that summarises your project in a standard format. It should help anyone to understand the proposed action and its contexts in a brief but effective way. Thus, it is good to define abbreviations and avoid them at least in the logframe. You will find additional information on the logframe in ECHO’s helpdesk website and in the EU Project Cycle Management Guidelines. The logframe needs to be firmly linked to the monitoring and evaluation design. This will make your life easier later when assessing, learning and reporting on the implementation. It will also contribute to support accountability of the implementation. Let us now first focus on the logframe.

You should not change the basic purpose of the action without consulting with the donor first (or contractor, if you prefer – please see ECHO’s information on changes to actions). The basic purpose of the action can be defined by the intervention logic (first column of the logframe), which includes principal and specific objectives, results and activities. Funders, donors and taxpayers assume that one first did careful planning before submitting a proposal and clearly highlighted any important pre-conditions, risks and assumptions that can affect the action’s implementation. Following that principle, however, the logframe should be seen as a “live” document, which needs to be updated throughout the implementation based on context changes and new synergy opportunities.

When designing the logframe, one critical aspect is to develop quantified and clear activities. They need to reach their respective result and should be presented in a sequential or chronological order. Sub-activities are usually not presented in the intervention logic in order to ensure clarity by simplicity. Optionally, one can include sub-activities in the work plan, which you will need to submit as well. Activities, however, need to be defined in detail in order to ease estimation of direct beneficiaries, indicators and budget. In the example below, for a two-year action, one could use the information between parentheses for internal purposes only (e.g., budget estimation and direct beneficiary estimation):

To conduct 24 trainings on disaster-safe buildings to 480 workers in districts W, X, Y, and Z (3 yearly trainings of 180 hours per location in the first two years for 20 participants each).

Please check ECHO’s Key Result Indicators or KRIs. KRIs are proposed for the five sectors that jointly cover 80% of ECHO funding: food, nutrition, health, wash and shelter. KRIs enable ECHO to aggregate data on the results of the actions it has funded. In addition to highlighting some of ECHO’s priority development changes, KRIs will also help you inspiring yourself for designing any custom indicators you may need to use. Therefore, the logframe is where you can plan a viable and solid monitoring and evaluation system for your action.

Technical care about transparent and statistically sound data (from sampling, to collection, cleaning and analysis) are key here not only for one’s proposal but also for the improvement of the humanitarian and development policy sector in general. Powerful statistical computing (e.g., RStudio) and geographic information system (GIS) applications (e.g., QGIS) are available for download free of cost to anyone. Wonderful online courses on websites such as Coursera (I particularly like the one on Data Science, but there are many others, including on questionnaire design for social science) and videos can help one evolving ones understanding on such tools. In short, although you will be under time pressure (remembering our starting question), donors expect you to clearly explain and demonstrate the technical qualities of your M&E plans. Some external support (contact us) here can make your life easier later while ensuring validity and reliability of your data and results. A good yardstick to help thinking on what one should invest for the action’s M&E can be: Go for a monitoring and evaluation design for which you would not mind publishing its documented procedures and results.

The increased rigour comes in some extent from the improved accessibility to high-quality data analysis and sharing tools (e.g., cloud databank services) combined with pressure for improved transparency in national and international public service delivery, including the delivery of national and international humanitarian action.

Documenting all your steps from sampling to analysis in some freely accessible markdown language (e.g., RMarkdown) is becoming more and more important. In line with nowadays’ scientific age and good-governance standards, I see five crucial characteristics of high-quality and modern M&E design. Such a design:

1) Tries to account for bias through reproducible sampling and source triangulation, clearly explaining limitations and margins of error.

2) Ensures (statistically) true beneficiary participation for valid and reliable results (e.g., beneficiary satisfaction surveys with trained, independent interviewers) while maximising efficiency in the data collection process,

3) Employs a good blend of quantitative and qualitative data collection methods,

4) Ensures transparent implementation by documenting well all procedures (e.g., using the freely accessible RMarkdown or syntax of other paid statistical packages) and publicly sharing them together with monitoring and evaluation data (e.g., publishing online while ensuring beneficiaries’ anonymity), and

5) Counts on some form of validation by an independent evaluator comparable to what financial auditors do, although in a more supportive and learning-oriented manner. I tend to think that evaluators nowadays need to work more as facilitators of a multi-stakeholder dialogue, providing constructive feedback for improvement, as a good research supervisor in an institute or university would do. This is particularly important for projects testing innovative approaches with potential for replication in other geographical areas, since scaling them up requires robust analysis.

Budget

The financial statement annex is a must apart from urgent actions (e.g., sudden natural or man-made disaster). There is no compulsory format you will need to use for ECHO. According to ECHO’s helpdesk: “… the partner can use its own internal financial reporting formats provided that the requested information” is included. The sample financial statement shared by ECHO is helpful to know more about the type of information and level of detail they need to see as minimum requirements. It includes a description, total budget in Euro and information on the percentages attributed to each result in the logframe. However, in order to estimate the figures to fill out the optional template for a financial statement one often needs to prepare a separate full budget, which includes each item with units, unit costs and total costs. For that, the standard budget format used in other EU external actions can come handy. I would recommend using that standard budget format to estimate costs for the entire action duration and for the first year (12 months), indicating in the description of the activity-related budget lines the respective activity that the budget line refers to. Once you have the sheet budget and financial sources ready, you can add the sheet “financial statement” to the file and indicate percentages by result. The three main advantages of the standard budget format are that: 1) it fits well to the logic of the financial information you will need to provide in the e-Single Form, 2) it allows you and ECHO to review the unit costs and year 1 forecast with more information, and 3) it contains additional details to help your finance team to plan costs in a more structured and complete manner. This can be useful particularly when you face the problem of short time before the submission deadline and need to delegate the drafting part of this task.

Estimation of direct beneficiaries

In the e-Single Form you will need to provide figures of direct beneficiaries. Those are organisations and/or individuals who will receive the assistance or who will benefit directly from the action, within its timeframe. ECHO partner’s site explains this section in detail. You will need to provide estimated percentages of female and male beneficiaries in different age groups.

According to ECHO, “partners are free to select the options which correspond best to the nature of their action, provided that the same beneficiaries are not counted twice”. One alternative to estimate such figures is to build a table with activities in its lines and then include columns to estimate male and female direct beneficiaries by activity (this will be much easier with well-quantified activities. See point above). Based on that, one can include other columns for each one of the age subcategories as from the e-Single Form. Such a table is likely to suffer from multiple counting. One possibility to account for that can be to employ some correction factor. For example, let us assume that your organisation is planning to undertake 2 trainings to the very same participants in different activities and each of the trainings will have 20 participants. So, correcting the simple sum of participants (2 trainings * 20 participants = 40 participants) by 50% (40 * 0.5 = 20) will be closer to the real number of participants who directly benefited from the action. One can also increase this correction factor to 60% (40 * 0.4 = 16) or 70% (40 * 0.3 = 12) to account for any potential risk that may lead to a lower than expected number of participants. In this way, one can avoid overestimating direct beneficiaries.

Those are just some initial ideas to start designing and writing up your proposal. You and your team will still have a lot of work ahead of you to fill out the entire e-Single Form once you are finished with the first drafts for the four sections above. However, I hope that these ideas can help you preparing a more effective and competitive proposal despite short deadlines. I believe that this can contribute to improved operations and delivery. I also hope that this post can motivate further discussion and knowledge exchange among those like me, interested in this sort of questions. So, please share your views and experiences. They will be most welcome!

More tips about logframe and M&E design:

Written by: Eduardo W. Ferreira, PhD – Consultant, trainer and facilitator in designing, managing and evaluating projects and programmes in Africa, Asia, Europe, Central and South America for governments, consultancy firms, research institutions, international and non-governmental organisations.