The indicator column of the logical frameworkHow you will know that things go as they’re supposed to? 

An indicator is a piece of information that tells you something about the state of your project, and how you are evolving towards (or not moving at all, or moving away from) an objective.

Indicators are often mixed up with the objectives themselves. Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether something is an output, or an indicator of the project’s purpose. But outputs, purposes and goals are the states you want to achieve at a certain point. Indicators tell you something about the way you’ve travelled so far to reach that point, they say something about change.

Defining a good indicator is a bit of an art in itself. To make things worse, there is no real consensus about what is a ‘good’ indicator. Some people insist on hard data in the form of numbers. But many things cannot be expressed in numbers, or only in a very artificial way. For instance, when you give psychological assistance to traumatised children in or after a situation of violent conflict, how can you express the state of the psychological healing process of a child in numbers?

The basic questions are:

  1. How will we (and the beneficiaries, and the donors) know that things are going as we expected?
  2. How can we see how far we are from achieving our objectives?

An indicator does not only tell you what progress you’ve made, but also how far you are from attaining the desired state. Compare for instance:

  • The number of people that is treated in each health care centre (in area X), with
  • The number of people treated in each health care centre has increased with 40% by the end of the second year of the project.

You’ll often need a series of indicators to verify whether you’re on track to reaching the objective. But you also have to make sure that there aren’t too many indicators, or that the monitoring system becomes too complex, too time-consuming, too expensive and too much of a general nuissance to the people working on the project. If the task of monitoring becomes too cumbersome, people will give bad or no feed-back at all.

An important question is that of the validity of your indicator, meaning: is your indicator measuring what it is supposed to. There are many things that can threaten the validity. Often, the indicator is so complicated that the people that have to use it don’t understand it, which leads to all kinds of confusion. Or the indicator contains complex concepts that are interpreted differently in various cultural settings, or by different people (e.g. ‘gender equality’, ‘ecological’, ‘participation’…) One thing and another may lead to the situation that when two people measure the same thing with the same indicator, they get different results.

If an indicator is too difficult, to expensive, too time-consuming or unreliable, you must replace it with another one (or other ones).

The question of accountability

One question that is often neglected is that of accountability. To start with, you need to know yourself what you’re doing and achieving. But otherwise: do you create a monitoring system to report what you’re doing and what you’ve achieved just for the donor’s sake? Or do you (also) create it to show to your beneficiaries and stakeholders what’s been done and achieved?

  • If your system of indicators and reports focuses on reporting to the donors, we speak of upwards accountability.
  • If your monitoring system and reporting system is focused on sharing with the beneficiaries (and stakeholders), then we talk about downwards accountability.

In principle, the two are not mutually exclusive. In practice, we see that most projects only have upwards accountability, to the lead-NGO and to the donors. Very often, beneficiaries and stakeholders are very poorly informed about the general state of the project. They only get information on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, meaning information that directly concerns them. They do not have the opportunity to give feed-back, to give their assessment and appreciation of the activities and the project as a whole. In this respect, they are not really empowered and become recipients in the project instead of actors or participants.