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“Data will talk to you if you are willing to listen”. Papia Ferdousei works with data at BRAC Education Programme. She and her team bring powerful insights from data which help BRAC to visualise measurable impacts.
Papia Ferdousei is the senior manager for monitoring and evaluation and management information systems for BRAC’s education programme based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The organisation, which also runs programmes in health care, microfinance, and gender equality, is the world’s largest provider of private secular education and provides lifelong learning opportunities through schools, early childhood development centres, adolescent clubs, and community learning centres.
MIS — the study of people, processes, and technology within organisations — is a relatively new addition to Ferdousei’s portfolio after it was incorporated into the organisation’s M&E strategy last year.
The M&E part of the job sees Ferdousei in charge of planning what type of performance indicators the team will use to capture the impact of BRAC’s education programmes. On the other hand, MIS is less concerned with data management and more about innovating and creating a platform for effective analysis of that information, she explained.
Daily, Ferdousei’s team deals with data requests from different units and departments around programme reach, training, gender, and safeguarding activities, which is then used to report to different stakeholders or audit mechanisms. Ferdousei also attends meetings with programme staff to share data insights for review, planning, and design activities.
Before starting in a monitoring role with BRAC, Ferdousei had worked in the education sector — an experience that helped her transition into development and understand the challenges in this space. She also has a master’s degree in statistics and a master’s in development management.
Speaking to Ferdousei, Devex finds out what skills have helped her step into a management role and strengthen processes for evidence generation.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Where are there opportunities for this type of work in the development sector?
[In] development, [there is a] real struggle around data … [because] there is a huge need from the stakeholders nowadays to show their impacts, their results. … There are many small NGOs who really struggle with this kind of thing — to streamline, formulate, [and] design, and there are many new development areas, so [the sector] needs data, basically, to [inform and demonstrate] work, results [and] impact. There is lots of scope [for this type of work].
What are some of the challenges of the job?
The biggest challenge that I faced when I took charge of [the] monitoring [unit] was the perception of the jobs of the people who work in monitoring … there was a huge lack of motivation … so I tried to start empowering my staff.
[But] it is not only changing their mindset, it is also changing the mindset of other units as well [towards] monitoring and evaluation … [which] is a neglected part of programme design [across organisations in the sector generally]. … We really started [working to] change this [view] and that is why M&E was redesigned in 2020, and I took over the MIS [responsibilities].
COVID-19 [created additional challenges]. [It] did not leave us any scope to escape from reporting, rather to shift suddenly to digital platforms like Google for MIS as we needed to start reporting daily on the new and innovative interventions, like feature phone-based homeschooling for BRAC students.
Similarly, in monitoring, we had to adopt phone-based interviews and surveys due to nationwide lockdown since March 2020 — that was new and was quite challenging as we had to [re]design tools [and] questions.
“As I mentioned, there were challenges regarding monitoring officers’ motivation and perceptions on M&E. I learnt that empowerment is the only way to change those perceptions.”
— Papia Ferdousei, senior manager for M&E and MIS, BRAC’s education programme
What skill sets have you focussed on building to progress in your career?
When you design a format for MIS … you have to have certain skills on data … some IT skills, data gathering skills, compilation and summation [skills], basic Excel or maybe Google Sheets. For monitoring, you have to have the data analysis skills … to bring some insights … [by] applying either statistical methods or any qualitative methods. You [also] have to know about the data types, the measurements, and [smart] indicators.
[As a manager] I give freedom to my [team]; I am not a very rigid manager. I try [to make] them feel empowered … to help them to identify their weaknesses and gaps [to work on] and their strengths.
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How do you see the impact of your work?
There has [been] a huge change in our programme [since] I joined the monitoring [unit]. …We are now part of our programme activities [more] — [from] designing and planning, to showing the results.
As I mentioned [there were challenges] regarding monitoring officers’ motivation [and] perceptions on M&E. … I learnt that empowerment is the only way to change those perceptions. I tried to improve their M&E skills like data collection, data analysis, and data presentation. Now, I have skilled monitoring officers who can produce a good monitoring report with insights. We are also now [thinking] how to bring powerful insights from the data.
Many of our ex-monitoring officers [then] got chances to be in programme implementation and in other programmes and other projects by qualifying in tests. This is one of the impacts I [saw] as a result of my work … there is now a huge change in the perception regarding M&E within the unit and in the programme as well.
[Another career highlight has been around] monitoring efficiency — we widely adopted online monitoring in 2018. It is low cost … paperless and monitoring officers use their smartphones for the purpose. Additionally, the monitoring officers analyse their own data, prepare presentations, and share the findings with the divisional and district managers.
What should someone know before pursuing this type of career?
You have to have a heart for development. Otherwise this is not the [sector] for you … you have to understand the needs of the people [and communities]. Whether you work in MIS or in programme design or implementation, you have to have a passion for working with [and] for the people for whom you are [serving].
BRAC Education Programme started in 1985. Its low-cost, quality, scalable schooling model is the world’s largest provider of private secular education. Its holistic approach to lifelong learning, addressing educational needs from early childhood to higher academic levels supported millions of students across five countries.