The Importance of Baseline Data

What is the importance of baseline data in project monitoring and evaluation?
Without baseline data it would be very difficult or sometimes almost impossible to follow the progress of a project and to assess its impact. Despite this not everybody in the sector is familiar with the concept of baseline. Even specialists can confuse it with other parts of a project such as needs assessment or benchmark.
Let’s take a more detailed look and explore what exactly baseline studies and data are, in order to better understand their role in projects.
  1. What are baseline studies and baseline data?

A baseline study is data collection and analysis that defines the “pre-operation exposure” condition for the set of indicators that will be used to assess achievement of the outcomes and impact expressed in the programme’s logical framework (WFP, How to Plan a Baseline Study).

Baseline data (or simply baseline) is data that measures conditions before the project starts for later comparison (IFRC, Baseline Basics, 2013).

In other words baseline provides the historical point of reference for the next steps of project monitoring and evaluation.

  1. What is the role of baseline data in a project?

Baseline data helps to:

  • set realistic goals and to measure the progress towards them;
  • maintain accountability, informing what difference the project is making;
  • inform and motivate stakeholders to pay attention to certain issues and increase their participation;
  • provide justification for policy makers and donors for a project intervention;
  • shape expectations and communication strategies (IFRC, Baseline Basics, 2013).

Generally speaking, baselines allow practitioners to establish whether change at the outcome level has occurred or not.

  1. Is a baseline study necessary in every case?

This is case dependent. Sometimes baseline data is already known or available from secondary data (such as project needs assessment or other external resources).

In other cases a “light” study might be needed – when it’s enough to use less expensive and time costly methods, like individual/group interviews, or online surveys. But sometimes the conditions require having a more rigorous baseline study with the use of different more complicated methods like household survey.

  1. When should a baseline study be conducted?

According to the IFRC project model, a baseline study should be conducted after initial needs assessment and project design and exactly before the project starts. But in emergency cases when project implementation should start as soon as possible due to specific conditions (like distribution of food and non-food relief during armed conflicts), the baseline study can be done after the project has already started.

  1. Who conducts a baseline study?

Usually someone from the project team who will take the lead in managing the baseline study. Along with the team, local stakeholders can participate in the baseline data collection and analysis. This requires more costs for training and managing the stakeholders, but on the other hand it’s more culturally and linguistically appropriate. Besides it’s possible to employ the outside specialists for technical expertise, objectivity and credibility, to save time and/or as a donor requirement.

Each member of a team should get a specific responsibility for the various parts of the baseline study. Key responsibilities include the development of data collection and analysis methods and tools, enumerator training, data collection, data analysis, report writing and sharing, etc.

  1. How to conduct a baseline study?

First of all a decision to conduct a baseline study should be clearly justified. Why this study is needed? What is the study focused on? How much time is needed to conduct it? What resources are required? During this planning stage the timing, geographic and demographic scope, budget, critical conditions/assumptions should be clearly identified and specified in the ToR for a baseline study.

After that comes the time to choose the right methodology for baseline data collection. The methods selected should clearly measure progress and results achieved against the aims of the project. The next step is preparing a list of indicators. They should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, reliable and timely), cover each level of the activity’s log frame, and should help to explain the cause of observed changes. And finally – implementation of the baseline study. This stage includes data collection, data analysis and report preparation. Additionally it can be developed as a plan for regular analysis of data over the course of the activity and a plan for sharing and dissemination of baseline data among implementing partners and other stakeholders. The baseline plan should be developed to illustrate what information is needed and how, where and by whom it can be collected. The plan can be similar to the following framework:

Source: ASARECA, Monitoring and Evaluation Series, Guidelines for Project Baseline studies, 2010

Baseline Focus

Change/Expected results:

Indicators Data Collection Methods Data Source and Quantity Location of Data Collection Means of Analysis Time Needed
Impact
Outcomes
Outputs
Optional: Secondary changes
Optional: Underpinning

assumptions/theories of change

Baseline focus

  1. Is there a need for separate budget for a baseline study?

Yes, and it should include expenses for:

– human resources (staff, external expertise, translation, data entry, etc.);

– capital costs (equipment, travel,  accommodation, computer, printing, etc.

The budget for a baseline study can be included into the project overall budget.

  1. How to write the baseline report?

The baseline report is the end-product of the study. It can have different formats according to the collected data. But general example for a baseline report is:

Juggling the components of a baseline data study

1) Title page

2) Acronyms

3) Executive summary

4) Table of contents

5) Introduction and background

6) Methodology (and methodological limitations)

7) Analysis of the findings

8) Conclusions (IFRC, Baseline Basics, 2013).

Important point: it’s ethically correct to inform the target population about the results of the baseline study. The reason for this is to get people’s ideas and perspectives related to the baseline findings.

  1. What if baseline data is needed but was not collected at the right time?

There are special ways to reconstruct a baseline data.

One of the most common methods is to use secondary data. There may be census and survey data from government agencies, studies from NGOs and donors, university research studies, media sources, financial market data. Also existing project data can be useful for baselines reconstruction (needs assessment, feasibility study or vulnerability capacity assessment, other internal project records (registration forms, on-going monitoring report)).

It is also possible to reconstruct the baselines by doing something called recall. Recall involves surveys and individual or group interviews to obtain information relevant to the baseline conditions/indicators. It can include questions regarding socioeconomic conditions, access to services, participation and engagement, knowledge, attitudes, etc.

Bibliography:

  1. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Baseline Basics, May, 2013.
  2. Kusek, Jody Zall; Rist Ray C. Ten Steps to a Results-Based Monitoring and Evaluation System, 2004.
  3. United Nations World Food Programme, How to Plan a Baseline Study, Monitoring & Evaluation Guidelines.
  4. ASARECA, Guidelines for Project Baseline studies, Monitoring and Evaluation Series, November, 2010.

Author:Elena Kryzhanivska

Elena is a Programs Intern at Trust Consultancy & Development. She has a Master’s degree in Political Science and is currently undertaking a PHD

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