Seeking surprise: Rethinking monitoring for collective learning in rural resource management

This PhD thesis from Irene Guijt draws on her extensive knowledge and experience in the field of rural resource management in Brazil.

It provides a detailed discussion of the potential for monitoring as a basis for collective learning and argues that this is contradicted by the current reality of monitoring being driven and dominated by the demand for accountability by funding sources.

Drawing from practitioner experience in rural resource management, Guijt identifies nine specific “learning purposes” to which monitoring activities can contribute. Taken as a collective framework, these purposes, presented below, aid investigators in systematically considering the purpose of their M&E activities – answering the question of “what one is learning for, not only what one is learning about”. (Guijt, p. 276.) In this regard, each assists in articulating how one’s monitoring activities add real, measurable value to a one’s project or programme.

Investigators should use this option as a framework to ensure their monitoring activities are contributing directly to action and change in development interventions. Each learning purpose identifies monitoring in terms of specific time frame, degree of required rigor and formality, link to decision-making, degree of ‘collectiveness’, and depth of analysis.

Data gathered through monitoring can assist development interventions in:

  • Financially accountability - through a learning focus on proof of implementation of agreed plans.
  • Improving operations - through a learning focus on quality and outputs of activity implementation.
  • Readjusting strategy - through a learning focus on higher-level goals of the organisation, theories of change, and assumptions regarding implementation and strategy.
  • Strengthening capacity - by improving both individual and organisation-wide performance –through a learning focus on individual behaviors, attitudes, and effectiveness.
  • Understanding the context - through a learning focus on sociopolitical, environment, and economic changes.
  • Deepening understanding (research) - through a learning focus on topics which may be unclear, experimental, or innovate.
  • Building and sustaining trust in the use of resources - through a learning focus on the types of resources being used by key actors, and any issues regarding the nature of their use.
  • Lobbying and advocacy - through a learning focus on issues related to the desired policy change.
  • Sensitising for action - through a learning focus on wider dissemination of a concern or experience, and on building a critical mass of support for a concern/experience.

Quoted from Guijt, I., “Seeking Surprise”, pp. 278-279.


"This mismatch represents a major lost opportunity to harness the potential of monitoring to deepen and sustain the learning that societies need when confronted with dilemmas and conflicts that appear to defy resolution. In the thesis, I have argued that the disjunction principally occurs in the epistemic perspective that underlies mainstream monitoring. The predominantly positivist and 'development-as-project' vision that guides such monitoring is inconsistent with the emergent and non-linear nature of institutional change that occurs through 'messy' partnerships and that is increasingly central in rural development and resource management. It is also inconsistent with the everyday reality of monitoring as a continual informal dialogue among development actors, not bound by official monitoring procedures and protocols." (Guijt 2008, p 287)


  1. Introduction
  2. Experience, Theory and Methodology
  3. Perspectives of Rural Resource Management Discourses on Monitoring
  4. Understanding and Questioning Presuppositions about Monitoring within Mainstream M&E Models
  5. Participatory M&E and Rural Partnerships in Brazil 
  6. Participatory Monitoring in Practice: Insights from Brazil
  7. Insights from Studies on Cognition and Organisational Learning
  8. Monitoring that Nurtures the 'Golden Goose'
  9. Conclusions: Towards an Extended Understanding of Monitoring


Guijt, I. (2008). Seeking Surprise: Rethinking monitoring for collective learning in rural resource management. Wageningen, The Netherlands: Wangeningen University,. Retrieved from

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