IIECL considers a baseline study as simply defining 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 program’s logical framework. When compared with the condition of the same indicators at some point during implementation (mid-term evaluation) and post-operation implementation (final evaluation), the baseline study forms the basis for a ‘before and after’ assessment or a ‘change over time’ assessment. Without baseline data to establish pre-operation conditions for outcome and impact indicators it is difficult to establish whether change at the outcome level has in fact occurred.
Before and after Evaluation Design
In the design of a before and after evaluation, baseline studies are a critical element in the formula for measuring change over time.
A baseline study is required for every type of operation. However, the rigor of the methods used to establish baseline conditions varies according to the type of operation being implemented. A compromise must be reached between the need for robust, precise data to establish pre-operation exposure conditions and the cost of collecting such data in terms of resources (financial, human and time). Country Programs that are focused on development should invest more resources and, as a result, conduct more rigorous baseline studies. Development donors generally will establish the necessary rigor for a baseline study by considering the available resources and the information needs. However, a minimum standard for establishing pre-operation conditions through baseline studies should be applied in all development operations.
The baseline study is just one component of the M&E design that outlines the planned M&E data collection and analysis. The entire evaluation strategy, including the design and budgeting of the baseline and subsequent studies (mid-term and final evaluations), must be developed during the planning or design stage of an operation.
When to do a Baseline Study
In relation to the program cycle, a baseline study should be conducted prior to the onset of operation activities in order to establish the pre-operation exposure conditions of the outcome and impact level indicators. However, it is not uncommon for baseline studies to be conducted after activities have already begun. It should be noted that, for most operations, there is a delay between output delivery activities and their measurable effect on outcome and impact performance indicators. As a result, baseline studies will still provide an accurate estimate of pre-operation conditions even after the operation has begun, as long as the outcome and impact performance indicators have not
yet been affected. However, this time lag varies from a few days to a few months, according to the type of operation and the environment in which it is being implemented.
For many operations, it is difficult to estimate exactly how long this time lag will be.
Delays in conducting baseline studies, especially when an operation’s activities have already influenced the outcome and impact performance indicators, are costly and likely to lead to an underestimation of the operation’s overall impact. Development operations should therefore aim at conducting baseline studies before operation activities begin. When this is not possible, baseline studies must take a high priority and data should be collected very close to the beginning of the operation, at the latest.
In some cases when a baseline study has not been conducted, evaluators find themselves attempting to establish the change over time at the mid-term and final evaluations without the benefit of knowing the pre-operation conditions of the key indicators of interest. Retroactively constructed baseline conditions (a much weaker evaluation design) should only be used in situations where baseline data have not been collected and no other choice is available.