Baseline surveys are an important part of any M&E process. This discussion, takes a look at the definition of a baseline study, its importance, when to conduct one and alternatives when there is no baseline. It also includes other considerations to make when conducting a baseline study.
What is a baseline study?
A baseline study simply put is a study that is done at the beginning of a project to establish the current status of a population before a project is rolled out. The Food and Agricultural Organization defines a baseline study as:
“a descriptive cross-sectional survey that mostly provides quantitative information on the current status of a particular situation – on whatever study topic – in a given population. It aims at quantifying the distribution of certain variables in a study population at one point in time. (FAO, 2013)”
While most people confuse a baseline study and a pilot study, these two are not synonymous. A pilot study, unlike a baseline study attempts to establish whether it is feasible or worthwhile to undertake a project. In which case, pilot studies are undertaken so as to establish or verify a project idea. A baseline study on the other hand is done after a decision to implement a project has been made. In other words, pilot studies are conducted to identify project ideas, while baseline studies are done to act as a benchmark for measuring project success or failure.
Importance of Baseline studies
Baselines surveys are important for any project for the following reasons:
- It is a starting point for a project: One important, and recommended, way of starting a project is to carry out a baseline study. Through its results, a baseline serves as a benchmark for all future activities, where project managers can refer to for the purposes of making project management decisions.
- Establishing priority areas/planning: Baseline studies are important in establishing priority areas for a project. This is especially true when a project has several objectives. The results of a baseline study can show some aspects of a project need more focus than other while others may only need to be given little focus. Take for example a project on HIV and AIDS in Dhaka. A baseline study may show that while there is generally high public information on awareness of risk and prevention strategies, these strategies are either non-existent or inaccessible. In this case, project output would focus more on improving access to prevention strategies and little on doing media campaigns and community mobilization.
- Attribution: Without a baseline, it is not possible to know the impact of a project. A baseline study serves the purpose of informing decision makers what impact the project has had on the target community. Accordingly, along with other strategies such as use of control groups, it also helps in attributing change in the target population to the project.
- Baseline tools are used for evaluation: the tools used during a baseline study are normally the same tools used during evaluation. This is important for ensuring that management compares “apples to apples”. As such, conducting a baseline means that time and other resources for designing evaluation tools are minimized or even eliminated altogether.
- Donor requirement: In most cases, it is a donor requirement that a baseline study is carried out as part of the program process. Since M&E is integral for any donor to establish future project success, they might, and always do compel implementing organizations to carry out baseline studies.
When should baseline surveys be carried out?
Just like the name suggests, baseline surveys should be carried out at the very beginning of a project and for obvious reasons. Any manager wants to ensure that any possible impact of a project is captured at the evaluation. Where a baseline study is conducted after project activities have already been initiated, the accurate picture of the initial status cannot be reflected since the project is already having some impact, however little. It is therefore always best practice to conduct a baseline before project implementation.
Alternatives for baseline studies
If there is still a long way to go for the project and a baseline wasn’t conducted, managers can always consider conducting a study to act as a baseline. However, if at the end of a project there was no baseline study conducted, there are a few alternatives to consider for the purpose of measuring project success.
- Using previous studies as a baseline: Several studies are conducted by different agencies including national surveys and sectorial surveys. Managers can always consider surveys that were conducted by other organizations at the project inception as baseline studies. For example, national HIV and AIDS surveys can act as baseline data and compared to end of evaluation results.
- Selecting a homogeneous group to act as a control group: Another alternative is to identify a group with homogeneous characteristics to the project target population and conduct a study on the two groups. The selected group then acts as a comparison group to measure success. The disadvantage of this strategy is that true homogeneity is usually very difficult to establish. As a matter of fact, it usually almost never exists.
Other things to consider when conducting baseline studies
1. Indicators: Before conducting a baseline study, it is important to identify the indicators for the project. The indicators help in the designing of the questionnaire and also in determining evaluation indicators. The type of indicators could also dictate the type of data to collect and how the analysis of the data will be done.
2. Study population and sampling: The study population is most often the project target population. Establishing the boundary so as to ensure the sample is only limited to the target population is important. Also related is the sampling procedure. The most common one is the simple random sampling. However, sometimes this is not possible because of various reasons, which might mean that a different sampling procedure is considered.
3. Partners: In some cases, it could necessary to involve other organizations in the baseline survey. This is especially viable if “similar” projects share a starting timeline and share a target group, most often by projects sharing a donor. This normally saves costs an increases confidence in the baseline results.
4. Funds: Availability of funds will dictate the intensity and scope of the baseline study. More funds might also mean that both quantitative and qualitative methods are adopted, while limited funds might imply that an organization only goes for quantitative methods.