By Nichodemus Mwania
A baseline survey is a study that is done at the beginning of a project to get knowledge of the current status of an item of study before a project commences.
According to the Food Agricultural Organization, a baseline survey is 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)
A baseline study is done after a decision to implement a project has been made. It is done to act as a benchmark for measuring project success or failure.
Baselines surveys are important to any project for they are the starting point for a project. A 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.
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 the awareness of HIV AIDS disease in Nairobi. 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.
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 monitoring and evaluation of a project. This is important for ensuring that management compares the situation before the planned project and the aftermath of the project. As such, conducting a baseline means that time and other resources for designing evaluation tools are minimized or even eliminated altogether.
In most cases, it is a donor requirement that a baseline study is carried out as part of the program process. Since monitoring and evaluation is integral for any donor to establish future project success, they might, and always do compel implementing organizations to carry out baseline studies.
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.
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.
Previous studies on literature review may be used as baselines. Several studies are conducted by different agencies including national health surveys and environmental surveys. Project 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, for a project on such.
Another alternative for a baseline survey 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.
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.
Indicators should be set according to the SMART criteria: Specific to the objective; Measurable either quantitatively or qualitatively; Available at an acceptable cost; Relevant to the information needs of decision-makers; and Time-bound so that users know when to expect the objective or target to be achieved.
Indicators are linked to objectives and are expected to be achieved in the short-medium-long term. They should be based on objectives outlined in the national nutrition policy.
For example, indicators (clinical and biological) in the nutrition area; percentage of stunted children under three years (or under five years), percentage of wasted children under three years (or under five years), percentage of under-weight under three years (or under five years) etc.
Baseline indicators should come from officially recognized sources of information such as the national Population studies, the Health and Nutrition Surveys etc. Targets need to be established and agreed against these baseline indicators. The classification of baseline indicators according to age, gender, rural, urban, literate and illiterate divides can help highlight significant disparities and the setting of targets that aim to close the gaps.
The contribution towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and related Targets should also be acknowledged.
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.
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.
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.
When planning a baseline study, the implementing organization needs to determine both what change needs to be assessed and what sort of comparison(s) will need to be made as part of that assessment of change.
There are two common ways to measure change; ‘with and without’ activity – this seeks to mimic the use of an experimental control, and compares change in the activity location to change in a similar location where the activity has not been implemented, and ;before and after’ activity – this measures change over time in the activity location alone.
Basically, the purpose of a baseline study is to provide an information base against which to monitor and assess an activity’s progress and effectiveness during implementation and after the activity is completed.