What can we learn from Ex-Post Evaluations?
In trying to learn more about sustainable development solutions, the first place to look for information is in ex-post evaluations, also commonly called post-project evaluations, which are conducted by either development organizations themselves or by independent external evaluators. Unlike final project evaluations, which are completed at the time of a project’s conclusion to assess whether or not it has achieved its intended goals, an ex-post evaluation is conducted in the years after a project’s official end date – maybe one, three, or five years after the fact. An ex-post evaluation is a highly valuable tool for determining not just how successful a development project may have been after resources and international funding were withdrawn, but rather the long-term sustainability of the outcomes for the community members who were being ‘developed’.
With the seemingly obvious necessity for ex-post evaluations to gaining a better understanding of both positive and negative development practice, I was surprised by how hard it was to actually find any. Some organizations are diligent about conducting post-project evaluations and documenting the results for future reference, namely the development assistance organization Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which has an extensive reference database to search its ex-post evaluations. However, this is certainly not the norm (yet), or if organizations are conducting ex-post evaluations they are not making the information widely available to the public. My research process included search terms such as, “ex-post evaluations by international development organizations”, “post-project evaluations”, and “impact evaluations.” In using these generic search terms, I was only moderately successful in finding helpful evaluations for my reserch, which suggests the need for more readily accessible information to the public about development outcomes.
We also found that some organizations had completed these evaluations, but they were at times too vague to obtain much useful information from. Out of about 10-15 evaluations that we found so far, there were only around 7 that were clear and organized enough to include in my table of summaries. (My search was limited to projects that were conducted predominantly at the community level, rather than at the municipal or state level.) The variable quality of these evaluations has a negative impact on their usefulness – if an ex-post evaluation is in an unsearchable format or doesn’t follow a fairly standardized organization, how will it be able to inform future projects efficiently? Additionally, it would be much easier for project coordinators to learn from past projects, and even other organizations, if there existed a more accessible and methodical database to make searching for ex-post evaluations simple. Despite these challenges, I have included five different evaluations from my preliminary research with which I was able to compare results for a better understanding of how to achieve sustainable project outcomes. The framework used for analyzing these evaluations considered:
- The sector of the development project (i.e. food security, poverty reduction, agricultrual development);
- the implementing organization and the evaluating organization (if it was different);
- the dates and gap between the project and the ex-post evaluation;
- the project objectives;
- specific ex-post evaluation methods;
- the positive/sustainable outcomes;
- the negative/unsustainable outcomes;
- the transfer to authorities;
- the amount of money invested overall;
- and the level of local participation.
The five evaluations analyzed include:
- JICA's Project for Irrigation Farming Improvement in Ethiopia;
- JICA's Agricultural Development Project in the Kambia District of Sierra Leone;
- Mercy Corps' MILK Program in Niger;
- GVC OLNUS' project to provide Support to generation and consolidation of cooperatives of Argentine Puna (which discussed two projects, of which we included one);
- IFAD's Small-Scale Agricultural Development Project in Mauritius.
For a full summary of these evaluations, please see the Ex-Post Evaluations Summary Table. Here, are brief synopses of the most pertinent information for the above framework of analysis, and the table provides a better context for our conclusions.
Here are the key findings from the various ex-post evaluations that we found to be most significant:
Over 18 million USD were spent on the five combined projects, but most projects did not explicitly enumerate how many people/households were impacted by the individual projects. An exception to this is the project in Mauritius, which reported reaching around 3,500 people. Without understanding the scale of the program, it is difficult to compare projects directly to one another.
Mercy Corps' MILK Project in Niger was inclusive and participatory in its ex-post evaluation process, which resulted in hard data that can easily be analyzed, compared, and learned from in future projects. In addition, this evaluation utilized a unique pictoral tool developed specifically to include all project participants in the feedback loop, despite widespread illiteracy, so that every individual had the opportunity to provide their insight on project impacts.
JICA's Ethiopian agricultural development program involved community participation in the project from the earliest planning phases, with 100% of members reporting that they had “participated” or “actively participated” in the process. This resulted in feelings of greater personal ownership of the project, and heightened local understanding of their responsibilities.
Evaluations that included direct community feedback in their analyses were by far the most helpful when trying to determine sustainability. For instance, in JICA's Agricultural Development Project in the Kambia District of Sierra Leone there was no mention of local level involvement throughout any of the stages of project planning, implementation, or evaluation, which could have influenced why the project only “somewhat” achieved its objectives
- Projects that have flexible agendas, willing to change with the changing needs of the population during the planning/implementation phases, are viewed positively by the developing community and achieve more successful outcomes. This willingness to adapt was what characterized the project in GVC OLNUS Argentine Puna. Considering the true, up-to-date needs of the community allowed for greater local participation that enabled the strengthening of local autonomy (and thus, sustainability).
- None of the project evaluations provided a breakdown of how successful budget allocation was. The JICA projects included a breakdown of the overall budget into equipment and local costs, however despite some evaluations noting who provided certain funding, none mentioned if parts of the budget were inefficiently used. We believe it would be helpful to include not just how much money was invested in a project, but also how much of that budget either prompted direct growth or failed to produce an effective outcome.
Local community members are often referred to as ‘beneficiaries’ in the development process, yet they are the ones who governments, NGOs, and multilateral organizations are trying to empower through their various socioeconomic development missions. So, when we need to understand what worked with a project, and as importantly what didn’t work for a project, it is the voices of the community that need to be heard. A lot of great work is being done in international development, but it is clear that after her initial research that ex-post evaluations are essential to determining project sustainability and that projects that propose community-level development must also take the time to directly involve those community members in their own evaluation process. This feedback loop has the power to inform and influence future projects, while also creating the opportunity to actually listen to what participants (not beneficiaries) can sustain for themselves to achieve a better life.
Where have you found feedback loops that work? What excellent programming can you share?