Aid providers: More puzzle pieces, including unexpected outcomes; ours is not the whole picture
When we did our first ex-post evaluation/ delayed final evaluation in 2006 in Niger for Lutheran World Relief (LWR) funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (pg75 on), we found all sorts of unexpected/ unintended outcomes and impacts that far outweighed the original aid’s expectations. The project measured success by the livelihoods rebuilding post-drought ravaged sheep herds and water points for them. Instead, while the LWR aid was beautifully based on ‘habbanaye,’ a pastoralist practice of lending or giving small-stock offspring to poorer family members (and was expanded to passing on animals to poorer community members), and results showed a majority of the poor benefitted, our respondents showed it was far more nuanced. We aid providers (and our expectations) are only a part of any ‘impact’, which needs to be defined by the communities themselves:
- While many families benefitted from the sheep, enabling some young boys to shepherd several at a time, it turns out the poorest chosen by the communities were not necessarily ones who lost small livestock during the drought but were, in fact, the ultra-poor who had never had them. Therefore, proof of successful ‘restocking’ post-drought left these poor who were helped the most, out, as they were… unexpected;
- Holding onto the donated sheep was not as important an indicator for some: one woman told us that selling her aid-received sheep to buy her daughter dowry to marry a wealthier husband was a far better investment for their financial future than the sheep would have been. Our main measure of success was not nuanced enough;
- The provision of water through well-rehabilitation and building in the five villages was a vital resource. Women reported they saved 8 hours every two days by having potable water in their villages. Before then, they spent three hours walking each way to the far-off well and waited two hours to fetch 50l water, which they head-carried back. With the well in place, they generated household income through weaving mats, cooking food for sale, etc., which amounted to as much as 20% of increased household income – a boon! Also, having both time and water access enabled them to bathe themselves and their children, make their husbands lunch, and make their mothers-in-law tea, which led to far more household harmony. No ‘impact’ measures outside of livestock and water were included or could be added;
- Finally, the resulting show-stopper: in the last village where we interviewed women participants, they said that the groups of fellow recipients were a boon for community solidarity across ethnic groups. In their meetings, thanks to the sheep, water, and collective moral support, they said the conversations turned from conflict to collaboration, and best of all, women reported, “our husbands don’t beat us anymore.” Peace among ethnic groups, within and between households was completely unexpected.
Such a highly unexpected outcome would fall under #2 and #4 of the Netherlands study below. Unfortunately, the Foundation seemed less interested in these unexpected but stellar results. Yet at the same time I have empathy for their position, as so many of us in global development want to help solve problems, and demand proof we have.…. so we can leave and help others, equally deserving. Taking complexity into account, seeing lives in a wider context where our aid can be helping differently or even harming makes garnering more aid hard.
As the brilliant Time to Listen series by CDA showed, aid intervenes in people’s lives in complex ways and we need to listen to our participants and partners who always share more complex views than our reports can honor..A few of hundreds of quotes of 6000 interviews, this from the Solomon Islands:
Some appreciate the aid as it is given:
“People in my village are very grateful for the road because now with trucks coming into our village, the women can now take their vegetables to the market. Before, the tomatoes just rotted in the gardens. Tomatoes go bad quickly and despite our attempts in the past to take them to the market to sell, we always lost.” Woman from East Malaita
But for others there are great caveats:
“Donors should send their officers to Solomon Islands to implement activities in urban and rural areas. This will help them understand the difficulties we often face with people, environment, culture, geography, etc. ‘no expectem evri ting bae stret’ [Don’t expect everything to go right].” Man, Honiara
“They have their own charters, sometimes we might want to go another way but they don’t want to touch that. So sometimes there is some conflict there; some projects are not really what we would like to address – because the donors only want to do one component, and not another, because it is sensitive, or because they want quick results and to get out.” Government official, Honiara
“What changes have I noticed since independence? Whatever development you see here is due to individual struggles. No single aid program is sustainable. NGOs are created by donors and are comfortable with who they know. NGOs eat up the bulk of help intended for the communities. NGOs become international employers. They do their own thing in our province. Most projects have no impact. I want to say stop all aid except for education and health. If international assistance concentrates on quality education and health, the educated and healthy people will take care of themselves.” Government official, Auki, Malaita
“The most important impacts of aid people do not think about – they are not listed, not planned, they are remote, but these are the longest lasting. Often they are the opposite of the stated objectives. So remote, unintended, unexpected impacts are very often more important and more lasting and more dramatic than the short term intended, measured ones.” Aid consultant, Honiara
How widespread is our myopic focus on our intended results? A recent Netherlands Foreign Aid IOB study found unintended effects were an evaluator’s blindspot as across 664 evaluations over 20 years, “The ‘text miners’ found that only 1 in 6 IOB evaluation documents pay attention to unintended effects.” This dearth of attention to all the other things happening in projects led to 10 micro, macro, meso, and multiple level effects, from negative price effects such as food aid on local food producers or nationalist backlash to Afghan projects to positive effects (they found 40% of projects had this) such as a harbor built happening to expand beach tourism as well.
But if we don’t look for such effects, we don’t know the true impact of our aid programming. We also don’t honor the breadth of people’s lives rather than just as narrow ‘aid beneficiaries’ (ugh), not even honoring them with the terms’ participants’ much less ‘partners’ in their own development).
In our ex-post work, we find a wide array of ways ownership and implementation of activities is done after donors leave and without additional or with different resources, capacities, and partnerships. Taking emerging outcomes and impacts examples from a different Niger project, and one from Nepal:
1. Partnerships & Ownership: Half of the members of the all-women Village Banks reported helping one another deal with domestic disputes and violence. (Pact/Nepal)
2. Capacities: Trained local women charged rates to sell course materials onward (PACT/Nepal)
3. Ownership: Participants valued clinic-based birthing and sustained it by introducing locally-created social punishments and incentives (CRS/Niger)
4. Resources: New Ministry funding reallocated to sustain [health] investments, and private traders generated large crop purchases and contracts (CRS/Niger)
The assets and capacities we bring to help people and their country systems help only a sliver of their lives, and often in unexpected ways that sadly we aid donors and implementers don’t seem interested in. There are other puzzle pieces to add…
Let us not forget, as a Sustainable Development Goals Evaluation colleague said in 2017 on a call:
I am sure you, my dear colleagues, have reams of similar findings from your fieldwork. Please share yours!
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Funding and Accountability for sustainable projects?
What are Sustainable Development Goals? ” the United Nations adopted the new post-2015 development agenda. The new proposals – to be achieved by 2030- set 17 new ‘sustainable’ development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. Some, like Oxfam, see the SDGs as a country budgeting and prioritization as well as an international fundraising tool. They cite that “government revenue currently funds 77% of spending…aligned with government priorities, balanced between investment and recurrent and easy to implement than donor-funded spending…” National investments are vital, but how much has the world used the SDGs to target investments and foster sustainable results?
Using results data such as that of the sectoral SDGs, countries can also ensure accountability for the policies implemented to reduce global and local inequities, but we must learn from the data. Over halfway to the goal, data is being collected, and while there is robust monitoring by countries who have built their M&E systems, other countries are faltering. “A recent report by Paris21 found even highly developed countries are still not able to report more than 40-50% of the SDG indicators” and “only 44% of SDG indicators have sufficient data for proper global and regional monitoring”. Further, there is very little evaluation or transparent accountability. Some of the data illuminate vitally need-to-know-for-better-programming. SDG data shows good news that Western and Asian countries have done better than most of the world 2015-19… but there is a lot of missing data while other data shows staggering inequities such as these:
- In Vietnam, a child born into the majority Kinh, or Viet, ethnic group is three and a half times less likely to die in his or her first five years than a child from other Vietnamese ethnic groups.
- In the United States, a black woman is four times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman.
So are we using the SDG data to better target funding and improve design? This is the kind of evaluative learning (or at least sharing by those that are doing it :)) that is missing. As my colleague and friend Sanjeev Sridharan writes on Rethinking Evaluation, “As a field we need to more clearly understand evaluation’s role in addressing inequities and promoting inclusion” including “Promoting a Culture of Learning for Evaluation – these include focus on utilization and integration of evaluation into policy and programs.” How well learning is integrating is unknown.
As a big picture update on the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2021, with only nine years left to the goal: It’s not looking good. The scorecards show COVID-19 has slowed down or wiped out many achievements, with 100 million people pushed into extreme poverty, according to the IMF. Pre-Covid, our blog on sectoral SDG statistics on health, poverty, hunger, and climate, was already showing very mixed results and a lack of mutual accountability.
The private sector is ever-being pushed to fund more of such development costs, only marginally successfully, as public sector expenditures are squeezed. Yet the G20 estimates that $2.5 TRILLION is needed every year to meet the SDG goals. As we have seen at Impact Guild, the push to incentivize private commitments is faltering. “To ensure its sustainability, the private sector has specific interests in securing long-term production along commodity supply chains, while reducing their environmental and social impacts and mitigating risks… The long-term economic impacts of funding projects that support the sustainability agenda are, thus, clearly understood. However, additional capital needs to flow into areas that address the risks appropriately. For example, much remains to be done to factor climate change as a risk variable into emerging markets that face the largest financing gap in achieving the SDGs.” Further, if decreased funding trends continue, by 2030, at minimum 400 million people will still live on less than $1.25 a day; around 650 million people will be undernourished, and nearly 1 billion people will be without energy access. So we’re not meeting the SDGs, they’re being derailed by COVID in places, and we aren’t beginning to cost out the need to address climate change and its effects on global development…. so now what?
To ensure that giving everyone a fair chance in life is more than just a slogan; accountability is crucial. This should include a commitment from world leaders to report on progress on “leaving no one behind” in the SDG follow-up and review framework established for the post-2015 agenda and for the private sector to loudly track their investments across the SDGs. For as The Center for American Progress wrote, money and results are key: We must “measure success in terms of outcomes for people, rather than in inputs—such as the amount of money spent on a project—as well as in terms of national or global outcomes” and that “policymakers at the global level and in each country should task a support team of researchers with undertaking an analysis of each commitment.”
A further concern. While we seem to measure the statistics periodically and see funding allocated to SDG priorities, but there are few causal links drawn between intensity in investment in any SDG goal and sustained results. To what degree are the donations/ investments into the SDGs linked to improvements? Without measuring causality or attribution, it could be a case of “A rising tide lifts all boats” as economies improve or, as Covid-related economic decline wiped out 20 years of development gains as Bill Gates noted last year. We need proof that trillions of dollars of international “Sustainable development” programs have any sustained impact beyond the years of intervention.
We must do more evaluation and learn from SDG data for better targeting of investments and do ex-post sustainability evaluations to see what was most sustained, impactful, and relevant. Donors should raise more funds to meet needs and consider only funding what could be sustained locally. Given the still uncounted demands on global development funding, we can no longer hope or wait for global mobilization of trillions given multiple crises pushing more of the world into crisis. Let’s focus now.
Donors often talk about #SustainableDevelopment, and we know they try. But do they return #expost to #evaluate it? Here are lessons from #Nordic (#Norway, #Finland, #Sweden & #Denmark) and the #Netherlands in our #ValuingVoices #WhitePapers. Let us know what you think… Thanks, Jindra & Preston Stewart..
The document(s) cover:
1) the search process,
2) how ex-post evaluations are defined and categorized,
3) what was done well by each country’s ex-posts,
4) sustainability-related findings and lessons, and
5) what M&E experts in each country can improve on ex-post evaluation practices.
6) Case studies of the Netherlands, Norway, and Finland
One big finding is that there were only 32 evaluations that seemed to be ex-post project, and only 16 of them actually were at least 2 years after project closure.
Executive Summary/ Abstract of the set of White Papers
Ex-post completion or ex-post project evaluations are surprisingly rare given widespread commitments to ‘sustainable development’. Given the well-known commitment of the Nordic countries of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark as well as the Netherlands, Valuing Voices, a consulting firm specializing in ex-post project evaluation, chose these countries as case studies. We hired an intern from Harvard College, who searched the national databases (in English only) and presented these results. The findings were surprising. There were far fewer ex-posts in total than expected. Those that were included a surprising number that was co-evaluated alongside final evaluations, although final evaluation illuminates relevance, effectiveness, efficiency (and the new OECD criteria of coherence), while ex-post project evaluation illuminates sustainability and impact two or more years after closure. There were lessons for Ministries about the searchability as well as the quality (and in the case of Denmark and in part, Sweden), the dearth of ex-posts at all. Overall, the recommendations for the five countries researched for this paper include better and more standardized definitions of ex-post project, greater absolute numbers done, transparent sharing of those done in publicly searchable manners, methodologically clear comparisons (baseline and midterm), and clarity in differentiating different evaluations.
There are caveats to these papers. This research was privately by Valuing Voices so the samples featured from the five countries were limited to public sources about ex-post and ex-post evaluations. While we reached out to Ministry evaluative staff in all countries, only two made themselves available for consultation (the Netherlands and Finland) and provided a handful of additional ex-post evaluations. This paper focuses on what such research yielded, not definitive findings of programs or multi-year country strategies that are funded for 20-30 years continuously, nor projects funded by country-level embassies which did not feature on the Ministry site. We focus on project bilateral project evaluations, not multilateral funding of sectors. We also presented these findings in a 2021 webinar, during which we received input that Sweden’s EBA has a (non-project) portfolio of ‘country evaluations’ which looked back over 10 or even 20-year time horizons.. Still, we found very few ex-post evaluations at EBA (see cite in Search, below). No input was received by Norway or Denmark.
There are four papers in this series combined in this White Paper. First, the search across databases of all five Nordics (Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark) and the Netherlands (pages 1-21). This is followed by country-specific, detailed, papers for those with ex-posts: The Netherlands (pages 22-37), Norway (pages 38-47), and Finland (pages 48-59). We look forward to your feedback. Jindra@ValuingVoices.com for the Valuing Voices team.
Let us know what you think… Thanks, Jindra & Preston Stewart
Who is accountable for the ‘sustained development’ of those who suffer, and for how long?
Some of the rarely discussed myths of ‘sustainable development is that the aid we donors and implementers bring will help everyone, and that recipient governments can take over once donors leave and that what we left when the project ended was sustainable. The fact that our ‘global development aid’ helps a small fraction of all those who have equally ‘worthy’ needs in the countries we target is unspoken, as is the fact that these projects aren’t often built to sustainably withstand shocks such as climate changes bearing down now. As evaluator Michael Quinn Patton writes, “Effective programs… create islands of protected effectiveness in a sea of need and suffering… [we must] assess sustainability over time for Adaptive Resilience.”
More often, countries need to be: a) so poor, b) so ‘fragile’, or c) so geopolitically important to warrant our aid. The fact that most USAID and EU bilateral funding (not necessarily multilateral funding to IMF, World Bank, African or Asian or other Development Banks) is focused on fragile/ war-torn or the strategically important countries edges out what is left for the impoverished people of the world. Most of our taxpayers have little idea of this and believe it is needs-based. So, many of us assume that: d) our mostly short-term aid is either only the brief support that they need (the ‘shot in the arm school’) as might be true of emergency or humanitarian aid post-emergencies or e) the results will be so excellent as to spontaneously spread (scale) ‘forever’ that no more aid will be needed or f) that national governments – not donors- need to carry the accountability for sustained improvements forward. Yet those stakeholders in poor or fragile countries (governments, non-profit NGOs) often have the weakest capacities to sustain results. Rutere Kagendo, a fellow Kenyan on the Valuing Voices team, wrote a moving blog about who ends up tasked with sustaining project activities and results: communities, especially women.
This is in spite of the fact that ex-post project evaluations done 1+ to 30 years after completion who asked participants and partners about sustainability, show ‘mixed’ results, namely that results fall off as early as 2 years after closure, by between 10-100%. Rarely do ex-posts have results improve or be as sustained as we assume. Some project activities do show somewhat lasting results, ranging from those that provide credit to those generating agriculture. Mostly lackluster results are because global development projects aim for success by closure over sustainability over decades by exiting better with accountability to our participants and partners over time. We do not design what can be locally sustained. Imagine how much would be saved if we did!
Jindra Čekan/ova of the USA/ Czech Republic and Peter Kimeu of Kenya offer our perspectives about who is accountable for aid, and for how long.
I have worked for international NGOs (e.g. Catholic Relief Services, the international division of the American Red Cross, large INGOs such as CARE, World Vision, Lutheran World Relief, and others), including bilaterals (USAID) and foundations (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Aga Khan Foundation) for over 30 years. Most of our projects strove to fulfill objectives of the grants and were successful. Yet rarely did we ask ‘for how long?’ At one point, I worked for a huge International NGO with a program that had been feeding 50,000 West African children breakfast for 30 years. This was part of a bilateral aid education support + ‘safety net’ program. Many studies, including this terrific one from the UN’s World Food Program, show that such school feeding improves “school participation (enrolment, attendance, completion) and learning (scores on cognitive, language and mathematics tests)… [and] decrease child marriages, etc.“
Clearly, they do good. Yet the donor suddenly wanted proof that the effects of this long-term aid had improved national GDP rather than just the nutritional and learning outcomes of assisted individuals, otherwise, the project would be canceled. Letters from the impoverished country– including the country’s president and cabinet -stating they themselves had benefitted from the program which in turn led them to great educational outcomes and leadership had some effect. Yet without lobbying from the donor country’s agriculture and food aid industry that cutting food aid exports would harm them, it would have been canceled. Did they care about the schoolchildren’s learning or only providing outlets to US agricultural surplus producers? Was 30 years too long to keep helping? How do we have these discussions as equal partners? As evaluator Zenda Offir notes regarding the SDG’s No One Left Behind, “the burden of supporting and sustaining a majority of ‘leaving no-one behind’ efforts fall inevitably on many of the poorest (low-income) countries in the Global South. The problem is that they cannot afford it, nor can they sustain it. It will therefore be unfair to hold such countries accountable for ‘leaving no-one behind’ strategies. “
This brings up the questions of sustainability and accountability ‘to whom’ and ‘for how long’? You may have other questions, including ‘why’ and ‘how we know, which I look forward to addressing, but for now, these two are the focus of this blog. While 65% of Americans favor foreign aid, believing we spend up to 25% of our GDP abroad, the US spends just over 1%. Most US aid goes to the fragile and geopolitically strategic: “More than two hundred countries receive U.S. aid. It disproportionately goes to a few, however, with the top five all receiving over $1 billion per year as of 2016: Iraq ($5.3 billion), Afghanistan ($5.1 billion), Israel ($3.1 billion), Egypt ($1.2 billion), and Jordan ($1.2 billion).” In Europe, only 3 countries met the OECD goal of giving 0.7% of GNI: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark while the Czech Republic was at 0.13%, just below the USA 0.16%(2019). A fascinating measure of ‘commitment to development” (CDI) looking at the ‘quality of aid’ found that in the Czech Republic aid performance was very poor: “Adding up both quality-adjusted aid (95.7 million USD) and quality-adjusted charity induced by public policy (1.1 million USD), we arrive at 96.8 million USD for 2009 which amounts to 0.054% of GNI. Translating the percentage onto the standardised CDI scale the Czech Republic… [has] the third least favorable aid policy towards developing countries among DAC countries… [and] Aid allocation is not primarily focused on low-income countries” which is in part explained by the recent shift from aid recipient to aid donor (Syrovatka and Krylova 2012). Even, worse now, donors and international NGOs distribute aid (especially what is left for the poor countries of the world) that is annually allocated, but as the pandemic has led more spending to be domestic, aid to the poorest has decreased among almost all donor countries, bad news as Covid-economic downturns continue and climate change ramps up.
Is there proof there is no more need for aid to places or people? We do not know as we return to evaluate the sustainability after projects close far less than 1% of the time. Mostly this is because we assume that the recipient governments have ‘taken over’, that there is funding from elsewhere, or that the communities and organizations helped have become as resilient as to keep up the good work themselves. Yet the ex-post evaluation data does not bear this out. Few such evaluations are done or done well and many assumptions of positive trajectories are unproven. Donors and INGOs want to help, must leave after money is spent, and assume the best. Local participants implement the projects but they do not design or lead their implementation, which limits continuation after donor support exits.
So who is accountable to the poor whom we help? Peter comments on that from the perspective of the CEO of a local Kenyan NGO targeting 15,000 farmers.
I have over forty years of experience in development; 8 years lead in Community Initiated (Harambee) High schools, 35 years with Catholic Relief Services in Emergency Relief, Sustainable Development and Justice and Peace Programs, and currently 6 years with the (Kenyan) county-devolved sustainable development. I am the Founder and CEO of Decent Living Institute of Organic Farming promoting avocado farming, aquaculture, and apiculture for improved decent livelihoods. My early life as a young boy makes me a living witness of a life in deep poverty, which the New York Times featured.
The question ‘who is accountable for sustained development’ and ‘for how long’ has an assumption that it is possible to attain sustainable development without the continued involvement of those who suffer. I don’t think so. Sustained development occurs as a process to a transformed situation from abject poverty, a condition of want without the capacity to satisfy even the most basic needs, a position of lacking continuously leading to untold suffering and living in dehumanized conditions for the sufferer and the generations to come to the desired decency of fulfilled living. Living as a pauper in my first 30 years of life, having been born in a paupers’ family, I accepted the conditions of poverty and hunger as a way of life. After all, you know nothing better and when you see wealth around you, it is meant for the lucky few, and not for you. The situation limits the poor to survival conditions, eating from hand to mouth and everything is left to luck.
Aid to the poor would make sense if it is used as a catalyst to motivate and enable the poor depart from the circle of poverty (the poor giving birth to more poor) and is able to sustain the conditions of being above the poverty line of US$2 a day. Such aid would enable them to have enough to take care of their daily basic needs and create wealth without falling back below the poverty line repeatedly, for generations to come. The impact measure for aid should therefore be participatory learning from and measuring the extent to which success is sustained documenting representative success stories by participants who have left the circle of poverty sustainably. Such would include ‘in the past I couldn’t to find enough to eat occasionally slept without food and now my family has no idea of how it feels like to be hungry.
Unfortunately, the manner of delivering aid is seen as pure luck by the targeted poor for it comes without involving the poor as to strategically plan long-term impact that they can sustain. The aid donors and implementing agencies will target a given county, while the identification of targeted community cluster location for aid will be influenced by either by powerful persons from the locality or larger numbers in the public participation, so those with greater authority or louder voice will take the day. The decision on who will participate in the project finally will be determined by the same criteria and not the poverty levels. One example is the aid fund for COVID-19 response in Kenya which was distributed to the well connected to persons of authority and not to those who championed the control of the coronavirus. A decision was made at the county governments to disperse one million Kenya shillings to every cluster of villages to pay the youth for engaging in communal work such as community road works, terracing a degraded land, or even constructing an earth dam and paid per piece work completed – termed employment -to cushion the youth who have lost job opportunities due to the COVID -19 effects. A million shillings in a cluster of ten villages would perhaps engage 100 young people for a week earning Kenya shillings 500 (US$5) a day or $30 a week. The rest of the money – 50% of the total or more – does not go for wages as planned but is used to cover the management of the program by the county officials. The youth will spend this money like it is good luck for it is too little to ever think of the future investments.
However, the same amount is what it costs to support a member of the self-help group and collective community-led development in our Decent Living NGO per family of a vulnerable child to grow a vegetable garden, keep six chicks and grow three Hass avocado seedlings. Further, the participants commit to support another poor family with six chicks in a years’ time. From the onset, the poor are involved in ‘planning in advance’ to help others. Their developing vision is guided by the long-term impact they hope for, such as the family economic boost that will cover the full cost of schooling, medical expenses, and family meals, clothing, and shelter for all the children including the most vulnerable. Other long-term indicators will be the percentage of poor families that are above the poverty line meeting the family basic needs sustainably.
I see the role of the aid donor as to holding the aid receiver (local government and recipient communities) to their goals of sustainable development and to account for the funds given by reaching their goals and targets that must be time-bound. The aid receivers are also responsible to account for their aid distribution to their intermediary implementing partners (often local non-profits/ NGOs) to meet their targets, goals and should track expected and measurable long-term outcomes within three years after the closure of the project. This means to deliver not only the aid funds but also through the funding the systems established or improved at the conception of the project should be accounted for during the project implementation period and will be impacting long term results transforming the community to the desired state long after the project activities.
It could be building sustainable infrastructure for long-term support to the poor. The sustained impact would then be numbers of poor that have transformed their poverty and created wealth through the developed infrastructure in an intergenerational, long-lasting way that could be measured in later years. Sadly, most of the aid givers do not see their role beyond the performance short-term outputs such as trainings given or outcomes leading to a change in farming practices, like the deliverables for the specific objectives in an agriculture project. Hence the success of the project is defined by these short-term indicators that measure outputs such as the target number reached with food aid, or even some changes in practices leading to improved yields, but once the project ends, all tracking of results end. The national stakeholders are – or should be- responsible to demonstrate how the results of the project will be assumed by the community’s self-help groups so that the impacts become intergenerational. For it is vital to see that the project does not end with the implementing agencies. It is not only short-sighted by aid donors to believe that it ends, but national stakeholders are absconding their responsibility of accountability to the long-term impacts that are related to relationships and behavior change sustainably when they do not sustain them.
The UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ are merely a dream for most poor until the individual struggling with conditions of want is able to take steps towards permanent solutions for themselves and their future generations. It takes an oppressed dreamer (the poor with empty stomachs) who believes a change is possible to demand accountability. It also takes a progressive facilitator (donors and national stakeholders) who believes in creating enabling conditions for the oppressed to succeed. Both the oppressed dreamers (project participants, local implementing NGO agencies and the progressive facilitator (donor) are accountable to the transformed conditions. For the ‘sustained development’ to occur it must be intentionally dreamed of by all parties engaged in the process of development.
I dream of “a just world where everyone is fully a participant and celebrates sustainable development for all” wrote Pope Francis in his 2015 Laudato Si encyclical. He calls for all humanity to take care of our Mother Earth and in return, she will provide for all, including addressing issues of global warming. In my world dream, I see a time when a transformation of the sufferer from distressful and oppressive conditions of living is eased by putting future dreams into action, for those who suffer with deprivation today and are thirsty for change. I wish to make reference to a story told in the bible Jesus meeting a blind beggar (Mark 10:51) shouting to Jesus for help. Jesus asked the beggar to identify what type of aid he needed. And the blind beggar’s request for the power to see was heard and his sight was fully restored, emancipating him from the bondage of begging. We are told he transformed from a beggar into a disciple of Jesus. The transformation of conditions to sustainable options starts with the bilateral donor engaging a poor government to undertake a particular development agenda that in return facilitates its citizens to enjoy sustained development. The donor government should hold the recipient government responsible and accountable of delivering sustainable options for its citizen as per the grant agreements with evaluation two to three years after the project closure.
The poor who may be targeted with the aid may seem passive, not having been involved right from the beginning of design, and may have limitations of identifying what to ask for, perhaps those with intermediary implementing INGOs may be aware of how well what is being offered can meet their needs. Setting up the appropriate structures, they may dictate and demand sustained development options for themselves and those who are suppressed in poverty. The major issue is that most often the victims of poverty are never engaged in aid’s design and only implement what is offered. The situation creates room for corrupt national governments, INGOs, and NGOs to make quick money. The donors should hold recipient countries and INGOs accountable for tangible results toward the Sustainable Development Goals indicators for every grant in aid for as long as it takes, not just reporting at the national level.
I see a world where what matters most, is how engaged those who have empty stomachs are in the development aid agenda, and how the aid is administered and accounted for themselves and the neighboring suffering households. That development is all about a sustained transformation for empty stomachs of our project participants, their immediate neighbors, their children, their husbands, and their fathers/in law and mothers /in law, their brothers/ in law and sisters/ in law. It is about a better living standard of their neighbors who lends salt and water, the generosity of their firewood friends, those neighbors who will never turn down an opportunity to offer help no matter what. If these impacts and long term outcomes are not evaluated and accounted for, those who suffer poverty will always consider projects as myths of ‘sustainable development’ and the aid provided by bilateral, multilateral donors or through INGOs/NGOs as beneficial to the lucky few, while recipient governments and participating communities and their future generations have no sustainable impact results.
 MQ Patton in New Directions for Evaluation “Transformation to Global Sustainability: Implications for Evaluation and Evaluators, 2019 (link inaccessible)
“What IS Sustainability?” It depends on whom you ask: OECD, the UN, or Harvard Business School
Recently I’ve had conversations where I had to define which sustainability we were talking about. Was it:
- ex-post-project sustainability of outcomes and impacts,
- environmental sustainability, or
- business sustainability?
Since I spend most of my time evaluating the ex-post sustained and emerging impacts of foreign aid projects years after projects close, or at least advocate for it, let’s start there.
- The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a “forum and knowledge hub for data and analysis, exchange of experiences, best-practice sharing, and advice on public policies and international standard-setting.” Regarding evaluation specifically, the OECD has “established common definitions for six evaluation criteria – relevance, coherence, effectiveness, efficiency, impact, and sustainability – to support consistent, high-quality evaluation”. Focusing on long-term sustainability, their evaluation guidance is:
Source: OECD, Better Criteria for Better Evaluation, 2019
The good news is that in this recent publication on Applying Evaluation Criteria Thoughtfully (2021), OECD keeps the updated definition but inches towards recommending actual ex-post project sustainability evaluation, rather than just projected (and assumed “likely to continue” sustainability). For this, “likely” is the most significant reason evaluators for donors and implementers have assumed, rather than evaluated, sustainability for decades. Further, positive, ‘sustained’ trajectories are also assumed at close-out/ exit, but rarely tested ex-post.
The OECD criteria give not evaluating it as an option. I far prefer “net benefits of the intervention continue” as it is a marching order: Prove that results were sustained. In this evolution, this 2021 report states, “After the completion of the intervention, and evaluation of sustainability would look at whether or not the benefits did continue, this time drawing on data and evidence from the intervention’s actual achieved benefits.”
OECD even goes on to recommend implementing and monitoring for sustainability. The new piece de resistance is: “Sustainability should be considered at each point of the results chain and the project cycle of an intervention”:
- “The sustainability of inputs (financial or otherwise) after the end of the intervention and the sustainability of impacts in the broader context of the intervention…. as well as whether there was willingness and capacity to sustain financing (resources) at the end of the intervention
- For example, an evaluation could assess whether an intervention considered partner capacities
- Built ownership at the beginning of the implementation period…. And
- In general, evaluators can examine the conditions for sustainability that were or were not created in the design of the intervention and by the intervention activities and whether there was adaptation where required.”
Yes, Valuing Voices highlighted this at the American Evaluation Association presentation “Barking up a Better Tree: Lessons about SEIE Sustained and Emerging Impact Evaluation” in 2016, and we have developed this into 2020’s Exiting for Sustainability trainings and checklists. Wonderful to see implementing for sustainability in guidance by the OECD! Many of the elements his research cites overlap with our Exiting for Sustainability checklislts which includes ownership, resources, capacities, partnerships, and implementation/ M&E process.
Moreover, while the 2019 OECD report mentioned resilience in passing, related to sustainability, “encourages analysis of potential trade-offs, and of the resilience of capacities/ systems underlying the continuation of benefits”. Such resilience and continuation of benefits evaluation involve examining huge systems (the financial, economic, social, environmental, and institutional capacities) that projects and programs are implemented within, whose stability is needed to sustain net benefits over time. Yes, for ex-post sustainability questions for evaluators to consider should include: “To what extent did the intervention contribute to strengthening the resilience of particularly disadvantaged or vulnerable groups” on which the sustained impacts of so much of our “Leave No One Behind” myth of Sustainable Development rely.
However, OECD makes suggestions to evaluate even broader, overwhelming what is feasible: “…this involves analyses of resilience, risks, and potential trade-offs.” Whose? All stakeholders, from participants to local partners and national and international implementers, and international donors? How far back and how far forward? What a huge undertaking. Further, the OECD points evaluators to define resilience, but as I learned in my Famine Early Warning System research and a current ex-post evaluation process for the Adaptation Fund, that involves creating evaluable boundaries by determining resilient to what kinds of shocks? Vital questions current industry monitoring and evaluation budgets for all evaluations, much less (too-rare) ex-post project evaluations, are insufficient for as they hover around 3-5% of total costs.
- Slight progress at OECD is being made by acknowledging environmental sustainability first brought up by the Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future” back in 1987. This linchpin report highlighted that “critical global environmental problems were primarily the result of the enormous poverty of the South and the non-sustainable patterns of consumption and production in the North. It called for a strategy that united development and the environment – described by the now-common term “sustainable development”… that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
While an OECD brief in 2008 considers the environmental aspects of our thinking about sustainability, it argues that sustainability primarily about “using economic development to foster a fairer society while respecting ecosystems and natural resources.” The 2021 Applying Evaluation Criteria Thoughtfully rather unhelpfully mostly ignores the environment’s role in sustainability: “Confusion can arise between sustainability in the sense of the continuation of results, and environmental sustainability or the use of resources for future generations. While environmental sustainability is a concern (and maybe examined under several criteria, including relevance, coherence, impact, and sustainability), the primary meaning of the criteria is not about environmental sustainability as such; when describing sustainability, evaluators should be clear on how they are interpreting the criterion.” Given rapid climate change, I would argue that any sustained and emerging outcomes and impacts of projects that does not include an evaluation of the environmental context will fail to foster sustained resilience. Yet donors’ fixed funding timeframes that set completion to disbursement without evaluating sustainability or resilience continue to be huge barriers.
In 2022 a new resource on Sustainability from the media perspective questions the OECD. Sustainability: Going Beyond the Buzzword groups sustainability described in various media as: 1) Economic viability, 2) Social Sustainability, 3) Institutional Sustainability and 4) technical sustainability. But we’ve learned in 2022 from consulting work that the technology piece mentioned in this Buzzwords study regarding ‘baking in’ sustainability via the infrastructure/ assets created (The Adaptation Fund’s ex-post and resilience evaluations) and incorporating INGOs’ considerations of buying-local, seeing what local spare parts and technicians will be available in the future is a great added consideration. So too is promoting locally-led development through the very participatory way projects are implemented, with locals leading. Among the best resources is CDA/ Peace Direct/ Search for Common Ground’s Stopping as Success studies for USAID.
- Finally, business sustainability brings together these impacts on communities and society along with impacts on the environment. These are called ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria. A Harvard Business School brief defines sustainability as “doing business without negatively impacting the environment, community, or society as a whole. “Where applied well, the aspiration is that “beyond helping curb global challenges, sustainability can drive business success.” While Harvard Business Review highlights “What Works’ in Calculating the Value of Impact Investing, they are, like almost all of global development ‘while- we-are-there’-measures. There is one mention of ‘terminal value’, 5 years after close of ownership, and they estimate social return on investments. This is a good, step, but as insufficient as foreign aid – for these are projected, not actual results.
At Valuing Voices, we have found hopeful examples such as IKEA as well as where ‘impact investing’ hype does not match the claims. Nonetheless, increasingly businesses are trying to consider circular economy systemic principles of “economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment.” This is regenerative, aims to decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources, not generate excess waste that cannot be reused and actuals seem to be measured at least during investments. As Harvard notes, “this leads investors to look at factors such as a company’s carbon footprint, water usage (both Environment), community development efforts (Social), and board diversity (Governance).” We encourage them to measure long-term/ longitudinally. A current Harvard Business Review sobering article on the ineffectiveness so far of measuring environmental sustainability and ESG. “…reporting is not a proxy for progress. Measurement is often nonstandard, incomplete, imprecise, and misleading. And headlines touting new milestones in disclosure and socially responsible investment are often just fanciful ‘greenwishing’”.
Australia’s RMIT defines business sustainability as comprising 4 pillars: Human, Social, Economic, and Environmental which combines a) “Human sustainability focuses on the importance of anyone directly or indirectly involved in the making of products, or provision of services or broader stakeholders;… b) Social sustainability focuses on maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people;… c) Economic sustainability aims to improve the standard of living [and] the efficient use of assets to maintain company profitability over time;… d) Environmental sustainability places emphasis on how business can achieve positive economic outcomes without doing any harm, in the short- or long-term, to the environment.” But how well measured?!
Would ESG success be sustained over the long-term rather than short-term shareholder profit cycles? Will the OECD start to recommend extensive ex-post evaluation? Will they develop guidance to incorporate environmental concerns in evaluation for our common good? I do not yet know, but I implore these silos to start talking. No time to waste!
As my colleague and collaborator Susan Legro commented, we need to:
1) Continue to seek clarity and specificity in the terminology that we use, ensuring that it is clear to all stakeholders and beneficiaries; and
2) Find ways to study projects and initiatives over the longer term, which is the only way to study the designation of “sustainable” for any initiatives seeking that label.
3) I’ll add spread the word, as I just found out Harvard’s Extension School course on Sustainability features this blog in its curriculum 🙂
What are your thoughts?