Unintended impacts – LWR and Gates Drought Resilience in Niger

Unintended impacts – LWR and Gates Drought Resilience in Niger

Unintended development program impacts – how much do we know about what they are and how we could learn from them for future programming? How often do we even question our assumptions about what we meant the programming to bring and result in, versus what actually happened?

I had the privilege of consulting to Lutheran World Relief from 2005-2007 in Niger on a drought resilience and rehabilitation project.  IIED's PLA Notes just published my write-up of this baseline and slightly ex-post (6 months after closeout) final evaluation funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  I led a team doing mixed-method interviews (that means tracking numbers finding out how many, how much impact we had, combined with listening to words explaining why things worked out this way, or not).  There were numerous lessons lessons learned from targeting sheep, wells and animal fodder to 600 of the poorest women in 10 communities in northern Niger.  Among them were that LWR's programming did some real good, especially due to great knowledge of the herding communities via national staff.

blog jindraThe main two project goals had to do with whether the communities were more resilient against future drought and were they more sustainably food secure thanks to the assets (sheep, water, fodder), income (future sheep, sale of fodder) and training (management of sheep and maintenance of water points).  The answers seemed to be generally yes.  We found that women's share of household income increased from 5% to 25% in some households. This was due to the sheep, as well as time savings used for income generation (a staggering 7-10 hours every other day saved from not having to go fetch water far away or bring animals to drink).

We also found several completely unexpected benefits: resources + time savings generated in harmony and peace. Women reported far more inter-ethnic harmony thanks to collaboration across tribes during the sheep management training and water sharing, and ethnic groups attended each others marriages and baptisms.  Households also were far more at peace, some saying "our husbands don't beat us anymore", thanks to increased respect, cleanliness and their ability to be home for their husbands, children and mothers-in-law. Men reported that they sat with women by project's end and there was more intra-household collaboration.  Were these planned at all? No! We need to return to learn about what our work engenders, and bring those lessons forward, see if they're replicated or not. What else has emerged in the years since the project ended? What was valued enough to be sustained by the communities themselves?

Finally, a fascinating flaw in our logic which is interesting for international development staff to consider was whether our participants shared the two large goals at all (drought resilience and sustained food security). Some women sold the sheep to buy food, pay their childrens' school fees or their daughters' dowries, even buy themselves beds or pots and pans immediately.  Some had their sheep sold by their husbands who used them to buy other animals, pay for ceremonies or other expenses.  Spending assets on immediate needs is not at all illogical for a community who can feed itself only 4 months a year; for some households, their pressing needs far outweighed the luxury to wait and buffer seasonal food insecurity way down the line. So while overall the project brought benefit – many saying they didn't have to resort to worse survival strategies during the next hungry season- it illuminated that donors' goals may differ greatly from participants'.  These people didn't sign a contract agreeing to abide with donor expectations, yet that is what the evaluation looked for. We need to learn not to assume, and instead explore what goals they do have as expectations of impact.  Looking beyond within useful but narrow 'boxes' supported but limited by logical frameworks of inputs-outputs-impacts can help us learn what communities really value and what they got from what we offered.

Valuing their voices is key. What projects have you seen voices valued? What have you learned?

Corruption. Now I’ve said it, fear is our greatest barrier

Corruption. Now I've said it, fear is our greatest barrier


That wasn't a typo.  When I started working in international development, and quite regularly since, the need for us international development agencies as intermediaries has been that we are the defense against corruption. That it is our money, that we must safeguard it. It needs safeguarding, that is true.

Absolutely there are politicians all around the world who have robbed their people blind — Zaire's Mobutu, Philippines' Marcos, Iraq's Hussein, Nicaragua's Garcia, Romania's Ceaucescu and for that matter America's (VP) Agnew.   It's absolutely true that they exist, and that corruption exists at all levels if allowed. But who should safeguard it? Most local non-profit staff, local government staff I know are as passionate about doing development well as we are, but their institutional capacity, strategic planning, computer systems/ financial management systems are weak. Most have low capacity to absorb anywhere near the hundreds of thousands of dollars we have on offer.

Yet they can have allies. Most households and communities are extraordinary stewards of resources — remember, many of them, our clients, are living on less than $2.00 per day.  Talk about stewardship — managing to live on this amount.  The communities I have worked in in Africa, Latin America and the Balkans have no patience for corruption among them – and deal with it swiftly- nor should they have patience for a lack of good stewardship of those coming to help them. Yet these communities and local non-profits aren't often entrusted with the design nor the stewardship. When we flood organizationally weak local non-profits or even ministries with money, when their organizations' absorptive capacity is low, there is no way money will not find other channels. When we start at the top and not the bottom, when we don't build in financial safeguards that ordinary people can check, how else would it turn out, even here in the 'developed' world?

Why do we do it for them? Because we so deeply want to help alleviate suffering. I believe our fear is the key. Fear that it won't be done as well as we would have done it, that working with communities will simply take too long, that our work won't be maintained so we lag and build in sustainability at the very end of the project because we know how to do it best and are too rushed implementing to think beyond the mandated project-funded-close out.  We are also afraid of fostering dependency on us, so we shut down fast at the end, after the time we pre-set (2, 3, 5 years later, without analysis of how ready the communities are for shutdown). We sometimes even don't start up projects that are desperately needed to prevent suffering because we are so afraid of creating dependency down the line, but that is for another blog…

Some of us may even fear that we would lose our jobs and our own non-profits would close if we planned for our own phase over to indigenous non-profits, rather than seeing it would immeasurably add value to build capacity and more equity.  So the industry is self-maintained, little capacity is built for handover, and the millions of dollars, euros, yen circulate from developed to developing with a lot of short-term wonderful activities and improvements but without much sustained impact.

We are also afraid that if the money is not spent, we won't get more so we sometimes close our eyes to the lack of absorptive capacity, our hurried pace not allowing local government, NGOs, even communities themselves to participate. Time to Listen's research, mentioned in another blog says that that is hundreds of communities' greatest wish – to participate, to captain their own development.

In 1991 when I was doing my doctoral fieldwork in Mali, NORAD (Norway's equivalent to USAID) was in the late stages of transferring its programs to Malian direction. They had a wooden board outside their project transparently showing pages of their project's budget, expenses, and balance of funds by line item (granted in French, not always accessible some to illiterate folks in Bamako, but easily accessible to normal educated folks in the capitol).  I had walked over because I saw Malians standing there, reading it. Radical, and sure enough, when I returned in 1995, the program was all-Malian designed and led, and the only Norwegian input were funds being sent from ongoing donors.  Yet in the course of writing this blog, I went to look at whether this trend continued, and it hasn't. One-third of NORAD's funding was going to Mali's public sector and local organizations, but two-thirds was going via Norwegian non-profits.

Should this continue? Sigh. What are the clearest incentives for financial and power handover to (hopefully-soon-to-be) well-funded, capacity-built local non-profits and local government and empowered communities?  Trust, with safeguards such as robust systems, institutional capacity building and more time. The funds are, after all, for them.

At l'Aquilla in 2009, President Obama committed to investing $20 billion in food security — agricultural development programs to help fight world hunger, where he said "we believe that the purpose of aid must be to create the conditions where it's no longer needed — to help people become self-sufficient, provide for their families, and lift their standards of living.  And that's why I proposed a new approach to this issue — one endorsed by all the leaders here — a coordinated effort to support comprehensive plans created by the countries themselves, with help from multilateral institutions like the World Bank when appropriate, along with significant and sustained financial commitments from our nations."  This kind of development, country-led and internationally supported is the only sustainable path.  Development projects are multi-million dollar investments – don't we owe ourselves and our clients time to optimize the use of these funds? Time and trust are the way forward.

What do you think? What fears do you have or think others have that are barriers to sustainability? What would you do?

Sustainable Development… are we done yet?

Sustainable Development… are we done yet?






The UN's Commission on Sustainable Development has just disbanded after 20 years. They have given their convening power and work to a High‐level Political Forum, saying "we must effectively use the new High‐Level Political Forum to ensure that sustainable development continues to be implemented and is integrated into the heart of the post‐2015 development agenda." 

Yes, while a few organizations have actually funded some post-project (ex-post) evaluations here and there, this idea that anyone in our industry could say "sustainable development continues to be implemented and integrated" strikes me as absurd. How many communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere feel that they are sustainably developed, that they can finally hand out gilded keys to their stunning cities and villages and never have to invite anyone in for help again?  Scant few, I'd wager (Botswana and Asian tigers notwithstanding). 

One of the fascinating findings of my preliminary research is that extremely few ex-post evaluations of sustained impact of projects are done at all, and the lions share is by some banks and multilateral organizations. While 30 years ago USAID used to fund such work, today it is UN agencies such as the OECD, the World Bank1 and World Bank2/ IMF, bilateral banks such as the European Investment Bank, IADB, a German Bank, and a few bilateral development organizations such as Japan's JICA.  Kudos to them for doing it at all, anytime. 

Why do some do it? An Australian government publication notes that:
* "Good ex post evaluation is a potentially powerful tool that can attest to the value of a reform and provide lessons for future reforms. 
* Evaluations can improve the understanding of the impacts of regulation on risk — 
both the probability of an adverse event and the impact if it arises."

This publication also states that "to be more effective, ex post evaluations need to: be resourced in advance; embed data collection where it is not otherwise available; share the findings; and include governance arrangements which support transparent process to test the findings and to encourage their use."  The bit about use is especially compelling, especially if such results are shared with all stakeholders, especially national ones- from communities involved, up to policy decision-makers. Better yet,  start discussions about sustainability with local communities to begin with, where rubber hits the road.

Unfortunately, reading some of these reports is a bit surreal; it shows how far from that end-user perspective we currently are.  While evaluators ask questions about long-term impact, questions of sustainability often remain 'within the box' of expected outcomes. Reports I have read use an external evaluator who alone assesses OECD's measures of: program relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, development impact and sustainability of the project as it was planned.  So far nothing has appeared that implies that participants themselves were asked about sustained impact, rarely are traces of anything 'outside the box' of what was planned (such as the appearance of unintended impacts), or that anything could have happened outside of the project objectives in the elapsed years post-project. This is in spite of our understanding that our world is complex and our lives and livelihoods adaptively evolve all the time in response to external economic, climatic, social opportunities and shocks.  "Sustainability" results seem to be reported as if time stopped after the end of project (often many years after the project was planned, the results framework crafted), and little evolved in these countries to affect project sustainability.

Finally, the rose-colored glasses aspect includes (the possible fiction) that those involved in the project shared the Goals and Objectives aspirations held by the donors and implementers. In my fieldwork experience, communities sometimes cannot tell one project from another unless one helps them differentiate specific resources such as wells, seeds, literacy training transferred. Nor do participants necessarily share expectations of outcomes such as they would be more drought-resilient or food-secure in the future.  In research I hope to do, I will look for how many shared expectations of impact there are, how communities evaluate long-term impact of the tangible and intangible resources that were transferred and what their perceptions of the real value of projects is, long after implementers and donors have left.


What do you think? Have you seen cases where we are doing Sustainable Development well?














Accountability and Solidarity – what does it take?

Accountability and Solidarity- what does it take?


Who are we accountable to? US agencies would say our taxpayers, international charities would say their donors, but what would ordinary folks like you and me say? Our consciences?


My dear friend Peter Kimeu of Machakos, Kenya is a mzee, Swahili for wise man. He has worked for them in Kenya and around Africa; we met at CRS (successfully) saving 'safety net' programming from being closed out by USAID 20 years ago. He is touring the US this month on behalf of Catholic Relief Services, talking to the charity's supporters about solidarity.  Charity Navigator ranks the organization highly, using $0.94 cents of every dollar for their international programs in health, agriculture, economic development, social justice and so on. Peter talks to those in his audience, genuinely calling them 'brother' and 'sister' and calling on them to see their brethren in Kenya and the world as brothers and sisters.  Do we feel the same? Do our systems support such thinking and acting? Are we accountable in our choices to our brethren globally?

It got me thinking how we determine what we're accountable for and how we know our funds are well spent.  Charity Navigator does respected rankings of international charities. They define accountability as "Accountability is an obligation or willingness by a charity to explain its actions to its stakeholders. For now, Charity Navigator is specifically evaluating the fiduciary actions of charities." Currently the stakeholders are only those who financially invest in the charity. This excludes the stakeholders in the countries in which development happens. But there is excellent news coming.


Charity Navigator has plans to start looking at impact In Results Reporting, "we are specifically focusing on the way charities come to know, use and share their results with stakeholders including donors… We believe effective charities manage their performance and thereby know and act on their results. These high performing organizations use early results as milestones to important longer-term results."  This will include "This element assesses whether and how well a charity collects and publishes feedback from it primary constituents."


This will include:

Does the charity publish feedback data from its primary constituents?

* Does this data indicate if it is representative of all primary constituents?

* Is this data presented in a way that shows changes over time going back at least one year?

* Does this data include questions that speak to the organization’s effectiveness?

* Does the organization report back to its primary constituents what it heard from them?


This is enormously exciting news, and the only measure to add is long-term, post-project sustainability. These measures together will help us see which charities "provide the most meaningful change in communities and people’s lives" during and after the project. It will help us see which ones are learning from their programming with communities leading the way, teaching us what works best for them and what they want more or less of.  This will shape future sectoral program investments as well as investor decisions.  Kudos to Charity Navigator!  They are helping all of us move in a direction of trulyinformed decision-making toward greater global solidarity.



“Free” resources? How many (no-comment) strings are attached?

"Free" resources? How many (no-comment) strings are attached?

Is aid really free? We offer communities, households, individuals a lot — training, in-kind resources such as seeds/ tools or clean water dispensers, etc.  We also ask some in return, as that makes sense. We ask for in-kind labor (such as gathering gravel, sand to make up concrete or to improve paths to roads), and most importantly we ask for time, which may be some of our participants' scarcest commodity. 

I thought of this because of Google+ links to Blogger.com – and while Blogger.com is free, there are strong strings tied which force those who wish to comment, to join Google+. I had no idea logging into my blog to post comments would require others to join Google+ (I was already a member as was my one other friend who commented).  I wondered, why was I getting no comments on my blogs? Were these topics of no interest to anyone? Well, my saavy friend Mary persevered and told me of the barrier. Then it took time to unstring myself and this blog from Google+. (Don't get me wrong, I love Gmail, but having this tied limitation hidden is pretty sneaky, nasty even, deeply Google+ self-serving). 

In the same way, we tie aid in a myriad of ways. US food aid must be purchased (we have no more surpluses) and shipped on US-carrier ships and used by US international non-profits (distributed or sold) as well as the UN's World Food Program. A 2011 GAO study found that food that was shipped in this way and sold in another country for the cash proceeds to be gained by the non-profit for programming was uneconomical "The process of using cash to procure, ship, and sell commodities resulted in $503 million available for development projects out of the $722 million expended…. Ocean transportation represents about a third of the cost to procure and ship commodities for monetization, and [U.S.] legal requirements to ship 75 percent of the commodities on U.S.-flag vessels further increase costs."

We are not the only ones to benefit from giving aid. At a World Food Summit in the late 1990s which I attended in Rome representing the international non-profit CRS, some Scandinavian countries pledged seafood, Asian countries pledged technology (which were their high-tech brands) and we pledged wheat. None of these food commodities are particularly appropriate as they are not locally eaten and unfamiliar, but they were surpluses which these countries were willing to give away. A subtext of the technology was creating demand through this 'free' gift, much as our wheat donations to Nigeria after the Biafran war 40 years ago created a huge – and continuing- import demand for bread. While advocacy and research groups have illuminated and stopped the most egregious misuse of our taxpayer funds, and international non-profits also hire huge numbers of local staff, infrastructure, and channel resources into local economies, we must look deeply.

It is possibly the time 'string' that I find so frustrating because it is most hidden. As much as my time is valuable to me (and tracking down the free-the-comments took two hours), that much more it is for overworked poor households worldwide. Sometimes they are asked to walk miles to central distribution sites, change their marketing schedules to wait for trainers to arrive, come to meetings late in the day which is especially hard for women. Our aid competes with so many priorities of food or income production, childcare, eldercare, etc; they are much like ourselves but with far less power.  The best non-profits plan around people's schedules, bring distributions to them, ease their workload to interject additional responsibilities, ask them what their priorities are, rather than ours. 

I am grateful for one thing I did get for free, which was advice from two bloggers (how to disable my Google+ to enable comments www.mayura4ever.com, www.jenniffier.blogspot.com. Thanks. 

So how have you all found strings attached in your work?

Valuing Voices That Change The World… Why?

Valuing Voices That Change the World… Why?

Why have I cared for them so? I started interviewing scores of people in all corners of Nigeria when I wrote grant proposals for an amazing Bishop (now Cardinal Onaiyekan) in Ilorin Diocese in 1987. I wanted to get resources to those in need by getting their stories across to grant givers.  Their wisdom and resilience remained with me and a few years later inspired me to write my PhD "Listening To One's Clients: a Political Analysis of Mali’s Famine Early Warning Systems". In this work too I talked to hundreds of people about whether famine monitoring systems were tracking the 'right' indicators of need, whether they got aid to them in time, etc. (Finding: they looked at the right food insecurity information, but donors didn't care enough at the time to prevent, rather they only reacted to proof of descent into full famine.)  

After lots more qualitative interviews, assessments, evaluations across Africa, Latin America, the Balkans for some great international non-profits, eventually I got trained in Appreciative Inquiry to bring celebration to qualitative interview methods. This all helped me to listen better, to search for the voices harder to hear (women, youth, elderly, orphans). I've lead Appreciative Learning exercises and qualitative research at donors like USAID in Washington and in their Missions, with senior country-national policy makers in a dozen countries for innovative projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and with communities in 26 countries around the world through non-profits. Many people in international development feel voiceless – within institutions themselves.

These experiences have come from my passion to listen, distill and disseminate. Lately I've become driven to add to evaluation by listening to communities after projects end, after we all go home. We need to know what remains, what do they value enough to keep doing with their own resources, or what do they create anew from seeds projects planted in their minds?  We need to listen and learn, they don't have time to waste.

So what drives me? Like many others, working in the field, sloshing through muddy sewage -slums and walking through dusty villages, driving by acres of sparsely-sown Sahelian fields, seeing families struggle as well as thrive in conditions that would fell me. My desire to foster compassion for those voiceless in development and wanting to have their voices heard comes from traveling abroad since a young child – noticing I was a 'have' and most other people were 'have nots'. It also comes from being raised by charming, negligent alcoholic parents who were unable to listen to much of anything other than their addiction's needs. I was voiceless; rarely did anyone listen to my (seemingly sage) advice much less what I needed to thrive, much like the participants Itry to serve. It also comes from my nourishing Buddhist practice and community; they help me see that we all 'inter-are' – that all beings are connected and one. I've seen we have a responsibility to help others as we wish to be helped. All faiths have this basic tenet along the lines of 'do unto others as would be done by'.

So what drives you to want the world to be a better place? Where does your work heal old wounds? Where do you feel a longing for deeper interconnection? I'm listening, we all are…