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!
What happens after the project ends?
Lessons from post-project sustained impacts evaluations (Part 1)
We talk a lot about impact of our interventions, but far less is analyzed about the sustained impact of our work in the years after projects close out. We take for granted that successful strategies will continue after projects shut down. Do they always? Maybe they do but we don’t know. Maybe there are innovations and impacts to be learned from…
To answer these question Valuing Voices spent 2 ½ years looking for and analyzing ‘post-project’ evaluations of projects undertaken 2-10 years after projects ended. The result: in our $137 billon international development industry, some 99% of projects remain unevaluated after project close out . Only 17 agencies we have found so far have publically available post-project evaluations; most of them have one, while the OECD and JICA have dozens. Hundreds of studies recommend such learning that is missing from our industry’s program cycle (green slice).
Six decades on, this astonishing finding raises serious questions about stewardship of resources and commitment to learning—particularly learning from participant and partner stakeholders for whom sustainability matters most, and who are tasked with it over the long-term.
A review of post project evaluations generate food for thought about good program design and illustrate the value added of post project perspectives. This rapid review of select ‘ex-post’ evaluations points to three early lessons:
How we do it matters for great results
Expect unexpected results
Who takes over? Country Nationals
First, organizations go back to see how well their projects results were sustained. What we learned was that how well they used participatory processes in how they implemented and handed over mattered a lot for sustainability and that we must expect unexpected results.
How we do it matters for great results
1. Catholic Relief Services/ USAID PROSAN food security project in Niger
Valuing Voices evaluated this food security (agriculture, health and resilience project in 2015 which ran from 2007-2012 (report forthcoming). The $32 million project was implemented in a consortium of CRS, CARE and Helen Keller but this evaluation focused only on CRS areas.
- Interviews with over 500 participants found that three years after project closeout, 80% of project activities still continued, as did many village committees and there were a variety of community innovations 
- On average, households can feed themselves through their own production or purchase of food for 8-12 months three years after closeout compared to 6-9 months at closeout three years earlier. Such impact was unexpected. 
- 91% of respondents reported improved household health, hygiene, and nutrition 
- A 2.5-year participatory exit process from CRS to country stakeholders (local government, an array of local and international NGOs and the private sector ensured continuity and boosted local ownership 
- 20% of the activities did not continue, mostly food-assisted NRM and resilience-related 
- Youth make up 50% of the population and need to be engaged during the project for long term sustainability to occur. 
2. PartnersGlobal (formerly Partners for Democratic Change)
Their mission is to “to build sustainable capacity to advance civil society and a culture of change and conflict management worldwide” uses an approach that is “bottom-up, locally-led rather than foreign-led, based on the belief that change comes from sustainable efforts led by local people, organizations and institutions invested in their own long-term future.” They went back and to review 55 case studies of projects through 22 centers they founded in central and eastern Europe from 1989-2011. They found:
- In 80% of cases, there was advancement of good governance by influencing the participation of civil society working with government 
- In 50% of the cases there was increased access to justice and managing and resolving disputes/conflicts, thereby strengthening civil society 
- 18 of 22 of the centers that had been established still exist today (82%) .
3. Mercy Corps
They did a post-project evaluation in Central Asia in 2007, one and three years after two conflict resolution projects ended which were worth $18 million. These complex community mobilization programs with aims “to empower communities to work together in a participatory manner to address the infrastructure and social needs [while] developing sustainable skills [and] empowers communities to identify and utilize existing resources within the communities and not to depend only on external assistance.”
- 72% of youth report that they continue to use at least one skill they learned during the programs (e.g. teamwork and communication, and skills such as sewing, construction, roofing, journalism and cooking) 
- 68% of community members witnessed local government becoming more involved in community activities after the end of the programs as compared with before the programs 
- 57% of the communities studied continuing to use one or more of the decision-making practices promoted during the program 
- 42% of members, representing 70% of communities, reported that the community had worked collectively on new projects or repairs to existing infrastructure. Participants and partners had implemented almost 100 infrastructure projects by themselves independent of donor funds. 
These are terrific expected results.
We also learned to Expect unexpected results
4. Federation of the Red Cross and Ethiopian Red Cross
Valuing Voices combined a final evaluation of “Building Resilient Community: Integrated Food Security Project to Build the Capacity of Dedba, Dergajen & Shibta Vulnerable People to Food Insecurity” that had funding over $3 million in 2009 from the Swedish Red Cross with an assessment of projected sustainability. It was an IFRC/ERCS collaboration with the Ethiopian government to provide credit for food security inputs to 2,259 households, which were to be repaid in cash over time as well water and agriculture/ seedlings for environmental resilience. We answered the DAC criteria for evaluation and found the project overall to be quite good, albeit with weak data tracking systems.
In terms of sustainability, we used participatory methods to learn about what people felt they could self-sustain once the project left their area, so we could shape a similar follow-on project design to be moved elsewhere in Tigray, particularly around the credit for animals.
- While 87% of the loans had been promoted by the government and given for large animals (oxen and cows), and 13% was for small animals (sheep, goats, chickens)…
- But project participants we interviewed, strongly preferred the small animals in terms of being able to sustain them on their own. They felt they could afford these smaller amounts of credit as well as the feed to sustain them, without taking the risk of animal death leaving them with large debt. This was especially true for women, who preferred poultry to all other animals 15:1.
In our quest for fast results, are we asking participants to bear too much risk? As one of our Valuing Voices team asks, Who is responsible for sustainability?
5. Lutheran World Relief
From 2005-2007 Lutheran World Relief intervened in Niger, the world’s poorest country, with a $500,000 Pastoralist Survival and Recovery Programme (ARVIP) drought rehabilitation project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There were numerous outcomes from targeting sheep, wells and animal fodder to 600 of the poorest women in 10 communities in northern Niger, among them:
- Women’s share of household income increased from 5% to 25% in some households. This was due to the value of the sheep grants, as well as time-savings used for income generation. Access to wells in five of the villages saved women a staggering 7-10 hours every other day from not having to go fetch water 3.5 hours away each way for household and animal needs and were free to weave mats or cook food for sale 
- Many said they didn’t have to resort to worse survival strategies during the next hungry season after they received the sheep 
What was not expected were these results:
- Many women in several villages reported an impact that was completely unexpected to the implementer and donor which was “our husbands don’t beat us anymore” . This was thanks to both increased respect and income from the sheep as well as access to well-water which led to cleanliness and their ability to be home for their husbands, children and mothers-in-law, rather than fetching water whole days 2-3 times a week. The same was found in PACT’s WORTH empowerment and village banking project in Nepal that wrote, “one in 10 reported that WORTH has actually helped “change her life” because of its impact on domestic violence” .
- We defined success too narrowly. Many interviewees were content with the project even though prospects for project-expected drought resilience or sustained food security were less likely. Some women sold the sheep to buy food, pay their children’s school fees or their daughters’ dowries, while some had their sheep sold by their husbands who used them to buy other animals, pay for ceremonies or other expenses. Participants saw the project as bringing them resources and considered it a success. 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 far down the line.
We hope you agree that allocating funds and attention to post-project sustained impacts evaluations is necessary for the remaining 99% of international development projects as it offers a fantastic learning opportunity about how to ‘do development’ well now and for the future. Without returning to look for what participants and partners valued enough to continue on their own, without returning to learn about unexpected sustained impacts, we rob ourselves of pivotal learning needed for success.
In part two, we look at ownership onward, planning for handover and lessons from who takes over? Country Nationals. In part three, we focus on Funding, Assumptions and Fears.
Please join us in advocating for this! Please think about your own projects… and whether you have considered these things, or need our help. We’re listening!
 OECD. (2015, December 22). Detailed final 2014 aid figures released by OECD/DAC. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/dac/stats/final2014oda.htm
 Cekan, J., PhD, Kagendo, R., Towns, A. (2016). Participation by All: The Keys to Sustainability of a CRS Food Security Project in Niger. Retrieved from https://www.crs.org/our-work-overseas/research-publications/participation-all
 Carstarphen, N., PhD. (2013, November). Sustainable Investment in Local Capacity for Democracy and Peace: A Global Evaluation of Partners for Democratic Change. Retrieved from https://www.partnersglobal.org/resource/sustainable-investment-in-local-capacity-for-democracy-and-peace/
 Westerman, B., & Sheard, S. (2007, December). Sustainability Field Study – Understanding What Promotes Lasting Change at the Community Level. Retrieved from https://reliefweb.int/report/world/sustainability-field-study-understanding-what-promotes-lasting-change-community-level
 Cekan, J. (2013). Increasing women’s incomes, increasing peace: Unexpected lessons from Niger. Participatory Learning and Action, (66), 75-82. Retrieved from https://pubs.iied.org/G03661/
 Mayoux, L. & Valley Research Group (2008, June). Women Ending Poverty: The WORTH Program in Nepal – Empowerment through Literacy, Banking and Business 1999-2007. Retrieved from https://www.findevgateway.org/case-study/2008/06/women-ending-poverty-worth-program-nepal-empowerment-through-literacy-banking