What happens after the project ends?
Lessons about Funding, Assumptions and Fears (Part 3)
In part 1 and part 2 of this blog, we showcased 11 of the 18 organizations that have done post-project evaluations. While this was scratching the surface of all that is to be learned, we shared a few insights on How we do it Matters, Expect Unexpected Results and Country-national Ownership. We gained some champions in this process of sharing our findings, including Professor Zenda Ofir of South Africa, who said “we cannot claim to have had success in development interventions if the outcomes and/or impacts are not durable, or at least have a chance to sustain or endure.”
In this third blog of Lessons Learned from What Happens After the Project Ends, we turn to some of the curious factors that hold us back from undertaking more post project evaluations: Funding, Assumptions, and Fears.
- Why haven’t we gone back? For the last 2+years Valuing Voices has been researching the issue, we have heard from colleagues: ‘we would love to evaluate post-project but we don’t have any money, ‘donors don’t fund this’, ‘it is too expensive’[*]. Funding currently from bilateral donors such as USAID is given in 1-5 year tranches with fixed terms for completion of results and learning from them and one-year close-out processes . Much of the canon of evaluations conducted after close out that we amassed was from international NGOs that had used their private funds to evaluate large donor-funded projects for their own learning. Many aimed also to show leadership in sustainability and admittedly dazzle their funders – join them!.
- We fund capacity building during projects but if we do not return to evaluate how well we have supported our partners and communities to translate this to sustainability, then we fall short. Meetings convened by INTRAC on civil society sustainability are opening new doors for joint learning about factors such as “legitimacy… leadership, purpose, values, and structures” within organizations well beyond any project’s end . The OECD’s DAC criteria for evaluating development assistance define sustainability as: “concerned with measuring whether the benefits of an activity are likely to continue after donor funding has been withdrawn. Projects need to be environmentally as well as financially sustainable“ . We need to extend our view beyond typical criterion for sustainability being a focus primarily on continued funding.
- We need funding to explore whether certain sectors lend themselves to sustainability. In addition to the cases in blog 1, a study by CARE/ OXFAM/ PACT on Cambodian Savings groups finds that we have some revisions to make on how we design and implement with communities to foster sustainability in this sector which typically promises greater sustainability because capital can be recycled . Valuing Voices blogs show indications that once we amass a greater range of post-project evaluations (funders unite), the insights gleaned can illuminate cost efficient paths to more sustained programming, possibly leading to revisions in programming or interventions which have greater likelihood for country-ownership
- Extend the program cycle to include post-project sustainability evaluation. Rare are donors such as the Australian government (forthcoming) and USAID’s Food For Peace that commission such studies. Rare is the initiative such as 3ie that has research funds allocated by major donors to explore an aspect of impact. We miss out on key opportunities to learn from the past for improved project design if we do not return to learn how sustained our outcomes and impacts have been. We miss learning how we could better implement so more national partners could take on the task of sustaining the changes we catalyzed.
- We call on donors to fund a research initiative to comprehensively review sustainability evaluations.
- We call on governments to ask for this in their discussion with donors.
- We call on implementers to invest in such learning to improve the quality of implementation today and sustained impact in the years to come.
Development assistance makes many assumptions about what happens after projects end in terms of people’s self-sufficiency, partners’ capacity to continue to support activities, and projects’ financial independence and people’s ability to step into the shoes of donors and carry on. Unless we take a hard look at our assumptions, we will not move from proving what we expect to learning what is actually there.
Among them are these six assumptions:
- All will be well once we exit; we have implemented so well that of course national participants and partners will be ready and able to carry on without us. We may assume the only important outcomes and impacts are within our Logical Frameworks and Theories of Change. Thus there is no need to return to explore unexpected negative ones, or ways in which the people we strengthened may have innovated in unexpectedly wonderful ways. Aysel Vazirova, a fellow international consultant wrote me: “Post-project evaluations provide data for a deeper analysis of sustainability and help to appreciate numerous avenues taken by the beneficiaries in incorporating development projects into their lives. The theory of change narratives presented by a majority of development programs and projects have a rather disturbing resemblance to the structure of magic tales: (from) Lack – (to) change – (to) happy ending. Post project evaluations have a power to change a rigid structure of this narrative.”
- We assume evaluations are often used to inform new designs, yet dozens of colleagues have lamented that too often this does not happen in the race to new project design. But there is hope. World Wildlife Fund/UK M&E expert Clare Crawford says when following its new management standards, WWF “expects to see the recommendations of an evaluation before the next phase of design can happen (hence evaluations happen a little before the end of a strategic period). WWF-UK, when reading new program plans is mandated to verify if – and how – the recommendations of the last evaluation(s) were made use of in the new design phase. Equally we track management responses to evaluations to see how learning has been applied in current or in future work.” Such a link across the program cycle is not common in our experience and none of the post-project sustained impact evaluations we reviewed said how learning would be used.
- We may assume data continues accessible from the projects we have evaluated, yet our team member Siobhan Green has found that until recently, with the move toward open data, often project data remains the province of the donors and implementers and to the best of our knowledge leaves the country when projects close. While some sectoral data such as health and education data remains local, we are finding in fieldwork that household level data has been rolled up or discarded once projects close, which makes interviews difficult.
- We may assume that the participants and partners are not able to evaluate projects, particularly after the fact. Being vulnerable does not mean that people are not able to share insights or assess how projects helped or not. Methods such as empowerment evaluation and evaluative thinking are powerful supports  .
- Some may assume that the situation has changed in the intervening years, that there is no benefit in returning to see what results remain. Change is inevitable and sometimes more rapid or dramatic than others. But does that mean we shouldn’t want to understand what happened? This is the greatest disservice of all, for we are selling “sustainable development” so how well have we designed it to be so?
- We assume that learning for our own benefit is enough. A potential client brought me in to discuss my working on a rare post-project evaluation last year. It was to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and while would occur in several countries. What I discovered was that while the donor really wanted to learn what results remained more than a decade on, I asked ‘how would the countries themselves benefit from this research and findings?’ There was a long silence. Turns out, nothing from the research would benefit or even remain in country. No one had considered the learning needs of the countries themselves. This simply cannot continue if we are to be accountable to those we serve.
This may be the greatest barrier of all to returning to assess sustainability.
- We assume our projects continue. We may be afraid to look for what will this tell us about the sustainability of our efforts to save lives and livelihoods so we only choose to publicly study what is successful. Valuing Voices has found that across most the post project studies there is some ‘selection bias’, as we repeatedly learned in our research from colleagues that organizations choose to evaluate projects that are most likely to be successfully sustained. For instance, USAID Food For Peace’ study notes, “The countries included in this study—Bolivia, Honduras, India, and Kenya—were also chosen because of their attention to sustainability and exit.” Yet as an Appreciative Inquiry practitioner, I would argue that learning what worked best to know what to do more of may be the best way forward.
- All too often the choice of evaluation design, and sensitivity to findings fly in the face of learning—particularly when findings are negative. This raises fears around a discontinuation of funding (an implementer fear; a beneficiary fear; could also be a recipient government’s fear). Yet as Bill Gates says, “your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”>
- Participants asked during the project cycle about interventions may be fearful of truth telling because of perceived vulnerabilities around promised future resources, local power imbalances in control over resources, or even political imperatives to adopt a particular position. Alternatively we may not believe them, thinking they may not tell us the truth were that to stop resources.
Those are ours.
- Peter Kimeu, my wise advisor and 20-year friend and colleague from Kenya tells us some fears of the that we need to listen to – those that haunt our national partners and participants.
They are afraid we do not see their real desires:
- “It is ‘not how many have you (the NGO) fed, but how many of us have the capability to feed ourselves and our community?’
- ‘How can we (country national) support our fellow citizens to take our lives and livelihoods into our own hands and excel, sustainably?’
- ‘What is sustainability if it isn’t expanded opportunities, Isn’t the capability of one to make a choice of value/quality life out of the many choices that the opportunities present?”
Will you help us address these challenges? Will you join us in advocating filling the gap in the program cycle, and looking beyond it to how we design and implement with country nationals? Will you, in your own work foster their ownership throughout and beyond? We need to fund learning from sustained impact to transparently discuss assumptions and face our fears. This is a sustained purpose we need to and can fill.
 Capable Partners Program & FHI 36. (2010). Essential NGO Guide to Managing Your USAID Award: Chapter 6 – Close Out. Retrieved from https://www.ngoconnect.net/sites/default/files/resources/Essential%20NGO%20Guide%20-%20Chapter%206%20-%20Close%20Out.pdf
 Hayman, R. (2014, November 5). Civil society sustainability: Stepping up to the challenge. Retrieved from https://www.intrac.org/civil-society-sustainability-stepping-challenge/
 OECD. (n.d.). DAC Criteria for Evaluating Development Assistance. Retrieved 2015, from https://web.archive.org/web/20151206171605/http://www.oecd.org/dac/evaluation/daccriteriaforevaluatingdevelopmentassistance.htm
 Emerging Markets Consulting. (2013). Sustainability of Savings Group Programs in Cambodia for CARE, Oxfam, and Pact. Retrieved from https://mangotree.org/Resource/Sustainability-of-Savings-Group-Programs-in-Cambodia-for-CARE-Oxfam-and-Pact
 Better Evaluation. (n.d.). Empowerment Evaluation. Retrieved from https://www.betterevaluation.org/plan/approach/empowerment_evaluation
 Griñó, L., Levine, C., Porter, S., & Roberts, G. (Eds.). (2016). Embracing Evaluative Thinking for Better Outcomes: Four NGO Case Studies. Retrieved from https://www.theclearinitiative.org/resources/embracing-evaluative-thinking-for-better-outcomes-four-ngo-case-studies
[*] It does not have to be. We have done these evaluations for under $170,000, all-inclusive.
What happens after the project ends? Country-national ownership lessons from post-project sustained impacts evaluations (Part 2)
In Part 1 of our blog on lessons learned from post-project evaluations, we explored:
- How we do it matters for great results
- Expect unexpected results
This time we turn to who continues after closeout, and what conditions foster both successful handover and ownership from the onset in order to foster sustained impact.
Who Takes Over? Country nationals
When project handover is integral to the design, development projects needn’t be long-term or expensive. What they need to be is increasingly community-driven. Unless exit strategies are explicit and thorough, sustained impacts are less likely.
1. USAID/ Food for Peace (FANTA/ Tufts)
An ‘exit strategies’ evaluation of 12 projects in four USAID Food for Peace (FFP) countries of Bolivia, Honduras, India, and Kenya carried out in 2009, three to four years after close out detailed mixed results, described here . These were complex food security projects across multiple sectors of: maternal and child health and nutrition; water and sanitation; agriculture, livestock, and rural income generation; natural resource management; school feeding; and micro-savings and loans.
FANTA/Tufts found “providing free resources, such as supplementary food as an incentive for growth monitoring participation or free agricultural marketing services to promote sales, created expectations that could not be sustained once the free resources were no longer offered.” Valuing Voices found similar issues in Niger’s PROSAN (see part 1), with the lack of continued incentives (food and in-kind inputs) led to activities not being continued by community members.
On the other hand, in India, the government took over FFP food ration distribution after closeout. “This phase-over of responsibility to national government programs was effective in the case of supplementary feeding but not in the case of school-feeding (the latter through the midday meals program), due to varying levels of government commitment. India’s government had the resources, capacity (an already existing supply chain), and motivation (commitment) to provide this benefit.” Again, CRS/Niger showed us that decades-long investments in partnerships and 2+ years for phase-over pays off; 80% of outcomes were self-sustained three years on. CIDA Peru also found that “Shared responsibilities and participatory process were instrumental in ensuring sustainability….a shared understanding of project objectives and counterpart interventions was established with Peruvian sector authorities, between donors and local communities” .
The lesson learned about close coordination with the partners such as the national government during design and implementation in order for transition to country-ownership and responsibility to be smooth also appeared among multilaterals that Valuing Voices has examined. Three multilateral agencies stand out as having conducted multiple post project evaluation (OECD, JICA and the Asian Development Bank).
We posit that too often in international development, the accountability focus is on fulfilling funder (donor) requirements, rather than accountability to project participants and what is needed to achieve sustained impact for them (Figure 1, below). The optimal case has project funders, implementers and national governments aligning to support those we ostensibly serve: women, men, youth, elders in need of assistance.
Are there certain kinds of projects or implementers that manifest optimal accountability? Far more examination is needed, but a promising path is microenterprise.
2. Pact’s WORTH project in Nepal
PACT’s project illuminates that local ownership and structures sustain results and even multiply impact. Implemented from 1999-2001, Pact worked with many local NGOs to reach 125,000 women in 6,000 economic groups across Nepal; of those, one quarter chose to implement village banks. Village Banks cultivated women as agents of change and development in their communities—promoting grassroots sustainability The post project evaluation in 2006 found that:
- Almost two thirds of the original 1,536 village banks were still active eight years after the program began and assets of an average village bank has tripled in the last three years post-project (from $1000 to over $3000 at the time of the evaluation) 
- 83% reported that because of WORTH they are able to send more of their children to school 
- Women’s economic groups helped start an estimated 425 new groups involving another 11,000 women with neither external assistance nor prompting from the project .
Why? The post-project report tells that the banks were not an end in and of themselves, women’s empowerment was: “WORTH groups and banks were explicitly envisaged as more than just microfinance providers; they were seen as organizations that would build up women as agents of change and development in their communities” . Thus local Nepalese sustained and grew their own development.
3. CARE Zanzibar’s Village Savings and Loan Associations were evaluated four years post-project. Similar to PACT, they found the model was sustained and grew:
- Total membership rose from 1,272 in 2002’s closeout to an estimated membership of 4,552 in July 2006, an increase of 258% 
- During the most recent payout for all 25 groups, the mean rate of return was 53%, with individual groups’ rates ranging from 10% to 92% 
- Participants said that the main changes in the lives as a result of the program were an improved standard of living (22%), improved housing (21%) and increased incomes (20%) .
While wonderful, can it only be the responsibility of communities to sustain their gains? How well are we designing for country-ownership and handover to the state?
4. The UN’s OECD has dozens of post project evaluations on its website, funded by member governments.
One study illuminates that while communities may manage to sustain some of the outcomes, structural investment in national capacity to takeover is key. This example evaluated four 10-15 year-long projects funded largely by Germany that were carried out in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Zambia with a cumulative value of Euro 145.1 million ($180 million). The study was done in 2004, evaluating activities an astonishing 30 years after inception. Results?
- The good news: “living conditions of the target groups have improved in all four project regions,” with specific sustainable project outcomes observed in the “health and education sector, food security, increase in income and employment and the ensuing rise in the standard of living”. Links were made to project-supported improvements in infrastructure, enhanced private sector economy, and the project’s innovations in agriculture.
- The bad news: “there was low institutional sustainability at the level of state executing organizations for all four projects due to inadequate funds, inefficient organizational structures and a lack of coordination”. Thus, viable exit and handover was limited. Structures advanced as part of a development project ran a high risk of not being sustainable.”
5. Three years ago, the Asian Development Bank reviewed 491 project completion reports (desk studies) and undertook a handful of field visits to projects financed between 2001-09. Similar results:
- “Some early evidence suggests that as many as 40% of all new activities are not sustained beyond the first few years after disbursement of external funding” 
- “National government ownership, commitment to and financing of the projects were vital to sustainability“ 
- “Neither governments nor other international agencies benefit from systematic information on whether projects reached their intended economic or social objectives over the full life of the intervention or in the decade afterwards” .
This is a clarion call to all funders to invest in future excellence by returning to the past, learning what worked best and what failed to do so, examine why and begin anew with accountability to our participants!
What can be done?
A) Foster ownership of the process of development through empowerment to begin with, as PACT’s WORTH project did in Nepal and elsewhere. InterAction’s lovely “A Missing Piece in Local Ownership: Evaluation” reminds us “the local ownership agenda must extend to all parts of the program cycle – from design all the way through evaluation. Including those meant to benefit from international assistance (we use the term “participants”) in deciding what should be done and how it should be done is critically important for effectiveness and sustainability” .
Ask yourselves how well we involve governments in collaborative design of what they feel they can sustain of our programming after we leave, how and for how long with what resources, linkages, capacity-built and motivation (see FFP study #1).
B) Design and implement in the present while considering sustaining outcomes and impacts in the long-term, as we learned in Part 1 of this blog as well as taking lessons from some emerging guides such as the systematic guidance of PCI’s Resource Guide for Enhancing Potential for Sustainable Impact .
C) Dare to return to learn. As Dina Esposito, the Director of USAID/Food For Peace stated, “this rigorous, retrospective [ex-post] approach is not widely done, but is essential if we are to understand the true impacts of our investments. To be effective, development projects must result in changes that last beyond the duration of the project themselves” .
Imagine the sustained cost-efficiencies of learning certain sectoral programs lent itself best to sustainability by communities, others needed Ministries to take over, others still needed different support such as private sector – or all of the above. If we look at sustained impact as our true goal, how differently could we work together? How much more efficiently would we use our global resources?
What can we say about the sustained impact post-project evaluations we have featured?
We have covered lessons about how matters in design and implementation; expect unexpected results and who takes over? Country nationals. Much more research and analysis is needed, many more case studies need to be created for us to understand how to foster the best handover as well as national ownership at the beginning, middle and end. Maybe you drew some of the same conclusions we have:
- Post project evaluations provide valuable insights about sustainability.
- Lessons from such evaluations can lead to better programming in current and future projects.
- The voice of national stakeholders—participants and partners, including governments is essential.
- Donors lose amazing opportunities to learn what works now and continues to work unless they fund more sustainable impact evaluations and support investing resources in fostering sustainability during design and implementation.
In Part 3, we will look at what is keeping us from looking to the past for the future (hint: funding, assumptions and fears) and how we can move ahead together…
Please join us in advocating for and funding this vital approach!
 Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance (FANTA). (n.d.). Effective Sustainability and Exit Strategies for USAID FFP Development Food Assistance Projects. Retrieved from https://www.fantaproject.org/research/exit-strategies-ffp
 Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). (2012). Evaluation of CIDA’s Peru Program. Retrieved 2014, from https://web.archive.org/web/20140807174641/http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/INET/IMAGES.NSF/vLUImages/Evaluations2/$file/peru-eng.pdf
 Mayoux, L. (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
 Anyango, E., Esipisu, E., Opoku, L., Johnson, S., Malkamaki, M., & Musoke, C. (2006, January). Village Savings and Loan Associations: Experiences from Zanzibar. Retrieved from https://www.findevgateway.org/case-study/2006/01/village-savings-and-loan-associations-experiences-zanzibar
 Asian Development Bank. (2010, October 31). Post-Completion Sustainability of Asian Development Bank-Assisted Projects. Retrieved from https://www.adb.org/documents/post-completion-sustainability-asian-development-bank-assisted-projects
 Grino, L. (2015, February 19). A Missing Piece in Local Ownership: Evaluation. Retrieved 2015, from https://web.archive.org/web/20150502162547/https://www.interaction.org/blog/missing-piece-local-ownership-evaluation
 Choi-Fitzpatrick, J., Schooley, J., Eder, C., & Lomeli, B. (2014). A Resource Guide for Enhancing Potential for Sustainable Impact: Food and Nutrition Security. Retrieved from https://www.fsnnetwork.org/resource-guide-enhancing-potential-sustainable-impact
 Rogers, B. L., & Coates, J. (2015, December). Sustaining Development: A Synthesis of Results from a Four-Country Study of Sustainability and Exit Strategies among Development Food Assistance Projects. Retrieved from https://www.fsnnetwork.org/ffp-sustainability-and-exit-strategies-study-synthesis-report