Embedding Sustainability Everywhere – All Five Slices Now
It has been a tumultuous year, and next year does not look like we will have much stability as a respite. As domestic concerns grow larger in two huge economies, US and UK, the question of the place foreign aid will play abound in conversations around the world.
However 2017’s transitions transform our work, for now I do have some good news,
1) Sustainability can be cheap. Far cheaper, in fact to design for sustainability, create feedback loops checking on sustainability through the eyes of our partners and participants, monitor for sustainability than to assume it’ll happen and far cheaper than finding out funds could have had far greater impact if we had valued their voices in the first place.
In our work to help our clients and partners fund, design, implement and monitor/ evaluate with sustainability in mind, we created what we hope is a helpful tool (guidance forthcoming).
a) By Designing for Sustainability with those who will sustain them, their financial buy-in and commitment are far higher (see CRS/ Niger ), as is advocacy and community buy-in (see new post-project OXFAM/ DRC ) and there are indicators the costs of start-up later are more cost-effective.
b) By clarifying Sustainability Indicators we check assumptions about who will do so, how much of a priority our activities are before we scale them up (Federation/ Ethiopian Red Cross). Retrospective post-project sustainability evaluations also enable us to learning from past successes and do better.
c) Sustainability Monitoring and Adaptation involve those pesky but pivotal feedback loops which are vital to understanding if we have gone off the rails or not, especially in terms of unexpected shocks derailing logical frameworks of designed projects. USAID’s nice recent CLA (Collaborating, Learning, Adapting) process includes donor funding for adaptation mid-stream which fosters effectiveness and sustainability . Even lovelier are the Doing Development Differently examples that are often very low-cost and high-effect.
d) Informed Exit, Stakeholder Sustainability Consultation should be done throughout the cycle, at least a year earlier than most projects can begin this (note; not the last few months please). Transitioning for success leverages sunk costs for ongoing results. It includes heavy knowledge management on how the implementers managed information and resources, tracked data, sustained outputs and outcomes which now local partners will need to do, etc (FFP Exit Strategies study, a Czech study, and a new UK Results study shows range of items to consider during and post-transition)  .
e) Post-Project Sustainability: Our Valuing Voices/ Better Evaluation/ Tufts joint presentation at AEA on SEIE has more on how learning from post-project evaluation lessons can change sustainability of future projects for the better ! Further, what capacities and systems have been built in-country to sustain the results after our funding and expertise leaves? What can we do differently?
Can it be done? Demand is rising. I recently presented at a conference about embedding sustainability in programming now, and an enterprising NGO took this idea to heart. They proposed joint design with communities, which is the very bedrock of designing for sustained impact. Kudos!
2) Secondly, donors are willing to pay for sustainability. Sustainability is ensconced in USAID/ Food For Peace’s (FFP) 2016 Strategy and CLA (above) . In the section called New learning and Implications for FFP Programming, they present findings such as “actions that drive big results during the life of the project may actually undermine sustainability in the long run. It raises the question as to whether FFP is willing to accept more modest results in the near term if they can be delivered in a way that will yield more sustainable gains over time….”
They also point us in the direction of country-led development: “Sustained capacity, resources, motivation, and linkages all require a focus on catalysts for change beyond FFP. Facilitative approaches that rely on and strengthen local actors help ensure that resource and knowledge transfers, and the incentives and linkages that support them, will be self-perpetuating beyond project end”. Notably, while UK’s DFID focuses on maximizing impact through Value-for-Money, it is a shorter-term economy, efficiency and effectiveness rather than sustained impact for the end-users and DFID’s exit strategies have recently been critiqued .
There is an issue of disincentives for the new administration to heed (if the agricultural lobby for US food exports does not prevail): “In [USAID’s exit] study evaluating how sustainable the results of Title II development programs are 2–3 years after project closure, FFP found that “providing free resources can threaten sustainability, unless replacement of those resources both as project inputs and as incentives has been addressed” . As the Natural Resources section notes, “Whether entirely in the hands of the community or linked to a formal institution, the incentives and resources necessary to maintain a community asset are part of the system that will sustain it. The lack of such systems is visible in rusted irrigation pumps, failed mangrove plantations, abandoned bore wells, eroded dikes, and silted-in fish ponds around the world” . Yet the private and public sectors are important: “Sustainable, broad-based change is more likely to be achieved by supporting and strengthening existing community, private sector, and public sector mechanisms for product and service delivery, and by supporting the capacity, quality, and accountability of government institutions” .
FFP’s new strategy calls for taking a systems approach to change that emphasizes sustainable long-term gains over unsustainable short-term wins. Even more delightful, in a small meeting at MFAN with Dina Esposito, Director of Food For Peace in November, she announced that they were looking to do pilot funding of an additional three years to typical five-year DFAP development projects. One year would involve collaborative participatory design between partners, communities and FFP, the second additional years being evaluation post-project of sustained and emerging impact!
This is a sea shift that can hopefully withstand political winds. After all, US foreign aid accounts for less than 1% of our federal budget, even though many Americans believe it is over 15% (hence easy to cut)…. but fingers crossed the aid effectiveness value of our work is… Valued.
 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
 Lindley-Jones, H. (2016, November 16). ‘If we don’t do it, who will?’ A study into the sustainability of Community Protection Structures supported by Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Retrieved from https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/if-we-dont-do-it-who-will-a-study-into-the-sustainability-of-community-protecti-620149
 USAID Learning Lab. (n.d.). Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA)? Retrieved from https://usaidlearninglab.org/faq/collaborating%2C-learning%2C-and-adapting-cla
 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
 Del Mese, F. (2016, November 16). When aid relationships change: DFID’s approach to managing exit and transition in its development partnerships. Retrieved from https://icai.independent.gov.uk/report/transition/
 Cekan, J., Rogers, B. L., Rogers, P., & Zivetz, L. (2016, October 26). Barking Up a Better Tree: Lessons about SEIE (Sustained and Emerging Impact Evaluation). Retrieved from https://valuingvoices.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Barking-up-a-Better-Tree-AEA-Oct-26-FINAL.pdf
 USAID. (2016, October 6). 2016–2025 Food Assistance and Food Security Strategy. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/ffpstrategy#:~:text=FFP’s%20new%20strategy%2C%20the%202016,USG)%20food%20assistance%20as%20a
 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.fantaproject.org/research/exit-strategies-ffp
Sustained Impact post-project (ex-post)? Little proof at 3ie
Surely an organization that has received tens of millions of dollars of funding must track ‘impact’ as the actual long-term impact of projects. That is what I thought when I first began exploring post-project sustainability. If you look at the International Initiative on Impact Evaluation (3ie), so respected in RCTs (randomized control trials), they do valuable work comparing international development interventions among participants versus control groups during implementation, showing which interventions work best. Valuable stuff. Yet in an earlier post on impact vs. sustainability, I looked at 3ie, and found that much of the impact seems to be projected, during implementation. Our projects’ ‘logical frameworks’ are designed to measure progress to get to outputs (e.g. farmers trained), outcomes (e.g. hectares planted with new seeds), impacts (e.g. higher harvests and lower malnutrition) and goals (e.g. hunger sustainably eliminated). So did we get to sustained impact and goals? Who is looking if we got there?
This kind of impact appears in OECD Post-2015: “how cost-effective is it? To what extent does aid help nurture solutions that are sustainable over time? In other words, is aid being delivered effectively and is it having an impact“ ? Post-project evaluations that would assess sustained impact don’t seem to widely be done or get much traction at the otherwise respected 3ie either. Returning a year later to 3ie since my first post, I found 18 documents under searches of ‘ex-post’ and ‘post project’. Sadly, again and again, their definition of ex-post seems to be post the onset of implementation, ranging from 1-2 years after the baseline rather than the typical definition of 2-10 years after projects actually closed, where long-term impact can be found.
When I searched by the more technical term ‘ex-post’ on 3ie, I found 17 that were titled ex-post but in fact were not. This ex-post evaluation of a conditional transfer in Costa Rica in fact was not one as they were comparing the efficacy of the project on school attendees in 2002 while the project was still underway. The French study of Cambodian healthcare was done firmly within implementation yet was titled ex-post. Another, evaluating a women’s group project in Kenya says they have a post-project evaluation but how can it be post project if it was only one and a half years after he baseline while still during implementation? A third “ex-post” on Job Youth training in the Dominican Republic only looks at the efficacy one year after the training, hence again during implementation and firmly not ex-post.
The only true ex-post was a 15-yea.r-old study by the World Bank in Nicaragua, comparing the impact of an emergency social investment fund for primary education, rural health and water/sanitation projects that were done from January 1994 to June 1997. It was evaluated two years after completion regarding targeting the poorest, community priorities and participation, projects’ utilization rates, and operational and physical sustainability and impact on beneficiaries’ health and education status. The rest of the documents on 3ie under ex-post were secondary systemic reviews of other project evaluations and a hopeful post that a new UK collaboration will track and improve aid impact . While DIFD is doing terrific work on value for money, it focuses on donor money well spent rather than country-national participants and partners’ views of how well they felt our project money served them. But I quibble.
So is it a matter only of definition of what impact we’re looking for and expectations that we can find it during implementation rather than the dusty ankles post-project/ ex-post research Valuing Voices promotes? As a PhD I firmly expected to find many definitions and examples of real, sustained research on actual long-term impact and the 3ie site and on many donors’ sites. I am flabbergasted today at not only the lack of post-project/ ex-post evaluations but also that these terms seem not to be defined. There are no definitions or examples on Betterevaluation, nowhere on the American Evaluation site or within USAID’s Evaluation Policy , none at all in UK’s DFID’s annals on overseas aid effectiveness. Other Valuing Voices blogs have outlined the dearth of post-project evaluations. Only today did I realize even their definitions are scarce. One definition I did find was from the UK’s Department of Education:
The purpose of this post-project evaluation (PPE) is to:
- Evaluate the effectiveness of the project in realizing the proposed benefits 
- Compare planned costs and benefits with actual costs and benefits to allow an assessment of the project’s overall value for money to be made 
- Identify particular aspects of the project which have affected benefits either positively or negatively; [and make] recommendations for future projects 
- Reveal opportunities for increasing the project’s yield of benefits, whether they were planned or became apparent during or after implementation, and to recommend the actions required to achieve their maximisation 
Sustainability is the hoped-for outcome of ex-post evaluation work; so I have long turned to the OECD/ DAC have five related criteria for evaluating development assistance . They 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. When evaluating the sustainability of a programme or a project, it is useful to consider the following questions:
- To what extent did the benefits of a programme or project continue after donor funding ceased?
- What were the major factors which influenced the achievement or non-achievement of sustainability of the programme or project?
While this definition is 15 years old, it works quite well. Are you equally surprised at how hard it is to find definitions and examples of post-project and ex-post evaluations? 3ie doesn’t seem to have it down; USAID has hundreds of documents listed as ex-post. Some are secondary analyses of previous evaluations and most simply say post-project evaluation should be done. At least USAID has now two new ex-post studies (one in 2014, one in 2015). They are the first studies done in 30 years by USAID. The latter is a brave and fascinating one, where Tufts evaluates Food For Peace projects ex-post in four countries this month, with publicly mixed results. Even J-Pal, the highly-respected Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab does rigorous impact evaluations, comparing the outcomes of project activities to non-participant control groups to ascertain the effectiveness of the interventions, but it too seems to have no documents on their impact evaluation site that show the sustainability of impacts.
Putting ourselves in the shoes of those we indend to serve… the sustained impact is what they actually want.
When will our organizations actually go back to the field and learn from those living with the projects years after donors and implementers leave? When will we walk our accountability talk? DO TELL!
 OECD. (2013). Element 10, Paper 1: Effective development co-operation: An important enabler in a post-2015 global development framework. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/dac/FINAL%20POST-2015%20Effective%20Development%20Co-operation.pdf
 White, H. (2011, May 23). New UK watchdog to improve aid impact. Retrieved from https://www.3ieimpact.org/blogs/new-uk-watchdog-improve-aid-impact
 Levine, R., & DeRuiter, D. (Eds.). (2015, September 22). USAID Evaluation Policy. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/documents/1865/usaid-evaluation-policy
 UK Department of Education. (n.d.). Post Project Evaluation. Retrieved from https://www.education-ni.gov.uk/articles/post-project-evaluation
 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
Listening better… for more sustainable impact
Are we listening better? Maybe. As Irene Gujit states on Better Evaluation, Keystone’s work on ‘constituent voice’ enables a "shift [in] power dynamics and make organizations more accountable to primary constituents”. For example, "organisations can compare with peers to trigger discussions on what matters to those in need… in (re)defining success and ‘closing the loop’ with a response to feedback [on the project], feedback mechanisms can go well beyond upward accountability."
There are impressive new toolkits available to elicit and hear participant voice about perceived outcomes and impacts, such as People First Impact Method and NGO IDEAS' Monitoring Self-Effectiveness. As People First states, "Across the aid sector, the voices of ordinary people are mostly not being heard. Compelling evidence shows how the aid structure unwittingly sidelines the people whom we aim to serve. Important decisions are frequently made from afar and often based on limited or inaccurate assumptions. As a result, precious funds are not always spent in line with real priorities, or in ways that should help people build their own confidence and abilities…. As a sector, we urgently need to work differently." These are results of 40 year old participatory/Rapid Rural Appraisal distilled and shared by IDS/UK's Robert Chambers which I've used for 25 years, including lately for self-sustainability evaluation.
In addition to qualitative, participatory tools, the application of quantitative evaluative tools have a ways to grow to be terrific at listening and learning. Keystone did interesting work on impact evaluation (lately associated with Random Control Trials comparing existing projects and comparable non-participating sites to prove impact). Their study found that not only "no one engaged through the research for this note is particularly happy with the current state of the art…. There is a strong appetite to improve the delivery of evaluative activities in general and impact evaluation in particular … Setting expectations by engaging and communicating early and often with stakeholders and audiences for the evaluation is critical, as is timing." So many of us believe that evaluation cannot be an afterthought, but monitoring and evaluation needs to be integrated into project design, with feedback loops informing implementation.
Yet this otherwise excellent article made one point that is common, yet like Alice looking through the looking glass backwards. For they write feedback is "to inform intended beneficiaries and communities (downward accountability) about whether or not, and in what ways, a program is benefiting the community". Yet it is the other way around! Only communities have the capacity to tell us how well they feel we are helping them!
Thankfully, we are increasingly willing to listen and learn about aid effectiveness. Some major actors shaping funding decisions have already thrown down the feedback gauntlet:
* As our 2013 blog asked for, Charity Navigator is now applying its new “Results Reporting” rating criteria, which include six data points regarding charities feedback practices. The new ratings will be factored into Charity Navigator star ratings from 2016.
* Heavyweight World Bank president Jim Kim has decreed that the Bank will require robust feedback from beneficiaries on all projects for which there is an identifiable beneficiary.
* The Hewlett, Ford, Packard, Rita Allen, Kellogg, JPB and LiquidNet for Good Foundations have recently come together to create the Fund for Shared Insight to catalyze a new feedback culture within the philanthropy sector.
* This February, a new report on UK's international development agency, DFID recommended a new direction to their aid: "The development discourse has generally focused on convincing donors to boost their aid spending, when the conversation should instead be on “how aid works, how it can support development, how change happens in countries, and all of the different responses that need to come together to support that change…. One important change will be for professionals to deliver more adaptive programming and work in more flexible and entrepreneurial ways… emphasized the need for development delivery to be led by local people. Commenting on ODI’s research, [DFID} said successful development examples showed “people solving problems for themselves rather than coming in and trying to manage that process externally through an aid program.”
Hallelujah! What aid effectiveness great listening are you seeing?