Hard-wiring and Soft-wiring in Sustainability via health program examples: by Laurence Desvignes and Jindra Cekan/ova
We all want things to last. Most of us joined the ‘sustainable development’ industry hoping our foreign aid projects not only do good while we are there but long afterward. Following on last month’s blog on better learning about project design, implementation, and M&E, here are some things to do better.
Long-term sustainability rests on four pillars: the first rests on how the project is designed and implemented before exit and the second is to what degree conditions are needed for the continuation of results the project generated are put into place. While the first one embeds sustainability into its very results, the second invests in processes to foster the continuation of results. The other two of the four pillars, returning to see what lasts by evaluating the sustainability of results two or more years later and bringing those lessons back to funding, design, implementation, and building in shock-resilience, e.g., such as to climate change, are in other Valuing Voices blogs.
We focus on 1 and 2 in this blog, and use an analogy of hard-wiring and soft-wiring sustainability into the fabric of the project:
- Hardwiring, ‘baking-in’ sustainability involves the design/ implementation which predisposes results lasting. This includes investing in Maternal Child Health and Nutrition’s first 1000 days from conception to age two that are vital for child development. The baby’s physical development and nutrition are so important as is maternal well-being. Investing in these early days leads to better health and nutrition throughout their lives. So too are buying local. Too often our projects rely on imported technology and inputs that are hard to replace if broken. A project on hand pumps used by UNICEF suggested local purchase of those “designed to optimize the chances of obtaining good quality hand pumps and an assured provision of spare parts” involves both the hardware of the pump and also the “capacity building plan and a communication strategy.” Also using local capacity/specialists when available vs external consultants can also be key to building the sustainability of a project.
Another example of baking-in sustainability is using participatory approaches to ensure that those implementing- such as the communities/ local authorities. In this example, it’s grassroots where participants are heard during design in terms of their priorities and how the project should be implemented. This includes targeting discussions and monitoring and evaluation being done with and by communities. The seminal research of 6,000 interviews with aid recipients, Time to Listen, found that they want to participate and when they do, things are more likely to be sustained, rather than being passive recipients…. there is ex-post proof such programming is more ‘owned’ and more sustained.
Conducting in-depth needs assessments at design is usually the way to collect information about what is needed and how projects should be implemented to last. Unfortunately, very often, the time is very limited for the proposal development and (I)NGOs are under pressure of short deadlines to submit the proposal, and needs assessments are either done quickly, collecting very basic information or not done at all. Yet time spent valuing the voices of participants can bring great richness. In 2022, the UN’s FAO did a monitoring and evaluation study in Malawi validating indicators for poverty by asking communities how they identify it from the start. “Researchers were impressed at how accurately the people they interviewed were able to gauge the relative wealth of their neighbors.” We were not surprised as the locals often know best. Another example with Mines Advisory Group in Cambodia, we developed a community-based participatory approach for design whereby project staff would work with the mine-affected communities to draw local maps of their villages, highlighting the location of the dangerous places and the key areas/places used by the communities. Staff and communities discussed the constraints, risks, needs, etc. to make their community safer, which the project would follow up with risk education, clearance, victim assistance, and/or alternative economic /development solutions to make the community safer. Other mine action agencies, e.g. Danish Refugee Council (Danish Demining Group) are also now using safer community approaches, involving local residents to decide on how to make their village safer depending on the community priorities.
Hardwiring in participatory feedback-loop learning from locals during implementation is also key. Implementation of a community feedback strategy once the programme is running is also essential. The community feedback mechanism (CFM) is a formal system established to enable affected populations to communicate information on their views, concerns, and experiences of a humanitarian agency or of the wider humanitarian system. It systematically captures, records, tracks, and follows up on the feedback it receives to improve elements of a response. CFM is key to ensuring that people affected by crisis have access to avenues to hold humanitarian actors to account; to offer affected people a formalized structure for raising concerns if they feel their needs are not being met, or if the assistance provided is having any unintended and harmful consequences; to understand and solicit information on their experience of a humanitarian agency or response; as part of a broader commitment to quality and accountability that enables organizations to recognize and respond to any failures in response; to promote the voices and influence of people affected so their perspectives, rights, and priorities remain at the forefront of humanitarian/development work.
Promoting and implementing community engagement, such as a community feedback strategy, provides a basis for dialogue with people affected on what is needed and on how what is needed might best be provided, especially as needs change during implementation. This will help identify priority needs and is a means to gauge beneficiaries’ understanding of activities being carried out, to assist in the identification of local partners and establishment and follow-up of partnerships, and in the organizational development and capacity building of local institutions and authorities. It can strengthen the quality of assistance by facilitating dialogue and meaningful exchange between aid agencies and affected people at all stages of humanitarian response and result in the empowerment of those involved. Targeted people are viewed as social actors that can play an active role in decisions affecting their lives.
OXFAM’s project in Haiti starting in 2012 came as a result of a cholera epidemic that began in 2010 (“Preventing the Cholera Epidemic by Improving WASH Services and Promoting Hygiene in the North and Northeast”), whose goal was to contribute to the cholera elimination, experimented with the community feedback strategy as a means of gauging the recipients’ understanding of the activities carried out and of further strengthening the links between OXFAM and the communities during implementation. The initial process of community feedback was intended to both receive recommendations from project participants for better management of the action and also to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Oxfam interventions. Based on the information and recommendations applied, OXFAM served as a bridge between the community and the actors involved (e.g. private firm contracted to carry out some health centers/ water systems renovation work or other) in the implementation of the project. This is also part of Oxfam’s logic of placing more emphasis on the issue of accountability and community engagement.
The feedback-loop benefits of such a community process are manyfold, especially on Protection, human rights, risk management, and further below, adapting Implementation, M&E, and fostering organizational learning:
- CFMs assist in promoting the well-being, rights, and protection of people by offering them a platform to have a voice and be heard
- it fosters participation, transparency, and trust
- It uses Do No Harm and conflict-sensitive programming
- It helps identify staff misconduct
- It functions as a risk management and early warning system
Adapting Implementation and Improving M&E:
- This process makes it possible to adapt to the priorities of the beneficiaries, to better meet their needs hence ensuring the agency’s accountability to the affected population
- It facilitates and guarantees a better quality of the project.
- It represents a means of monitoring our approaches and our achievements.
- It makes it possible to construct a common vision shared between the various actors and the project participants/targeted communities.
- Ensuring the programme quality and accountability through the establishment of an appropriate accountability strategy (including Transparency, Feedback, Participation, Monitoring, and Effectiveness) and relevant methodologies and tools (since the planning stage of the project) is a key exercise which allow to think and plan for the sustainability of the programme at an early stage.
- It allows us to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the interventions while offering us the opportunity to learn from our experiences, hence allowing for programmatic learning and adaptative programming.
- It conveys the impact of the project and the change brought about in the lives of the beneficiaries.
- It is part of the logic of capitalizing on experiences to improve the quality of future projects.
2. Soft-wiring is creating conditions to make sustainability more likely for local communities and partners by thinking about how to replace what has been brought by the projects’ donors and implementers. This involves an analysis as well as actions that put conditions for sustainability into place before and during the time that foreign aid projects close. Valuing Voices’ checklists for exiting sustainably involves local ownership, sufficient capacities, and resources, viable partnerships, how well risks such as climate and economic shocks were identified and managed, and benchmarking for success 1-2 years before closure. Later it is important to return to check findings at ex-post project, comparing completion results to what was sustained 2-30 years later.
There are four categories of sustainability-fostering actions to do pre-exit which were identified by Rogers and Coates of Tufts for USAID for sustained exit:
Several blogs on Valuing Voices deal with resources, including assumptions donors make. Donor resource investments cannot be assumed to be sustained. The checklists outline a wide array of questions to ask during design and latest a year pre-exit, including what assumptions do aid projects make? USAID water/ sanitation/ hygiene investments have mostly not been sustained, due to a combination of lack of resources to maintain them and low ownership of the resources invested. Some key questions are:
- Did the project consider how those taking over the project would get sufficient resources, e.g., grant funding or other income generation available or renting out their facility or infrastructure that they own or shift some of their activities to for-profit production, sold to cover part of project costs?
- Does the project or partner have a facility or infrastructure that they own and is rentable to increase resources outside donor funding or can the project shift to for-profit, including institutional and individual in-kind products or technical knowledge skills that can be sold to cover part of project costs?
- What new equipment is needed, e.g. computers, vehicles, technical (e.g. weighing scales) for activities to continue, and which stakeholder will retain them?
- Or even no resources are needed because some project activities will scale down, move elsewhere, focus on a smaller number of activities that are locally sustainable, or the whole project will naturally phase-out)
The objective of that Oxfam project was to reduce the risks of communities placed in a situation of acute vulnerability to the cholera epidemic in two departments in Haiti (where about 1.5 million inhabitants reside). It focused on sustainability by effectively supporting and accompanying governmental WASH and health structures in the rapid response to alerts and outbreaks recorded in the targeted communities. How? Through awareness-raising activities among the populations concerned, by strengthening the epidemiological surveillance system and coordination between concerned stakeholders. The project also aimed to improve drinking water structures such as drinking water distribution points, drinking water networks or systems, catchments, and boreholes. As part of this intervention, Oxfam worked in close collaboration and in support of the Departmental Directorates of Health (DH), DINEPA (government services responsible for water and sanitation), and local authorities at the level of cities, towns and neighborhoods, and community structures including civil protection teams. Oxfam and DINEPA staff intervened through mixed mobile response teams that included technical and managerial staff from the health department to whom Oxfam provided ongoing technical support in terms of WASH analysis and actions, WASH training, finance training, and monitoring, as well as logistical support for the deployment of teams in the field (provision of vehicles and drivers). Oxfam was therefore working to ensure that cholera surveillance and mitigation actions were led by state and community actors, and by supporting state structures to build their capacities and allow ownership of the various aspects of the fight against cholera. Concretely, this was done as follows:
- Preliminary meetings and discussions were held with concerned governmental authorities to agree on a plan of action based on needs, implementation means, priorities, and budget for the health and wash governmental services/teams to be able to function. This was followed by the signature of an MoU between Oxfam and the Departmental Directorates of Health (DH).
- An action plan was set up with the DH and DINEPA (governmental water and sanitation agency) at the very beginning of the project.
- Outbreak response teams were managed directly by the DH and the staff was recruited, managed, and paid by the DH. The DH and DINEPA implemented the activities, managed the staff of the mobile teams, and provide technical monitoring in coordination with Oxfam.
- The epidemiological monitoring activities carried out by the DH were also monitored by the Oxfam epidemiologist who, in close coordination with the DH, built the capacities of epidemiologists and staff at the departmental level and at the level of the treatment centers to ensure adequate monitoring and communication.
- An Oxfam social engineering officer worked with DINEPA to ensure that the various water committees at the sources/infrastructure rehabilitated by Oxfam were functional. Sources/infrastructures were rehabilitated in concert with DINEPA to ensure the proper ownership.
- Oxfam provided funding, and technical supervision and wrote and submitted the final report to the donor. Based on DH’s regular reports on activities which were then consolidated by Oxfam for the donor.
- Teams were paid directly by the DH from funds received by Oxfam, based on the budget agreed by both Oxfam and the DH, and were based on government salary scales.
- The Oxfam WASH team, which systematically accompanies case investigations in the field, further encouraged the participation of DINEPA and its community technicians, through regular meetings with the DINEPA departmental directors.
- Overall, Oxfam ensured to provide support and capacity building of the DH, DINEPA, and community actors involved in the fight against cholera, to ensure proper ownership and to avoid substitution of the health/wash authorities.
The type of peer-partnering at design and during implementation described above is vital for ownership and sustainability. Unless we consider people’s ownership of the project and capacities to sustain results, they won’t be sustained. See Cekan’s exiting for sustainability checklists on phasing over before phasing out and exit, strengthening ownership, which brings us full circle to the participatory hard-wiring described above in Haiti.
We have to strengthen capacities at the most sustainable level. Taking an example from IRC’s Sierra Leone Gender-based Violence project involves looking at what happens when capacities training done for local participants and partners to take over are not done right. In this case, there were two-year consultancies to the Ministry (MSWGCA) on strategic planning and gender training, but “it is not clear if this type of support has had a sustainable impact. The institutional memory often disappears with the departure of the consultant, leaving behind sophisticated and extensive plans and strategies that there is simply no capacity to implement.” The report found that community-based initiatives that are the “primary sources of support for GBV victims living in rural areas in a more innovative and sustainable way that promotes local ownership. They also may yield more results,” most donor agencies find it hard to partner with community-based organizations so they recommended a focus on training and capacity-building of mainstream health workers to respond to GBV and aim for the government will assume control of service provision in approximately five years. The excellent manual by Sarriot et al on Sustainability Planning, “Taking the Long View: A Practical Guide to Sustainability Planning and Measurement in Community-Oriented Health Programming puts local capacity strengthening at the core. We have to consult and collaborate throughout and create an ‘enabling environment’ so that the activities and results are theirs.
Source: Sarriot et al 2008
Obviously, we should check on the sustainability we hope for. As ITAD/CRS note, we should do and learn from more ex-post evaluations which is much of what Valuing Voices advocates for.
Recommendations for fostering sustainability:
Few donors require information on how hard-wired or how soft-wired programming pre-exit is at closure which would make sustainability likely. Even fewer demand actual post-closure sustainability data to confirm assumptions at exit, sadly we believe most of our foreign aid has had limited sustained impacts. But this can change. Donors need to be educated that the “localization” agenda is the new trend (just as gender, resilience, and climate change have been at one point). It is beyond the “nationalization” of staff members (e.g. replacing expatriates with national staff), which is only one of the elements relating to locallization. True localization is to promote the local leadership of communities in their own ‘sustainable development’. While this is easier to say than to do, sustainability depends on it. We foster it through the hard-wiring and soft-wiring we discussed above and more steps, below. Here are specific steps from Laurence’s and Jindra’s experiences with the Global South:
- Funds & additional time for local partnership and ownership need to be embedded in the design and planned for, which requires a different approach on which the donors also need to be sensitized/ educated/ advocated to;
- In-depth needs assessment must be carried out just before or when an NGO sets up an operation – it usually takes time and should be integrated into any operation. Advocating this approach to donors is key so that it can be included in the budget or the NGO needs to find its own funds to do so) and the NGO country and sector strategy can then be updated yearly to embed such activities into the (I)NGO DNA;
- Conduct a capacity strengthening assessment of the local authorities or partners with whom we are going to conduct the project. This can take between 3 to 6 months, depending on the number and type of actors involved but this is an essential element to build self-sustaining local capacities and ensure that comprehensive capacity building is going to take place. This transparent step is also an essential step to ensure ownership by national/governmental stakeholders;
- It is vital to allow time to plan for an exit strategy at an early stage, even as early as design. This requires time and needs to be included in the budget for the implementation of the plan at least one year before the end, for phasing over to local implementing partners to take over before the donors/ Global North implementers exit, and for possibly strengthening capacities or extending programming to deliver on their timeline rather than ours before exiting out. More on this from CRS’ Participation by All ex-post and of course the oft-cited “Stopping As Success: Locally-led Transitions in Development” by Peace Direct, Search for Common Ground, and CDA. Also do not forget shared leadership noted by UK’s INTRAC’s “Investing in Exit”;
- Finally, don’t forget about evaluating ex-posts and embedding those lessons into future design/ implementation/ monitoring and evaluation.
Investing in sustainability by hard-wiring or soft-wiring works! Let us know what you do…
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
The Disruptive Potential of Feedback
by MARC GUNTHER, OCTOBER 18, 2015 ( reblogged http://nonprofitchronicles.com/2015/10/18/the-disruptive-potential-of-feedback/)
Few institutions in the US are as undemocratic as endowed foundations. The executives in charge of foundations answer to, er, no one. They give money away, so people tend to laugh at their jokes, tell them they look well, nod in agreement at their banal remarks. What’s not to like?
As for nonprofits, they pay heed to foundations and donors, but they need not listen to their “beneficiaries,” unless they feel a moral obligation to do so. What if, goodness knows, the people they are trying to serve turn out to be unhappy with the service? Talk about inconvenient truths.
Last week in Washington, a group of about 70 people — the generals and foot soldiers of a growing movement to devolve power to mostly poor recipients of aid in the US and abroad — came together to talk about how to turn that power dynamic of philanthropy upside down. They believe that feedback from constituents “has the potential to unleash massive, timely and necessary changes in the way social change and development are pursued,” in the words of Feedback Labs, a DC-based NGO that convened the firstFeedback Summit.
As Dennis Whittle, the executive director of Feedback Labs, has written:
Will aid and philanthropy democratize themselves? Will aid agencies and foundations cede power and sovereignty to the people they are trying to serve?
It’s too soon to say but there were signs during the two-day confab that a half-dozen or so forward-thinking foundations, along with a growing number of nonprofits, are starting to figure how to create tight feedback loops that will enable them to solicit feedback from citizens, listen, analyze and, most important, change their practices as a result of what they learn.
“It’s the right thing to do, morally and ethically, philosophically. It’s the smart thing to do,” Whittle said. Now the goal is to make it “the feasible thing to do, financially and operationally.”
How do feedback loops differ from conventional monitoring and evaluation (M&E)? One attendee told me that feedback loops are the equivalent of diagnosing and treating a disease; a conventional evaluation is more like an autopsy, and thus of limited value to the patient.
Here are three signs that the feedback movement is gathering momentum:
A group called the Fund for Shared Insight, a collaboration of foundations that makes grants to improve philanthropy, has launched an initiative called Listen for Good that intends to fund 50 nonprofits to seek feedback from the people they are trying to help. They will use the now-famous Net Promoter System methodology developed for business by Bain & Co., which is working with the fund to make sure that the simple, elegant and yet rigorous system is deployed effectively. “It needs to be a high velocity loop of feedback, learning and action,” said Vikki Tam, a Bain partner. To the extent possible, the feedback results will be made public, enabling nonprofits to compare their net promoter scores with peers. “It’s so important for foundations to be open about what they do, and what they’re learning,” said Lindsay Austin Louie, a program officer at William and Flora Hewlett Foundation who works closely with the fund. Supporters of the fund include the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the JPB Foundation, Liquidnet (which I wrote about here), the Rita Allen Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Efforts to build “good enough” feedback loops are underway, aimed at helping small or midsize NGOs measure their impact without having to undertake expensive, long-term randomized control trials. Thoai Ngo, a senior director of research at Innovations for Poverty Action, talked about an effort called The Goldilocks Project that aims to build “right-fit” evaluation systems, focusing on collecting credible, actionable data in a timely way–that is, feedback to help an NGO change course if needed. Ken Berger, the former chief executive at Charity Navigator, described his work at a firm called Algorhythm which offers impact measurement to small NGOs for as little as $750. “These are organizations that never before had an opportunity to measure what matters most,” Berger said.
Technology is making it much easier to gather feedback, and make sense of it. Louis Dorval is the co-founder of VOTO Mobile, a Ghana-based tech startup that aims to “amplify the voice of the under-heard” by using voice and text messages on mobile devices to survey citizens, as well as send one-way messages. Less than three years old, Voto Mobile has already worked with about 250 organizations, including Unicef and Innovations for Poverty Action. David Bonbright of Keystone Accountability, who is a pioneer in the feedback arena, talked about Feedback Commons, an online platform designed to allow organizations to “share and compare” the feedback they collect from their constituents.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
All these initiatives are designed to improve the development of feedback loops. Before long, NGOs should be able to show how collecting feedback generates better outcomes for their clients. That’s all to the good. Think of that as the supply side of the feedback “business.”
But what about the demand side? Who’s going to fund feedback loops? I’m still a newcomer to the development world but my impression (from reporting on water and sanitation projects, and on cookstoves) is that most foundations and NGOs are not as rigorous as they could and should be about measuring their impact.
This brings us back to the fundamental power dynamic of philanthropy, as Caroline Fiennes of Giving Evidence explained during the Feedback Summit.
“Why don’t foundations ask for feedback?” Fiennes asked. “Because they don’t have to.”
“It’s difficult and it’s a bit painful,” she went on. “If you have made a chunk of money and you want to give it away, in general you will feel good about that, and everybody will love you. Once you start asking questions” — questions designed to find out if the work is making as much of a difference as it can–“you might not like the answers.”
In an essay called What do they want? at Aeon, Claire Melamed elaborates:
While most individual aid workers do care, very much, about the people they work with and for, the actual structure of the aid business offers few reasons for anyone to worry about what aid recipients think or want. Staff in aid agencies need to think about what their funders want to pay for. For their own performance reviews, they need to think about how to demonstrate that what they are doing is achieving the best possible results with the smallest amount of money. So the incentives for spending money on expensive surveys to find out what representative samples of poor people think of their operations are just not there.
And besides, the information might be a threat. What if it turned out that people feel patronised by aid workers? Or that they would rather their food didn’t arrive with logos announcing their indebtedness to foreign governments? Or that they resent being given a T-shirt when really they would sooner just have the money? What if people don’t really want another agricultural programme, and they’d rather have a bus ticket to the nearest town and somewhere to stay when they get there? These kinds of discoveries could be quite discomfiting for the agencies themselves – though in the long run, they would presumably do a better job.”
This is why those funders (like the foundations behind the Fund for Shared Insight) who push for feedback loops and rigorous evaluation deserve a lot of credit. Let’s hope their numbers grow.
Longing to do an Ex-post Sustainability Evaluation? How to support this work…
Just back from Niger where Catholic Relief Services, Rutere Kagendo and I are doing a fascinating post-project evaluation. Fresh on my mind is the commitment we all had to make to get this quite ground-breaking research going. Here is the full report, but there are three kinds of conditions we found were integral for success: client-ValuingVoices match; project and site selection; and resources.
Client – Valuing Voices match:
The study needs to be appreciated as innovative, adding to the program quality and learning of the organization so funding is provided and there is in-house interest in the findings;
The local office needs to allocate staff and technical time to support the study technically and logistically (see below);
Shared clarity is needed among all involved that such a study looks for self-sustained activities and outcomes. While there are lessons that emerge about the quality of implementation, its focus is what participants and their country-partners could continue themselves after project close-out and withdrawal of resources. It also can include lessons about what the local non-profit and the national stakeholders are doing to support community success (or not) and unexpected outcomes. Our clients need an openness to honestly seeing what was not sustained and exploring why;
While Valuing Voices provides expertise given review of the handful of post-project and exit evaluations that exist, client is interested in sharing findings and advocating to donors to fund more of these studies;
Disseminating findings internally where a possibility of learning from this evaluation to support similar current implementation; research could help similar project learning, lessons for country nationals such as Ministries;
Prioritizing local capacity – Valuing Voices believes in using regional M&E capacity to do the work; where possible we partner with regional evaluators while also building capacity within our client's staff to carry out such work;
Sharing and discussing findings locally: Valuing Voices believes knowledge learned needs to be shared in immediate feedback loops. We present: a) to each village after each site’s research; b) to local key partners and representatives from each village at the end of the qualitative Rapid Rural Appraisal findings; c) to the non-profit in-country at the end of qualitative research and d) internationally to headquarters at the end of the combined analysis of the qualitative and quantitative research with findings in the final report.
Project and Site Selection:
Non-profit programming projects has been closed out for at least two years and no more than seven years (for recall);
No other NGO has done very similar work in the region in the intervening years;
The region selected is representative of the project as a whole (e.g. agro-ecological zones, economic/ livelihood/ health, educational or other sectoral criteria);
Research areas are secure and safe (e.g. from civil unrest, severe drought/ floods, epidemics, to the degree possible);
Timing does not interfere with urgent priorities of those involved with the study (e.g. livelihoods are not jeapordized in communities, holidays are kept, other technical work is not disrupted).
Resources (Time, Material and Project Expertise):
Time: the research is qualitative followed by quantitative, coming to 80-90 days of qualitative and quantitative research overall (roughly 5 weeks of fieldwork in teams of 4-10, analysis, report-writing and presentation;
Project and evaluation documents are available to inform and contextualize approach including activities, outcomes and projected impacts;
Data: key to the fieldwork are village and participant lists from pre-closeout days so participants can be interviewed both during a Rapid Rural Appraisal and a follow-on household survey;
Internal/external sectoral staff and at least one past project staff are part of the team to inform and ‘ground truth’ research;
Logistics support is provided by the client; from vehicle/driver and lodging support in the field to materials such as mobile phones, flipcharts, photocopying and advances;
A consultant or staff prepares the sites before the research teams come, e.g. to confirm communities are willing to be visited (each visit will be 2-5 days) and to identify participants and partners still there;
Partners familiar with the closed project can be identified so they can be interviewed by the research team;
Local language expertise is needed, e.g. translator to local language, as well as data entry personnel afterwards.
While Valuing Voices provides the technical lead experts and statistical back office analysis, including sampling and rigorous analysis, senior non-profit staff are needed in-country for contextualization and input on preliminary findings, as well as senior technical staff to review the final product;
A home for findings and on the road for dissemination: good knowledge management is needed for data retention, for the findings to have a sustainable ‘home’– be that info-graphics and print copies distributed to villages and partners or online repositories created that are language-accessible both nationally and by foreign donors; webinars, conference presentations etc are needed to optimize the learning via sustainability dissemination campaigns.
Much of this is needed for the research to be the best quality and yield the highest results. It is exciting learning is to be had from not only what communities and supporters could sustain but what they exceeded or dropped! Consider doing one to see how post-project sustainability research can improve your current implementation, future design, and long-term self-sustainability!
Pick a term, any term…but stick to it!
Valuing Voices is interested in identifying learning leaders in international development that are using participatory post-project evaluation methods to learn about the sustainability of their development projects. These organizations not only believe they need to see the sustained impact of their projects by learning from what has worked and what hasn’t in the past, but also that participants are the most knowledgeable about such impacts. So how do they define sustainability? This is determined by asking questions such as the following: were project goals self-sustained by the ‘beneficiary’ communities that implemented these projects? By our VV definition, self-sustainability can only be determined by going back to the project site, 2-5 years after project closeout, to speak directly with the community about the long-term intended/unintended impacts.
Naturally, we turned to the World Bank (WB) – the world’s prominent development institution – to see if this powerhouse of development, both in terms of annual monetary investment and global breadth of influence, has effectively involved local communities in the evaluation of sustainable (or unsustainable) outcomes. Specifically, my research was focused on identifying the degree to which participatory post-project evaluation was happening at the WB.
A fantastic blog* regarding participatory evaluation methods at the WB emphasizes the WB’s stated desire to improve development effectiveness by “ensuring all views are considered in participatory evaluation,” particularly through its community driven development projects. As Heider points out,
“The World Bank Group wants to improve its development effectiveness by, among others things, engaging citizens throughout the operational project cycle. It has set itself an ambitious target: 100% citizen engagement in projects that have clearly identifiable beneficiaries.”
Wow! Though these methods are clearly well intentioned, there seems to be a flaw in the terminology. The IEG says, “[Community driven development projects] are based on beneficiary participation from design through implementation, which make them a good example of citizen-centered assessment techniques in evaluation,” …however, this fails to recognize the importance of planning for community-driven post-project sustainability evaluations, to be conducted by the organization in order to collect valuable data concerning the long-term intended/unintended impacts of development work.
With the intention of identifying evidence of the above-mentioned mode of evaluation at the WB, my research process involved analyzing the resources provided by the WB’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) database of evaluations. As the accountability branch of the World Bank Group, the IEG works to gather institution-wide knowledge about the outcomes of the WBs finished projects. Its mission statement is as follows:
“The goals of evaluation are to learn from experience, to provide an objective basis for assessing the results of the Bank Group’s work, and to provide accountability in the achievement of its objectives. It also improves Bank Group work by identifying and disseminating the lessons learned from experience and by framing recommendations drawn from evaluation findings.”
Another important function of the IEG database is to provide information for the public and external development organizations to access and learn from; this wealth of data and information about the World Bank’s findings is freely accessible online.
When searching for evidence of post-project learning, I was surprised to find that the taxonomy varied greatly; e.g. projects I was looking for could be found under ‘post-project’, post project’, ‘ex-post’ or ‘ex post’. What was also unclear was any specific category under which these could be found, including a definition of what exactly is required in an IEG ex post impact evaluation. According to the IEG, there are 13 major evaluation categories, which are described in more detail here. I was expecting to find an explicit category dedicated to post-project sustainability, but instead this type of evaluation was included under Project Level Evaluations (which include PPARs and ICRs [Implementation Completion Reports]), and Impact evaluations.
This made it difficult to determine a clear procedural standard for documents reporting sustainability outcomes and other important data for the entire WB.
I began my research process by simply querying a few key terms into the database. In the first step of my research, which will be elaborated upon in Part I in this blog series, I attempted to identify evidence of ex post sustainability evaluation at the IEG by searching for the term “post-project” in the database, which yielded 73 results when using a hyphen and 953 results without using a hyphen. I found it interesting the inconsistency in the number of results depending on the use of a hyphen, but in order to narrow the search parameters to conduct a manageable content analysis of the documents, I chose to breakdown these 73 results by document type to determine if there are any examples of primary fieldwork research. In these documents, the term “post-project” was not used in the title of the documents or referenced in the executive summary as the specific aim of the evaluation, but rather used to loosely define the ex post time frame. Figure 1 illustrates the breakdown of document types found in the sample of 73 documents that came up when I searched for the key term “post-project”:
Figure 1: Breakdown by Document Type out of Total 73 Results when searching post-project
As the chart suggests, many of the documents (56% – which accounts for all of the pie chart slices except Project Level Evaluations) were purely desk studies – evaluating WB programs and the overall effectiveness of organization policies. These desk studies draw data from existing reports, such as those published at project closeout, without supplementing past data with new fieldwork research.
Out of the 9 categories, the only document type that showed evidence of any follow up evaluations were the Project Performance Assessment Reports (PPARs), defined by the IEG as documents that are…
“…based on a review of the Implementation Completion Report (a self-evaluation by the responsible Bank department) and fieldwork conducted by OED [Operations Evaluation Department]. To prepare PPARs, OED staff examines project files and other documents, interview operational staff, and in most cases visit the borrowing country for onsite discussions with project staff and beneficiaries. The PPAR thereby seeks to validate and augment the information provided in the ICR, as well as examine issues of special interest to broader OED studies.”
Bingo. This is what we’re looking for. The PPARs accounted for 32 out of the 73 results, or a total of 44%. As I examined the methodology used to conduct PPARs, I found that in the 32 cases that came up when I searched for “post-project”, after Bank funds were “fully dispersed to a project” and resources were withdrawn, the IEG sent a post-project mission back into the field to collaborate on new M&E with local stakeholders and beneficiaries. The IEG gathered new data through the use of field surveys or interviews to determine project effectiveness.
Based on these findings, I conducted a supplementary search of the term “ex post”, which yielded 672 results. From this search, 11 documents were categorized by the IEG as “Impact Evaluations”, of which 3 showed evidence of talking with participants to evaluate for sustainability outcomes. In follow-up blogs in this series I will elaborate upon the significance of these additional findings and go into greater detail regarding the quality of the data in these 32 PPARs, but here are a few key takeaways from this preliminary research:
Taxonomy and definition of ex-post is missing. After committing approximately 15-20 hours of research time to this content analysis, it is clear that navigating the IEG database to search for methodology standards to evaluate for sustainability is a more complicated process than it should be for such a prominent learning institution. The vague taxonomy used to categorize post-project/ex-post evaluation by the WB limits the functionality of this resource as a public archive dedicated to informing the sustainability of development projects the World Bank has funded.
Despite affirmative evidence of participatory community involvement in the post-project evaluation of WB projects, not all PPARs in the IEG database demonstrated a uniform level of ‘beneficiary’ participation. In most cases, it was unclear how many community members impacted by the project were really involved in the ex-post process, which made it difficult to determine even a general range of the number of participants involved in post-project activity at the WB.
Although PPARs report findings based, in part, on post-project missions (as indicated in the preface of the reports), the specific methods/structure of the processes were not described, and oftentimes the participants were not explicitly referenced in the reports. (More detailed analysis on this topic to come in Blog Series Part 2!)
These surprisingly inconsistent approaches make it difficult to compare results across this evaluation type, as there is no precise status quo.
Finally, the World Bank, which has funded 12,000 projects since its inception, should have far more than 73 post-project/ ex-post evaluations…but maybe I’m just quibbling with terms.
Stay tuned for PART II of this series, coming soon!
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?