“What IS Sustainability?” It depends on whom you ask: OECD, the UN, or Harvard Business School
Recently I’ve had conversations where I had to define which sustainability we were talking about. Was it:
ex-post-project sustainability of outcomes and impacts,
environmental sustainability, or
Since I spend most of my time evaluating the ex-post sustained and emerging impacts of foreign aid projects years after projects close, or at least advocate for it, let’s start there.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a “forum and knowledge hub for data and analysis, exchange of experiences, best-practice sharing, and advice on public policies and international standard-setting.” Regarding evaluation specifically, the OECD has “established common definitions for six evaluation criteria – relevance, coherence, effectiveness, efficiency, impact, and sustainability – to support consistent, high-quality evaluation”. Focusing on long-term sustainability, their evaluation guidance is:
The good news is that in this recent publication on Applying Evaluation Criteria Thoughtfully (2021), OECD keeps the updated definition but inches towards recommending actual ex-post project sustainability evaluation, rather than just projected (and assumed “likely to continue” sustainability). For this, “likely” is the most significant reason evaluators for donors and implementers have assumed, rather than evaluated, sustainability for decades. Further, positive, ‘sustained’ trajectories are also assumed at close-out/ exit, but rarely tested ex-post.
The OECD criteria give not evaluating it as an option. I far prefer “net benefits of the intervention continue” as it is a marching order: Prove that results were sustained. In this evolution, this 2021 report states, “After the completion of the intervention, and evaluation of sustainability would look at whether or not the benefits did continue, this time drawing on data and evidence from the intervention’s actual achieved benefits.”
OECD even goes on to recommend implementing and monitoring for sustainability. The new piece de resistance is: “Sustainability should be considered at each point of the results chain and the project cycle of an intervention”:
“The sustainability of inputs (financial or otherwise) after the end of the intervention and the sustainability of impacts in the broader context of the intervention…. as well as whether there was willingness and capacity to sustain financing (resources) at the end of the intervention
For example, an evaluation could assess whether an intervention considered partner capacities
Built ownership at the beginning of the implementation period…. And
In general, evaluators can examine the conditions for sustainability that were or were not created in the design of the intervention and by the intervention activities and whether there was adaptation where required.”
Moreover, while the 2019 OECD report mentioned resilience in passing, related to sustainability, “encourages analysis of potential trade-offs, and of the resilience of capacities/ systemsunderlying the continuation of benefits”. Such resilience and continuation of benefits evaluation involve examining huge systems (the financial, economic, social, environmental, and institutional capacities) that projects and programs are implemented within, whose stability is needed to sustain net benefits over time. Yes, for ex-post sustainability questions for evaluators to consider should include: “To what extent did the intervention contribute to strengthening the resilience of particularly disadvantaged or vulnerable groups” on which the sustained impacts of so much of our “Leave No One Behind” myth of Sustainable Development rely.
However, OECD makes suggestions to evaluate even broader, overwhelming what is feasible: “…this involves analyses of resilience, risks, and potential trade-offs.” Whose? All stakeholders, from participants to local partners and national and international implementers, and international donors? How far back and how far forward? What a huge undertaking. Further, the OECD points evaluators to define resilience, but as I learned in my Famine Early Warning System research and a current ex-post evaluation process for the Adaptation Fund, that involves creating evaluable boundaries by determining resilient to what kinds of shocks?Vital questions current industry monitoring and evaluation budgets for all evaluations, much less (too-rare) ex-post project evaluations, are insufficient for as they hover around 3-5% of total costs.
Slight progress at OECD is being made by acknowledging environmental sustainability first brought up by the Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future” back in 1987. This linchpin report highlighted that “critical global environmental problems were primarily the result of the enormous poverty of the South and the non-sustainable patterns of consumption and production in the North. It called for a strategy that united development and the environment – described by the now-common term “sustainable development”… that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
While an OECD brief in 2008 considers the environmental aspects of our thinking about sustainability, it argues that sustainability primarily about “using economic development to foster a fairer society while respecting ecosystems and natural resources.” The 2021 Applying Evaluation Criteria Thoughtfully rather unhelpfully mostly ignores the environment’s role in sustainability: “Confusion can arise between sustainability in the sense of the continuation of results, and environmental sustainability or the use of resources for future generations. While environmental sustainability is a concern (and maybe examined under several criteria, including relevance, coherence, impact, and sustainability), the primary meaning of the criteria is not about environmental sustainability as such; when describing sustainability, evaluators should be clear on how they are interpreting the criterion.” Given rapid climate change, I would argue that any sustained and emerging outcomes and impacts of projects that does not include an evaluation of the environmental context will fail to foster sustained resilience.Yet donors’ fixed funding timeframes that set completion to disbursement without evaluating sustainability or resilience continue to be huge barriers.
Finally, business sustainability brings together these impacts on communities and society along with impacts on the environment. These are called ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria. A Harvard Business School brief defines sustainability as “doing business without negatively impacting the environment, community, or society as a whole. “Where applied well, the aspiration is that “beyond helping curb global challenges, sustainability can drive business success.” While Harvard Business Review highlights “What Works’ in Calculating the Value of Impact Investing, they are, like almost all of global development ‘while- we-are-there’-measures. There is one mention of ‘terminal value’, 5 years after close of ownership, and they estimate social return on investments. This is a good, step, but as insufficient as foreign aid – for these are projected, not actual results.
At Valuing Voices, we have found hopeful examples such as IKEA as well as where ‘impact investing’ hype does not match the claims. Nonetheless, increasingly businesses are trying to consider circular economy systemic principles of “economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment.” This is regenerative, aims to decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources, not generate excess waste that cannot be reused and actuals seem to be measured at least during investments. As Harvard notes, “this leads investors to look at factors such as a company’s carbon footprint, water usage (both Environment), community development efforts (Social), and board diversity (Governance).” We encourage them to measure long-term/ longitudinally. A current Harvard Business Review sobering article on the ineffectiveness so far of measuring environmental sustainability and ESG. “…reporting is not a proxy for progress. Measurement is often nonstandard, incomplete, imprecise, and misleading. And headlines touting new milestones in disclosure and socially responsible investment are often just fanciful ‘greenwishing’”.
Australia’s RMIT defines business sustainability as comprising 4 pillars: Human, Social, Economic, and Environmental which combines a) “Human sustainability focuses on the importance of anyone directly or indirectly involved in the making of products, or provision of services or broader stakeholders;… b) Social sustainability focuses on maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people;… c) Economic sustainability aims to improve the standard of living [and] the efficient use of assets to maintain company profitability over time;… d) Environmental sustainability places emphasis on how business can achieve positive economic outcomes without doing any harm, in the short- or long-term, to the environment.” But how well measured?!
Would ESG success be sustained over the long-term rather than short-term shareholder profit cycles? Will the OECD start to recommend extensive ex-post evaluation? Will they develop guidance to incorporate environmental concerns in evaluation for our common good? I do not yet know, but I implore these silos to start talking. No time to waste!
As my colleague and collaborator Susan Legro commented, we need to:
1) Continue to seek clarity and specificity in the terminology that we use, ensuring that it is clear to all stakeholders and beneficiaries; and
2) Find ways to study projects and initiatives over the longer term, which is the only way to study the designation of “sustainable” for any initiatives seeking that label.
Did we make enough time and measurement to foster sustainability, as we phased-down and phased-over an array of activities, alongside those remaining (white paper forthcoming)? Did we abruptly phase-out leaving partners and participants at a loss? Sharing power over all these decisions will influence what lasts.
There is an amazing breadth of local, ongoing resources, skills & capacities, linkages, motivation (thanks to Tufts FHI360’s work for USAID’s Food For Peace) that we can explore and learn from. There are local innovations and an array of unplanned collaborations (e.g., funding for health staff (Niger), training in small enterprise from the national government (Bangladesh), or private sector markets (Ethiopia) that can be accessed when partnerships are transparent and created one or more years pre-exit to collaborate on post-exit.
Ideally, we design and implement for exit from the onset. When we jointly set the timeframe and jointly assess risks to sustainability and adaptively manage exit, rather than exit based on pre-set timeframes, all sides win, with partners and participants able to foster sustainability. As USAID/ GIIN wrote about Responsible Exits for Impact Investors (2018), “the foundations for a responsible exit are laid even before an investment is made. To increase the likelihood of continued impact after exit, investors often select investees based on whether impact is embedded in their business model or inextricably linked to financial success. They also seek to understand the likely growth trajectory of the business, which has implications for which exit paths and options will become available.” They also note that a “growth strategy’ is needed throughout and at (investment) exit is “a company’s continued access to the right resources, networks, and knowledge” for sustained impact.
The need for a thoughtful approach to sustainability is shown by Hiller, Guthrie, and Jones in “Overcoming Ex-Post Development Stagnation“ (2016). The authors cite “limited evidence of program efficacies coupled with government and agency preference for planning, approval, and implementation processes rather than sustainment of outputs, outcomes, and impacts means that ex-post performance, scaling, and sustainability is not well understood or well pursued…. [There is a] lack of willingness to commit time and resources to rigorous evaluation of post-project effectiveness“. This affects a vast number of projects. For instance, they found 63,000 projects in 2003 alone, and “relative to the number of development projects undertaken, ex-post project [evaluations] are not commonly carried out, meaning that rates of success are often unknown and the complexity of causalities and ex-post dynamics of interactions and processes are not well understood.“ This limits our learning from what has (not) worked and what to do more (or less) of, including those that could not be sustained with only local resources.
We make sustainability assumptions are participants long for them, as Valuing Voices also found. Hiller et al. state that “whilst project documentation commonly conveys an expectation that some process of spread will occur ex-post, it rarely does, despite strong ex-post case-study evidence of stakeholder requests for further development opportunities.” This cautionary feedback could mean some project activities could be so resource-intensive that they could not feasibly be sustained or spread without long-term support, and retaining results may be limited to less costly activities. Valuing Voices found that other activities could be remunerative enough (financially, in health or education outcomes, for instance), as to be locally demanded and continued to be pursued. We have found in our Valuing Voices research and the Tufts research that activities where incentives did not continue, tended to die ex-post, while those which continued to bring benefits, such as cash crops and credit, water supply, and health, were prioritized ex-post, even in the absence of external funding continuing.
Hiller et al. outline that there are multiple ways in which scaling-up environmental sustainability over time, over area and, interestingly, scaling-within projects. The Ex-post Development Stagnation authors are clear that “creating conditions to support longer-term sustainability beyond project completion represents a recurring challenge, and it is not uncommon for activities and institutions to become inactive ex-post or for stakeholders to revert to previously unsustainable practices.” They note that some watershed studies have even found that participants actively destroy project measures in some cases. Certainly, the inability of locals to sustain often expensive activities without a project or larger organization’s support is common. “If it is assumed that development needs remain outstanding, then there may be merit in ensuring that development projects do not just remain “isolated, one-time interventions, like unconnected dots on a white page” or “islands of salvation.” The authors concur, “based on project subsidiarity and participatory principles, scaling-within management should be devolved to the local level (local authorities and local communities) to allow communities and individuals to filter out irrelevant practices and encourage adaptation and evolution of activities which are of greatest perceived livelihood benefit”.
As Valuing Voices research on exit has shown, it is a process, not an event(forthcoming, with thanks to I. Davies). The Hiller article notes that sustainability is best enhanced by capacity-building during implementation and with time for handover where “organizations adopt modes of functioning that allow local communities and organizations to build conceptual, operational, and institutional capacities. While scaling-down does not mean that governments disengage from processes such as community-driven development — it does, however, require it to be more flexible and responsive to locally generated demand to ensure the terrain is fertile for community organizations to emerge, learn, and grow.“
Let’s work together to extend the sustainability of impacts. Would love to hear your thoughts…
Assuming Sustainability and Impact is Dangerous to Development
(+ OECD/ DAC evaluation criteria)
We all do it; well, I used to do it too. I used to assume that if I helped my field staff and partners target and design funded projects well enough, and try to ensure a high quality of implementation and M&E, then it would result in sustainable programming. I assumed we would have moved our participants and partners toward projected long-term, top-of-logical-framework’s aspirational impact such as “vibrant agriculture leading to no hunger”, “locally sustained maternal child health and nutrition”, “self-sustained ecosystems”.
INTRAC nicely differentiates between what is typically measured (“outputs can only ever be the deliverables of a project or programme…that are largely within the control of an agency”) and what is not: “impact as the lasting or significant changes in people’s lives brought about by an intervention or interventions” . They continue: “as few organisations are really judged on their impact, the OECD DAC impact definition (“positive and negative, primary and secondary long-term effects produced by a development intervention, directly or indirectly, intended or unintended“) allows for long-term changes in institutional capacity or policy change to be classed as impact” . Do we do this? Virtually never. 99% of the time we only evaluate what happened while the project and its results is under the control of the aid implementer. Yet the five OECD/DAC evaluation criteria asks us to evaluate relevance, effectiveness, efficiency (fair enough, this is important to know if a project was good) and also impact and sustainability. So in addition to the prescription to evaluate ‘long-term effects’ (impact), evaluators are to measure “whether the benefits of an activity are likely to continue after donor funding has been withdrawn… [including being] environmentally as well as financially sustainable” .
How do we know we are getting to sustained outcomes and impacts? We ask people on the receiving end ideally after projects end. It is dangerous to assume sustainability and impact, and assume positive development trajectories (Sridharan) unless we consistently do “ex-post” project evaluations such as these from our research or catalytic organizations that have done at least one ex-post. At very minimum we should evaluate projected sustainability at end of project with those tasked to sustain it before the same project is repeated. Unfortunately we rarely do so and the assumed sustainability is so often not borne out, as I presented at the European Evaluation Society conference Sustainability panel two weeks ago along with AusAid’s DFAT, the World Bank, University College London and UNFEM.
Will we ever know if we have gotten to sustained impacts? Not unless the OECD/DAC criteria are drastically updated and organizations evaluate most projects ex-post (not just good ones :)), learn from the results and fund and implement for country-led sustainability with the country nationals. We must, as Sanjeev Sridharan tells us in a forthcoming paper embed sustainability into our Theories of Change from the onset (“Till time (and poor planning) do us part: Programs as dynamic systems — Incorporating planning of sustainability into theories of change” (Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 2018).*
There are remarkable assumptions routinely made. Many projects put sustainability into the proposal, yet most close out projects in the last 6 months. Rarely do projects take the time to properly phase down or phase over (unlike CRS Niger); many exit ceremonially ‘handing over’ projects to country-nationals, disposing project assets, and leaving only a final report behind. Alternatively, this USAID Uganda CDCS Country Transition Plan which looks over 20 years in the future by when it assumes to have accomplished sustained impact for exit . Maybe they will measure progress towards that goal and orient programs toward handover, as in the new USAID “Journey to Self-Reliance” – we hope! Truly, we can plan to exit, but only when data bears out our sustained impact, not when the money or political will runs out.
As OXFAM’s blog today on the evaluation criteria says, “Sustainability is often treated as an assessment of whether an output is likely to be sustained after the end of the project. No one, well, hardly anyone, ever measures sustainability in terms of understanding whether we are meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need” and “too often in development we evaluate a project or programme and claim impact in a very narrow sense rather than the broader ecology beyond project or programme parameters” . In fact, most ‘impact evaluations’ actually test effectiveness rather than long-term impact. Too rarely do we test impact assumptions by returning 2-10 years later and gather proof of what impacted locals’ lives sustainably, much less – importantly – what emerged from their own efforts once we left (SEIEs)! Oh, our hubris.
if you’re interested in the European Evaluation Society’s DAC criteria update discussion, see flagship discussion and Zenda Offir’s blog which stresses the need for better design that include ownership, inclusivity, empowerment . These new evaluation criteria need to be updated, including Florence Etta’s and AGDEN‘s additional criteria participation, non-discrimination and accountability!
We can no longer afford to spend resources without listening to our true clients – those tasked with sustaining the impacts after we pack up – our partners and participants. We can no longer fund what cannot be proven to be sustained that is impactful. We talk about effectiveness and country ownership (which is paramount for sustainability and long-term impact), with an OECD report (2018) found “increases [in[ aid effectiveness by reducing transaction costs and improving recipient countries ownership” . Yet donor governments who ‘tie’ aid to their own country national’s contracts benefit a staggering amount from ‘aid’ given. “Australia and the United Kingdom both reported … 93 percent and 90 percent of the value of their contracts respectively went to their own firms” . It is not so different in the USA where aid is becoming bureaucratically centralized in the hands of a few for-profit contractors and centralized hundreds of millions in a handful of contracts. We must Do Development Differently. We can’t be the prime beneficiaries of our own aid; accountability must be to our participants; is it their countries, not our projects, and we cannot keep dangerously assuming sustained impact. Please let us know what you think…
Setting a higher bar: Sustained Impacts are about All of us
Global development aid has a problem which may already affect impact investing as well.
It is that we think it’s really all about us (individuals, wealthy donors and INGO implementers) not all of us (you, me, and project participants, their partners and governments). It’s also about us for a short time.
All too often, the measurable results we in global development aid and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funded projects that last 1-5 years track and report data for two reasons:
2) Fund recipients and the participants they serve are accountable to ‘our’ donors and implementers who take what happened through their philanthropic grants as ‘their’ results.
Both can skew how sustainably we get to create impacts. An example of such strictures on sustainability from USAID. As respected CGDev Elliot and Dunning researchers found in 2016 when assessing the ‘US Feed the Future Initiative: A New Approach to Food Security?‘ the $10.15 billion leveraged $20 billion from other funders for disbursement over three years (2013-16). “We are concerned that pressure to demonstrate results in the short termmay undermine efforts to ensure any impact is sustainable…. Unfortunately, the pressure to show immediate results can encourage pursuit of agricultural investments unlikely to be sustained. For example, a common response to low productivity is to subsidize or facilitate access to improved inputs… it can deliver a quick payoff… however, if the subsidies become too expensive and are eliminated or reduced, fertilizer use and yields often fall…..
With so much focus on reporting early and often about the progress in implementing the initiative, there is a risk that it increases the pressure to disburse quickly and in ways that may not produce sustainable results. For example, for 2014, Feed the Future reports that nearly 7 million farmers applied “improved technologies or management practices as a result of U.S. Government assistance,” but only 1,300 received “long-term agricultural sector productivity.” Are the millions of others that are using improved inputs or management practices because of subsidies likely to have these practices sustained? And how likely are they to continue using improved practices once the project ends?”
3) Impact investors stick to the same two paths-to-results and add a new objective: market-competitive financial returns. They also need to show short-term results to their investors, albeit with social, environmental and governance results like non-profits (future blog).
4) Altruists create things we want ‘beneficiaries’ (our participants) to have. For instance a plethora of apps for refugees cropped up in recent years, over 5,000 it is estimated, which can be appropriate, nor not so helpful. Much like #2 above, ‘we’re’ helping ‘them’ but again, it seems to be a ‘give a man a fish’… and my fish is cool sort of solution… but do our participants want/ need this?
How often is our work-for-change mostly about us/by us/ for us... when ideally it is mostly about ‘them’ (OK, given human self-interest, shouldn’t changes we want at least be about all of us?).
All too often we want to be the solution but really, our ‘grassroots’ clients who are our true customers need to generate their own solution. Best if we listen and we design for long-term sustainability together?
As the Brilliant Sidekick Manifesto stated in two of its ten steps: a) “I will step out of the spotlight: Sustainable solutions to poverty come from within are bottom-up, and flow from local leaders who are taking the risks of holding their politicians accountable and challenging the status quo.”
b) “I will read “To Hell with Good Intentions” again and again: Politicians, celebrities and billionaire philanthropists will tell me that I can be a hero. I cannot. The poor are not powerless or waiting to be saved. Illich will check my delusions of grandeur.”
We have examples of where we have stepped away and participants had to fend for themselves. At Valuing Voices, we’ve done post project-exit evaluations 2-15 years afterward. What did participants value so much that they sustained it themselves (all about them, literally)? These Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluations (SEIE)also give us indications of Sustained ROI (Sustained Return on Investment (SusROI) is a key missing metric. As respected evaluator Ricardo Wilson-Grau said in an email, “I think calculating cost-effectiveness of an intervention’s outcomes would be a wonderful challenge for a financial officer searching for new challenges — if not a Nobel prize in economics!”)
Most of these evaluations are pretty bad news mixed with some good news about what folks could sustain after we left, couldn’t and why not. (These are the ones folks expect to have great results, otherwise they wouldn’t share them!) While most clients are understandably interested in what of ‘theirs’ was still standing, and it was interesting disentangling where the results were attributable by implementation or design or partnership flaws or something else, what was mesmerizing was what came from ‘them’.
The key is looking beyond ‘unexpected’ results to look at emerging impacts that are about ‘them’ (aka what we didn’t expect that was a direct result of our project, e.g. spare parts were no longer available to fix the water well pump once we left or a drought rehabilitation water project that decreased violence against women), to what emerging results are attributable not to use but only to our participants and partners who took over after our projects closed.One example is a Nepalese project ended yet the credit groups of empowered women spawned groups of support groups for battered women. Another is a child maternal health project changed how it worked as women reverted to birthing at home after NGOs left; community leaders punished both parents with incarceration in the health clinic for a week if they didn’t given birth there (wow did that work to sustain behavior change of both parents!).
Many of us at Valuing Voices are shocked that funders don’t seem that interested in this, as this is where they not only take over (viz picture, sustaining the project themselves), but they are making it theirs, not ours. Imagine assuming the point of development is to BE SUSTAINABLE.
Source: Community Life Competence
Our participants and national stakeholder partners are our true clients, yet… Feedback Labs tell us Americans alone gave $358 billion to charities(equivalent to the 2014 GDP of 20 countries) – in 2014 but how much of this was determined by what ‘beneficiaries’ want? Josh Woodard, a development expert, suggests a vouchers approach where our true clients, our participants, who would “purchase services from those competing organizations… [such an] approach to development would enable us all to see what services people actually value and want. And when we asked ourselves what our clients want, we would really mean the individuals in the communities we are in the business of working with and serving. Otherwise we’d be out of business pretty quickly.”
This opens the door to client feedback – imagine if participants could use social media to rate the sustained impacts on them of the projects they benefited from? A customer support expert wrote in Forbes, “Today, every customer has, or feels she has, a vote in how companies do business and treat customers. This is part of a new set of expectations among customers today that will only grow ... you can’t control product ratings, product discussions or much else in the way of reviews, except by providing the best customer experience possible and by being proactive in responding to negative trends that come to the surface in your reviews and ratings stronger.”
So how well are we working with our participants for ‘development’ to be about them?
Impact Investing – International Development’s New Holy Grail?
There are so many things I love about the private sector such as Forbes 18 Dec Quote of the Day: “You’re going to be wrong a fair amount of times. So the issue is, how do you be wrong well?” asked Ray Dalio, Founder of Bridgewater Associate. This is a key issue for impact investors and international ‘developers’ alike.
International development suffers from the myth that failure must be downplayed. Too often only success is highlighted, whereas project shortcomings are framed as: “less successful” “numerous issues affected a less optimal…” Yet by downplaying the less great (Aka awful) results we miss vital learning that private sector expects, learns from and integrates toward the greater success. Why? Many in foreign aid believe (rightly?) such admissions might endanger winning more funding for more projects. Even as recently as 2014, U.S. foreign aid industry websites such as DevEx are still posting: “One can be forgiven for forming the impression that our development efforts are nearly perfect if typical annual reports, scientific conferences and event social media content are the basis for information. Successes are proudly packaged in glossy formats and heavily disseminated, whereas any objectives not achieved are relegated to the obligatory, and typically short, lessons learned section. This practice does not accurately represent an important reality: development efforts do in fact fail” .
Admitting failure, posting failure reports are awfully rare in international development, but how bad is it? The Asian Development Bank wrote in a large overview of the sustainability of post-project 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” . A 2017 Cambridge University study found that “using an original database of over 14,000 small development projects in Ghana, I estimate that one-third of projects that start are never completed, consuming nearly one-fifth of all local government investment” . Even when they do start, complete, and even have salutary results at the end of the project, Valuing Voices research shows quick declines toward failures in as little as two years post exit, such as these post-project results at the AEA 2017 conference. The foreign aid industry is so focused on showing results while conditions are (relatively) conducive, that far fewer than 1% of all projects are evaluated for what was still standing in as little as two years after project closeout, and those are mostly those projects expected to be successful. Sustainable, long-term results suffer from what CGDev researchers are concerned “that pressure to demonstrate results in the short term may undermine efforts to ensure any impact is sustainable….Unfortunately, the pressure to show immediate results can encourage pursuit of agricultural investments unlikely to be sustained” . Luckily there’s a place to go. DevEx reminds us that “Venture capitalists and corporate investors understand that less than 20 percent of new businesses will succeed,” hence my love of the private sector’s admitting, learning and improving that ‘aid’ needs .
As a former investment banker (Solomon Brothers) and management consultant (Price Waterhouse & Coopers and Lybrand), I know that the corporates care for results, and do not shy away from pulling money from where things don’t work and put it where they do. 30 years in international development showed me that rigid bureaucracies and fixed ‘project cycles’ and an industry focused on ‘getting money out the door’ lead to a focus on accounting for all funds, but not for changing lives over the long term. Virtually no one calculates return on (our) investment compared to the cost of projects, especially including the value of what projects generate and participants can sustain.
I am quite fervently hoping Impact Investors focused on financial ROI to firms and investors as well asSocial Return on Investment will step in, fund gathering and learning from the whole range of ‘returns’. Will they share both financial profits/ losses and feedback from the whole social ‘value chain’ of stakeholders of those involved on what succeeds and fails? Will investors learn from national partners and participants on what should be done better? If yes, all of us will win. I am heartened by cautiously optimistic statements such as Next Billion’s “a core characteristic and challenge of impact investing is the measurement and management of social and environmental impacts alongside financial returns. Development cooperation and impact investing communities can build on their respective experience in results measurement and learn from and with each other” . We can IF we are going to the same place.
From my early look at impact investing, it is a ‘game changer’ with $250 billion in assets looking for a profitable home . UBS Asset Manager Baldinger says “In the past you sold products to your client, now you empower your client to create a desired impact. As an industry, we’ve had to rethink everything we do — impact and sustainability is the Silicon Valley of finance and we want to be the Google” . These are happy words to someone focused on sustained (and emerging) impacts but among impact investors, so far, ‘impact’ seems to be thrown about as specifically as ‘results’, and GIIN ‘sustainability’ metrics are so wide ranging as to illuminate less quality than quantity. So far, much of their metrics look more like outputs relevant to companies (‘clients served’, ‘new investment capital’) that results of SROI. While there is something to be said about measures of ‘organizations trained’, ‘poverty assessments’ done, at least as a start, yet does ‘gross profit’ indicate that corner of the world is better off (and does this measure the investment into the enterprise, or is this of the investment fund itself)? Does ‘communities served’ and ‘social impact objectives’ illuminate the quality of the impact on lives changed? Is anyone asking how long-lasting, and sustained these investments, measuring what I call SUStained Return on Investment (SUSROI), will be after these investors leave (which is what I suspect most investment participants and millennial investors think they’re buying)?
This is the start of a series of blogs exploring how we who care about generating and evaluating sustained impacts can learn from, inform, (gasp) shape impact investing’s gargantuan footprint in international development. Powerhouses such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and Soros are looking, teaching, investing, and all public and private equity as well as a whole range of other investors now invest in this new hybrid . Who else is? What can we learn to make the world better? What do you think: Is impact investing development’s holy grail?
We had a stirring conversation here in D.C. with someone very knowledgeable about sustainability; this person is a strong proponent of local ownership of all development. They also said vehemently, why evaluate the sustainability of projects after closeout; we all know what that will show! What was implied is that our system of international development and aid is so flawed, so broken, that the inevitable result of not focusing on local ownership as the fundamental basis for our work means Nothing. Will. Be. Left…. All. Is. Lost.
We disagree. Our development industry does some good, some bad, and is ever-changing (albeit slowly). Billions of dollars each year are spent trying to improve people's lives and livelihoods around the world, and we've seen great good be done. While. We. Remain.
We know far, far less about what remains after our projects end because less than 1% of the time we return post-project (ex-post) to evaluate anything.
Our problem with time begins with fixed timelines within projects that say we have 1, 3, 5 years to get to success. They work with participants and partners who need to make substantial changes to how they use their resources and beliefs over a relatively short time of a few months to a few years. We expect immediate results from them, changing how they farm (use new seeds, new methods, new ways of interacting with markets) and save money (learn new concepts of profit and interest, repayment and re-lending), and improve their health and that of their families (get prenatal exams, vaccinate your children, exclusively breastfeed without adding water or tea). Everyone in our projects is 'on the clock' from the donor and implementer to partners and participants. This clock ticks down irrevocably as project closeout looms, promised-successes-to-donors at hand or a mirage in the distance. We assume sustained results.
How many of us have ever gone on a diet? How many have learned a new language? How many of us have transferred jobs and had to learn new skills on the job? How quickly have we managed to do all that successfully, all at once?! Probably many. How many of you have had to do this on a fixed timeline? Were you successful when there was a limited, fixed time and you did not set your own pace?
It takes time to implement projects well enough to ensure that most participants ‘got it’, not just the 'early adopters'. It takes time to hand over projects so well that our partners and participants are ready to take over at least some of what we worked so hard to transfer. It took leadership and staff two years in the very successful participatory USAID/ Food For Peace food security project by CRS Niger that was a continuation of similar programming for 15 years. It also takes time to pass for conditions to be ready for our return, to isolate what people could self-sustain from what the project supplied, to learn what was so well designed and implemented during projects that to 'took root' in people's lives, that they have made it their own. We estimate optimal evaluation time is 2-7 years after closeout. Valuing Voices also believes we should not just evaluate the sustainability of outputs and outcomes of what we put in place that we thought they would continue, and the sustained impact of those cumulative investments, but also the emerging, unintended new activities and impacts we never imagined people would innovate from our projects. We are doing just such evaluations in Zimbabwe and Uganda now and hope to do and catalyze much more fieldwork around the world.
And why does it matter? Why shouldn't we write off our time-limited donor-funded projects? Because:
1) It's all we've got. Our current development system is not going anywhere soon, and there is success to learn from.
2) We need to quickly learn fromwhat worked sustainably best and stop wasting time and resources on what we refuse to admit fails because we are too scared to return to see. Go back with the intention to learn what does and focus on doing more of what works.
3) Such analysis – and design of new projects –must have country ownership as a centerpiece throughout the project cycle assumptions, but to throw out decades of good work simply because we are just learning the value of country ownership is foolish.
Finally, here's a lovely example from Brazil of how local, participation (and yes, as my colleague thought, local ownership) works best. And. It. Takes. Time.
"Our results also show that Participatory Budgeting’s influence strengthens over time… Participatory Budgeting’s increasing impact indicates that governments, citizens, and civil society organizations are building new institutions… cities incorporate citizens at multiple moments of the policy process, allowing community leaders and public officials to exchange better information." How often do we return to do what are called longitudinal reviews of our work abroad, using the same rigorous standards we evaluate our domestic projects? Not often. Shouldn't that change?
Only by working together, honoring the value of our participants, that they deserve the same chance at change that we take for granted will things change. We must value both the voices of our participants and our own expertise for development to improve for true aid effectiveness…. Let us begin anew!
Jindra Cekan, Ph.D. has used participatory methods for 30 years to connect with participants, ranging from villagers in Africa, Central/ Latin America and the Balkans to policy makers and Ministers around the world for her international clients. Their voices have informed the new Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation, other M&E, stakeholder analysis, strategic planning, knowledge management and organizational learning.
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