At the Prague European Summit I was invited to last week, sustainability was on the program three times. The most relevant session was Towards a More Sustainable and Prosperous European and Global Economy through Trade and Investments, pictured below.
I asked Panelists like Sabine Weyand, Director General for Trade at the European Commission, to define Sustainability. She defined it as actions the EU is taking, including mutually reinforcing Twin Transitions (Green and Digital) to foster a carbon-neutral EU by 2050 and the three pillars of sustainability, namely:
1st pillar is ‘climate and environment,
2nd, a zero carbon economy (including biodiversity), and
3rd, social sustainability (equity by member states and internationally).
These were followed by several panelists mentioning the issue of member countries needing to support and fund these. One would think that funding would be gratefully accepted and reciprocated given the astonishing €338bil the EU already spent across Europe, eight times the size of the Marshall Plan.
The panelists of these sessions sketched out ambitious plans. I researched this oft-promised “EU Green Deal” to understand its scale, if the sustainability of results (which I work on ex-post), the sustainability of our global ecology, and/or sustainability in terms of business functions resides, if at all. The results of this cursory research did not make these clear. But ambitions are massive.
EU Green Deal
TheEuropean Green Dealbegan when the EU Parliament adopted the EU Climate Law in 2021, which makes “legally binding a target of reducing emissions 55% by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050. This moves the EU closer to its post-2050 objective of negative emissions and confirms its leadership in the global fight against climate change.”
The EU seems to be shifting from the SDGs which appear to be bilaterally funded, although ‘collectively’ claimed. “The EU and its Member States are the leading donors of official development assistance (ODA) globally. In 2022, they collectively provided €92.8 billion (based on preliminary OECD figures), which accounts for 43% of global assistance.” So what progress is that generating? Not much:
SIDENOTE2: And since we’re talking about climate, can the EU or other donors aid-fund functioning weather stations? They have 5% of the number the US and EU do which massively limits mitigation: https://africanarguments.org/2023/11/without-warning-africa-lack-of-weather-stations-is-costing-lives/
SUSTAINABLE FINANCE FOR CLIMATE, ENVIRONMENT, AND ECONOMY (the 1st 2 pillars of the mentioned Sustainability)
So, for the EU, where I now live most of the time, sustainable finance plans seem to be off to a good start. Nearly 2/3 of the promised €300 billion has been secured in only two years. Notably, this is 1/3 of the EU’s planned €1 Trillion, including private investments. Two German policy researchers, Findeisen and Mack, question their achievability. “Europe needs to spend an additional €350 billion on climate action every year until the end of this decade…to reach its 55% greenhouse gas reduction target by 2030.” Furthermore, “shortcomings of [Investment Plan] InvestEU in combatting climate change can be addressed and why it is no substitute for fresh public spending at EU level.” (See the excellent brief including concerns about the Sustainable Europe Investment Plan, outlined below. This overview of the EU’s Investment plan has broadly planned outputs (e.g., ambitions, financing, research, mobilizing), outcomes (e.g., energy generated, building new energy sources, restoring ecosystems, and building food systems and mobility), and impacts (e.g., a sustainable future):
Much of the plan is, understandably, European-focused, yet we all know that the Global South is where the deepest needs and opportunities lie. Drilling down further to see investments, activities, and even results on the ground was both interesting and harder:
“The inaugural milestone of the Global Gateway was the Africa-Europe Investment Package with approximately €150 billion of investment dedicated to bolstering cooperation with African partners. We have also started implementing Global Gateway in Asia and the Pacific and in Latin America and the Caribbean, where President von der Leyen announced a global investment by the EU and its Member States of over €45 billion. In 2023, ninety key projects were launched worldwide across the digital, energy, and transport sectors through Global Gateway to strengthen health, education, and research systems globally.”
So, as an Africanist and evaluative researcher, I looked into the EU’s reported figures (and results). Under Global Gateway, the EU has funded 33 projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, 11 of which are climate-related and another 7 that are transport-related. There are only short descriptions of projects without substantive partners, activities, or data, such as a €1billion “Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience in Africa“. Details would be instructive, to say the least. Research on African Voices regarding their projects unearthed one that should already be of concern: Namibia’s $10 billion Green Hydrogen project, which is to help 2.5 million people decarbonize. However, the tendering is not transparent, locals are in the dark, there are biodiversity concerns, and initial funding is missing. Much more transparent monitoring & evaluation data is needed to know it is on track.
Funds are needed. Lorraine Chiponda. a Coordinator of the Africa Movement Building Space notes that “Africa receives a meager 3% of the total global climate finance and African countries still play a marginal role in the global finance system, making it a mammoth task to obtain funds for renewable energy investment.”
Africa has much to offer. Joseph Nganga is Interim Managing Director at the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) reminds us that “Africa, a region with a developing economy endowed with abundant natural resources, stands at a crossroads where strategic financial investments can steer its trajectory towards a prosperous climate-resilient future.”
Moreover, financing needs are clearly expressed, which the EU, for one, should listen to. “This year at the African Climate Summit, countries were united in their call for a series of finance reforms that would have a meaningful impact on their fiscal and policy space to address climate change. These include a reduction in borrowing costs and risk premiums; debt management, restructuring and relief; scaling concessional climate finance from multilateral developments banks (MDBs); and reforms to the global tax regime.” Olivia Rumble is a climate change legal and policy expert and a director of Climate Legal
Much more is needed for equitable partnerships to address our increasingly desperate climate needs. While I was at the conference, the Copernicus Climate Change Service issued a warning that “For the first time ever, the planet globally exceeded a key warming threshold on Friday for the first time since at least the beginning of instrument records, new data shows. Simply put, a 2-degree rise in global temperatures was considered as a target for the end of the century and is considered a critical threshold above which dangerous and cascading effects will occur.” COP28 has a lot to accomplish.
5 Ways to Foster Sustainability and Resilience to Climate Change
by Omar Abdou, M.A. and Jindra Cekan/ova, Ph.D
In the global climate change graphic, the blue are countries that contribute very few emissions to #climatechange. They are also those who suffer the most from climate change effects and who have most #globalaid projects which are most at risk of no longer being #sustained:
Omar Abdou, a food security and M&E expert from Niger, lives a vulnerability to climate change there is indisputable. Sahelien production systems suffer the full brunt of the negative effects. Indeed, the essential rural activities, namely agriculture, and livestock which occupy at least 80% of the population, are becoming more and more uncertain as they rely on two pillars: rainfall and the exploitation of natural resources (soil, vegetation, other water sources). But, in recent decades, we have witnessed a drastic reduction in rainfall. In pastoral zones, this decrease is reflected in the degradation of the vegetation cover and the deficits in livestock-vital fodder. For instance, the fodder assessment from 2000 to 2020 for the Tahoua Region has been in deficit for 15 years. More and more recurrent and frequent crises seriously affect the main productive capital of households, which is the herd.
Emergency sales of increasingly emaciated animals at a low price are growing to pay for consumer goods and to buy fodder to feed a few animals. These are kept for breeding after the crisis, but what used to be seasonal crisis (dry-season) has become chronic.
In agro-pastoral zones, agricultural production in the rainy season, which has changed its duration and strength, becomes uncertain to feed the household members. The harvest is often exhausted at most by the 6th month of the year for many households. Thus, there is no more food surplus to supply the area’s food needs where cereals are not grown. Suddenly, cereals become expensive and inaccessible for many families. Their coping strategies are diverse but not always effective. In pastoral settings, parents are forced to take their children out of school to go further south in search of food and pasture. Sometimes more sedentary agro-pastoralist farmers pledge or sell their land to pay for food. Those left behind who have nothing to sell, are forced to cut trees and sell the wood for charcoal, further degrading the environment. Unfortunately, Niger’s neighbors are now mostly at war, so these young men run the risk of being recruited by armed groups or are killed. In these conditions, there is serious instability where the means of production (natural and human) are sold for survival and overexploited natural resources decrease. Increasingly, it is practically impossible to talk about sustainability. It is, therefore, necessary to think of consistent and innovative projects to enable households to produce sustainably while preserving the ecosystem for future generations. Outlets such as migration of the able-bodied workers to neighboring countries to provide labor in the lean season work now but are unsustainable.
Jindra notes that 31 Oct the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) begins. Climatescience documents life-threatening effects such as Omar and billions of others are already experiencing around the ‘developing’ world. The IPCC Working Group report shows that “the world will probably reach or exceed 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming within just the next two decades. Whether we limit warming to this level and prevent the most severe climate impacts depends on actions taken this decade. Only with ambitious emissions cuts can the world keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, the limit scientists say is necessary for preventing the worst climate impacts. Under a high-emissions scenario, the IPCC finds the world may warm by 4.4 degrees C by 2100 — with catastrophic results.” Erratic rainfall, greater heatwaves will affect 70% of all farmers and herders who rely on rain for their production and a new report on Adaptation to climate across West African shows aridity increasing, which must inform global development.
What can we do:
1- LISTEN AND ACT GLOBALLY: There are excellent resources to track demands that the Global North divest and stop subsidizing fossil fuels. For instance, “In 2017/18, the G7 collectively spent more on fossil fuel finance than on climate finance, according to analysis by Oil Change International. They allocated nearly $40bn that year.” Hypocrisy abounds as this Climate Change News article goes on to note that “Since the Paris Agreement was signed, G20 countries’ export credit agencies have provided 14 times as much support for fossil fuels as clean energy “to $64 billion a year, and investors still prioritize profit over planet & people.
3- DESIGN CLIMATE SMARTLY: Global Development needs to do much more climate-smart programming as 50 years of investments in foreign aid to ‘developing’ countries has already started to be threatened. What can be done? Fromsequestering the carbon content of soil via farming to fostering climate-smart agriculture, which, according to the UN’s FAO means “agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, enhances resilience (adaptation), reduces/removes GHGs (mitigation) where possible, and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals”. Importantly this involves productivity plus adaptation and mitigation against changes wrought by climate change.
4- MEASURE SUSTAINABILITY: Exciting measurements are beginning!Scotland is valuing its nature, and there are calls for The Rights Of Nature In Evaluation Of Environmental Sustainability. Jindra is consulting to a wonderful team at the Adaptation Fund. We are evaluating what could be sustained, and what withstood climatic changes is ex-post project sustainability and resilience evaluation. The Adaptation Fund on evaluating projects’ longer-term (3-5 year ex-post project closure) sustainability and, importantly their resilience to climate change. We are piloting these rare kinds of evaluations in six countries, starting with Samoa and Ecuador in 2021. As the Fund has funded over 100 projects in 100 countries, with almost 30 million participants, we have a rich array to choose from. Such a learning opportunity about what lasts and has withstood disturbances is vital. As the Fund notes: “Climate change is predicted to greatly affect the poorest people in the world, who are often hardest hit by weather catastrophes, desertification, and rising sea levels, but who have contributed the least to the problem of global warming. In some parts of the world, climate change has already contributed to worsening food security, reduced the predictable availability of freshwater, and exacerbated the spread of disease and other threats to human health. Helping the most vulnerable countries and communities is an increasing challenge and imperativefor the international community, especially because climate adaptation requires significant resources beyond what is already needed to achieve international development objectives.”
5- TAKE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY: For 8 years, Valuing Voices has pushed back to evaluate the ‘Sustainable Development” we have promised for 50 years. We must be accountable primarily to our participants and partners, rather than donors, and only by listening to these country nationals, we can learn what was sustained not, why or why not, and what emerged from their efforts. In 2019, we wrote all of us are accountable to improve the SDGs. It is wonderful to have climate change leading organizations invest in ex-post evaluation that adds resilience, prioritizing organizational learning and accountability. We all must increase our awareness that curb our consumption, for the sake of Niger, small island states, and many other parts of our planet can no longer stand our business-as-usual. Limiting climate change begins with us, from changing our food consumption to consumer choices to political advocacy to seeing the Earth as indivisible from us and us from the Earth. Let us start to invest in global sustainability today.
Do you see any bright spots on the horizon? Do share!
“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.
In 2022 a new resource on Sustainability from the media perspective questions the OECD. Sustainability: Going Beyond the Buzzword groups sustainability described in various media as: 1) Economic viability, 2) Social Sustainability, 3) Institutional Sustainability and 4) technical sustainability. But we’ve learned in 2022 from consulting work that the technology piece mentioned in this Buzzwords study regarding ‘baking in’ sustainability via the infrastructure/ assets created (The Adaptation Fund’s ex-post and resilience evaluations) and incorporating INGOs’ considerations of buying-local, seeing what local spare parts and technicians will be available in the future is a great added consideration. So too is promoting locally-led development through the very participatory way projects are implemented, with locals leading. Among the best resources is CDA/ Peace Direct/ Search for Common Ground’s Stopping as Success studies for USAID.
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.
3) I’ll add spread the word, as I just found out Harvard’s Extension School course on Sustainability features this blog in its curriculum 🙂
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?
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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