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evaluators are to measure “whether the benefits of an activity are likely to continue after donor funding has been withdrawn… [including being] environmentally as well as financially sustainable” .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…
[*] This paper is now available at https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/cjpe/article/view/53055
 Simister, N. (2015). Monitoring and Evaluation Series: Outcomes Outputs and Impact. Retrieved from https://www.intrac.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Monitoring-and-Evaluation-Series-Outcomes-Outputs-and-Impact-7.pdf
 OECD. (n.d.). DAC Criteria for Evaluating Development Assistance. Retrieved September, 2018, from https://web.archive.org/web/20180919035910/http://www.oecd.org/dac/evaluation/daccriteriaforevaluatingdevelopmentassistance.htm
 USAID. (2016, December 6). USAID Uganda Country Development Cooperation Strategy 2016-2021. Retrieved October, 2018, from https://www.usaid.gov/uganda/cdcs
 Porter, S. (2018, October 18). DAC Criteria: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Retrieved from https://views-voices.oxfam.org.uk/2018/10/dac-criteria-the-hand-that-rocks-the-cradle/
 European Evaluation Society Biennial Conference: Flagship Symposia. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.ees2018.eu/1539782596-flagship-symposia.htm
 Ofir, Z. (2018, October 13). Updating the DAC Criteria, Part 11 (FINAL). From Evaluation Criteria to Design Principles. Retrieved from https://zendaofir.com/dac-criteria-part-11/
 OECD. (2018, June 11). 2018 Report On The DAC Untying Recommendation. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/dac/financing-sustainable-development/development-finance-standards/DCD-DAC(2018)12-REV2.en.pdf
Public and Private paths to Sustained Global
(Reposted from: https://medium.com/@jindracekan/public-and-private-paths-to-sustained-global-development-impacts-9b7523891fce)
Six years. That’s how long ago I began researching proof of sustained impact(s) through its ex-post project evaluation. Until now Valuing Voices has focused on aid donors. We are expanding to the private sector.
In my PhD I was sure it was a lack of researched and shared proof of successful prevention of famine that led to inaction. In Valuing Voices’ research on ex-post project evaluation, I again felt “if only they knew, they would act”. I pulled together a variety of researchers and consultants who (often pro-bono, or for limited fees) researched the shockingly rare field evaluations of what was sustained after projects closed, why, and what participants and partners did themselves to sustain impacts.
Sustaining the outcomes and achieving impacts, are, after all, what global development projects promise. These ‘sustainable development’ results are at the top (or far-right, below) of our ‘logical frameworks’. We promise the country-level partners, our taxpayers and donors, that we will achieve them, yet…
We have done six post-project Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluations. We have created checklists on ex-post project evaluability thanks to a Faster Forward Fund grant by esteemed evaluator Michael Scriven. We have created preliminary guidance on Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluations (SEIE) and shared 25 such ex-post closure evaluations that we found returned to ask participants 2-15 years after close-out in (one of?) the only database on such evaluations in the world. We have drawn valuable lessons from the evaluations throughout nearly 60 blogs and presented at 10 conferences. We have found that results at the end of project are dynamic, that there can be greater failure – or sometimes greater success – than we would ever expect in our project assumptions. We have found that communities can create ‘emerging’ outcomes, adapting the activities to succeed onward with no further donor funding, and that when we design for long-term sustainability with our partners, then remarkable success can ensue. So many lessons for programming that we need to learn from, including partnering with country-nationals, focusing on youth, questioning assumptions at exit, etc.
We have applied to many grants for support, unsuccessfully, and have applied to evaluate a handful more ex-post sustainability evaluations which other consultants have won – while we were disappointed, in equal measure we are happy others are learning to do this, as we share our resources freely to promote exactly such practices across hundreds of thousands unevaluated projects! We are currently doing an ex-post project evaluation of an agriculture value chain in Tanzania, yet there are a handful done per year. At one conference, our discussant Michael Bamberger joked we were lucky not to be found dead under a bridge for taking on such a dangerous topic. We remain undeterred, and delight in colleagues we promote such work and thanking us for ours.
At the same time, several things have become apparent:
- Vital lessons for how aid can do better remain unexplored, and true accountability to our country-national participants and partners ends when fixed-time, fixed deliverable project resources are spent and proof of accountability for money and results that donors want are filed away. Sadly, while capacity building is done throughout implementation, knowledge management about results is abysmal as ‘our projects’ data almost always dies quietly in donor and implementer computer hard drives after close-out, rather than being accessible in-country for further learning. Go partner!
- We hardly ever return after all our evaluations to share with communities which speaks to ‘partnerships’ not being with the participants, and we often ‘exit’ without giving ample time to handover so that things can be sustained, e.g. local partners found, local and other international funding harnessed, etc. Learn together!
- There is a real need to fund systematized methods for such evaluations, mandate access to quality baseline, midterm and final evaluations, and mandate that all projects above a certain funding level (e.g. $1mil) include funding for such evaluation and learning 2-10 years later. Many so-called ex-post evaluations are in fact either delayed final evaluations, desk studies without any fieldwork, rather methodologically flawed comparisons or with fieldwork which doesn’t talk to the intended ‘beneficiaries’ for such pivotal ground-level feedback. Innovate by listening!
- It is unclear to us how any organization that has done an ex-post sustainability evaluation has learned from it and changed their systems, although we have been told some are ‘looking for a successful project to evaluate’, and that after a failed one, they are discontinued. We know of some (I)NGOs who are putting ex-posts into their new strategies, and two INGOs who are researching exits more – good. Be brave!
- Recently, we are delighted some new NGOs are dipping their feet into their first evaluations of sustainability, they do so bravely. The tension between accountability and learning is heightened at the prospect that implementers and donors have failed to create sustained impact. But why judge them when all the design and systems in place are to reward success while projects are running (and even those don’t always show much) so that they all get congratulations and more funding for very similar projects? Who knows who is focused on sustaining impacts with funding capacities, partnerships and country-led design, implementing with feedback loops and adjusting for the long-term, helping communities evaluate us rather than how well they are fulfilling our targets, etc. Sustaining impacts will win you funding!
- Logically, here are many indications among ex-post sustainability evaluations that profitable, but low-risk and diversified agriculture, microenterprise/ business projects are better sustained (Niger, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nepal, etc.). This does not mean that all projects need to be profitable, but cost-covering projects even in the health and education/ vocational training/ sectors is important as many of us know. Self-funding!
So rather than giving up on sustained impacts, we are adding another branch to the Valuing Voices tree.
My partners and I have extensively researched the need for and co-founded Impact Guild. We will work alongside NGOs and impact investors to foster:
- FUNDING: The money available from development aid donors is shrinking in volume + value, while development financing is scaling up exponentially.
The SDGs and the Paris Agreement are prompting a massive scale-up of development financing from billions to trillions of dollars into ‘sustainable development’, yet with rare Scandinavian and Foundation exceptions, donors appear to be switching from longer-term development to humanitarian aid. Further, despite decades of experience, international and national nonprofit development implementers are mostly absent in the conversation around scaling-up the flow of capital to achieve and sustain development goals. Exceptions are some in the International NGO Impact Investing Network (AMPLIFY)
2. RESULTS: Funding for projects that can show great results (e.g. Social Impact Bonds/ Development Impact Bonds, which are in fact pay-for-performance instruments), even sustained impacts from partnering with local small and medium enterprises, national level ministries, and local NGOs. Far too long, implementers have been able to get funding for projects with mediocre results; impact investors are raising the bar and even donors are helping hedge risk. This includes M&E ‘impact’ value that rigorously tracks results (savvy private-sector donors require counterfactual/ control group data, isolating results from that intervention).
3. LEARNING: Impact Investors have a lot to learn from non-profits and aid donors as well.
- They talk about impact but too often that is synonymous with generic results, while International and National nonprofits (NGOs) have detailed, grassroots systems in place;
- Most seem to be content – for now – to invest in the 17 Sustainable Development Goal areas (e.g. vetting investable projects by screening criteria of not only getting a financial return, but also by broad sectoral investments, e.g. poverty, hunger, climate etc.). Many claim they have affected change, without data to prove it. The SDGs are slowly creating indicators to address this, and investors also need to be brought along to differentiate between corporate efficiency activities for their operations and those that affect change at the output, outcome and impact levels in communities;
- There are still large leaps of logic and claims among investors and some know that data is lacking to claim good grassroots targeting and actual results that prove they are changing hunger, poverty and other sectors in Africa, Asia, Latin Americ. Good development professionals would see that the very design would make results accessible only to the elite of that country (e.g. $1 nutrition bars are inaccessible to most of a country’s population living on income of $2.00 a day)
We will bring with us all we know about great potential sustained impacts programming, such as Theory of Sustainability, looking for emerging results alongside planned early on, learning from failure for success, partnering successfully for country-led development, etc.
So keep watching these ‘spaces’: www.ValuingVoices.com and www.ImpactGuild.org for updates on bridging these worlds, hopefully for ever-greater sustained impacts. Let us know if you would like to partner!