As a global development industry, we have almost no evidence of how (un)sustained the outcomes or impacts of 99% of our projects because we have never returned to evaluate them. But from early indications based on the ex-posts, we have evaluated 2-20 years after donor departure it is, learning from what was and was not sustained is vital before replication and assuming sustainability. Most results taper off quite quickly, showing 20-80% decreases as early as two years post-closure and donor exit. A few cases of good news also appear, but more trajectories falter and fail than rise or remain. Sustainability, then, is not a yes-no answer, but a how much, yet too few ask… hence if they were, resilient, they are less so, or even not at all, now.
At Valuing Voices we focus on the sustainability of projects after external support ends. Still, those projects are also dependent on the viability of the environment in which they are based. As Andy Rowe, an evaluator on the GEF’s Adaptation Fund board, noted at IDEAS’ Conference in Prague late 2019 , a need for sustainability-ready evaluation to help us know how viable the resources are on which so many of our projects rest . He states, “the evaluation we have today treats human and natural systems as unconnected and rarely considers the natural system”. He goes on to differentiate between biotic natural capital (air, water, plants, and trees) and abiotic natural capital sources (fossil fuels, minerals, and metals, wind, and solar).
How much are projects designed assuming those resources are and will remain plentiful? How often do we evaluate how much our projects drain or rely on these environmental elements? Many projects are required to do environmental compliance and safeguarding against damage at project onset . Others, such as agriculture and natural resource management or water/ sanitation, often focus on improving the environment on which those activities rely, e.g., improving soil or terrain (e.g., terraces, zais), planting seedlings, and improving access to potable water for humans and animals. Still, many projects ‘assume’ inputs like rainfall, tree cover, solar power, or do not consider the sustainability of natural resources for the communities in which they intervene. Examples are both those that rely on natural systems as well as those supposedly beyond them, e.g., enterprise development, education, safety nets, etc. Yet many enterprises, schools, safety nets do rely on a. viable environment in which their participants trade, learn, and live, and all are subject to the growing climate change disruptions.
Why is this urgent? The OECD/DAC reminds us that “Natural assets represent, on average 26% of the wealth of developing countries compared to 2% in OECD economies” . Unless we protect them and address the demand for natural resources, demand will far outstrip supply. “By 2030, an additional 1 billion people are expected to live in severely water-stressed areas, and global terrestrial biodiversity is expected to decline an additional 10%, leading to a loss of essential ecosystem services. By 2050, growing levels of dangerous air emissions from transport and industry will increase the global number of premature deaths linked to airborne particulate matter to 3.6 million people a year, more than doubling today’s levels. Failure to act could also lead to a 50% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and global mean temperature increases of 3-6°C by the end of the century, in turn contributing to more severe and sometimes more frequent natural disasters… [so] reconciling development with environmental protection and sustainable resource management is broadly agreed as a central concern for the post-2015 development agenda.”
When we return to projects that are a mix of behavior change and environment, we find a wide range of results:
Some projects, such as JICA Vietnam’s water supply and irrigation infrastructure reached 80% of the final results two years later . And while the pilot projects were worse off (as low as 28% of irrigated hectares), longer-standing projects sustained as much as 72% of final results. While such agricultural development assumes continued water supply and access, does it evaluate it? No.
Some can define what ex-post lessons are more narrowly as functioning mechanisms: New ex-posts of water/ sanitation showed better – but still mixed results, such as USAID Senegal’s . “While a majority (63 percent) of the water points remained functional, the performance varied significantly based on the technology used. Of the different technologies, the Erobon rope pumps performed poorly (27 percent functional), while the India Mark (74 percent functional) and mechanized pumps (70 percent functional) performed the best.”
Some projects that include environmental considerations illustrate our point by only focusing on behavior change as this sanitation/ hygiene ex-post from Madagascar did, where results fell off precipitously three years ex-post but without considering water supply or quality much .
There can be useful learning when one combines an evaluation of both types of sustainability (ex-post and environmental). A JICA irrigation project in Cambodia shows that when irrigation canals were mostly sustained over the five-years ex-post, they could serve increasing needs for land coverage and rice production . The area of irrigated fields at the national level in 2010 reached the target, and the irrigated field area has since continued to increase in most areas. Even the largest drop [in area irrigated] post-closure was only 11%. They reported that the unit yield of rice at the end-line survey in 2012 at 11 sites was 3.24t/ha (average) versus 3.11t/ha of unit yield of rice at the ex-post evaluation in 2017, which [almost] maintains the 2012 level. The ex-post showed that “continuous irrigation development in the said site can be considered as the main reason for the increase in land area. Securing an adequate amount of water is an important factor in continuously improving rice productivity.” The research also found that 81% of agricultural incomes as a result of the irrigation had increased, 11% stayed the same, and 8% had decreased. Again, this looks to be among the most resilient projects that, based on ex-post research, included environment which was also found to be as resilient as the livelihoods it was fostering.
Sometimes more bad than good news is important when tracking environment and ex-post sustainability: Food for the Hungry, ADRA, and CARE Kenya found that unreliable water supply reduced the motivation to pay for water, threatening the resources to maintain the system . What improved prospects of sustainability understand why communities could not sustain water and sanitation results based on willingness-to-pay models, as well as water being unavailable. Further, a lesson the organizations ideally learned was that “gradual exit, with the opportunity for project participants to operate independently prior to project closure, made it more likely that activities would be continued without project support.” So the question remains, what was learned by these organizations to avoid similar bad results and improve good, resilient results in similar circumstances?
Neither sustainability nor environmental quality can be assumed to continue nor to have positive results. Both are extensively under-evaluated, and given climate change disruptions, and this must change. Rowe concludes: “Climate change is a major threat to the long-term sustainability both attacking the natural systems (e.g. lower rainfall or higher floods, worse soil quality, increasing pests attacking crops, disappearing fish stocks, microplastics in our air and water, increasing sea levels from melting glaciers, worsening public health etc.) and destabilizining our Earth’s regenerative capacity. Fortunately, technical barriers do not prevent us from starting to infuse sustainability into evaluation; the barriers are social and associated with the worldview and vision of evaluation.”
 Kobayashi, N. (2017). Kingdom of Cambodia: FY2017 Ex-Post Evaluation of Technical Cooperation Project: “Technical Service Center for Irrigation System Project – Phase 2 / The Improvement of Agricultural River Basin Management and Development Project (TSC3)”. Retrieved from https://www2.jica.go.jp/en/evaluation/pdf/2017_0900388_4.pdf
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?
The Name of the Game is “Sustainability” but Does the Last Player Count?
by John Lowrie, Reblog from https://www.scribd.com/document/11621086/The-Name-of-the-Game-is-Sustainability-but-Does-the-Last-Player-Count-by-John-Lowrie
Today, it is obligatory to answer the question “how will your proposed activities be sustainable after the project?” Most of us dutifully play the game and repeat various sentences that describe the measures that “should” bring sustainability about. Then it is usually left at that. We all move on to the next project and donor. Seldom does anyone look back over the passing of many years to check to see if promise has turned in to reality. At best there may be an end-project evaluation which will say that planned outcomes are achieved and “likely” to be sustained. It would be a very brave evaluator to be more committed beyond that.
My question is why do we play this game? (I should add: apart from the obvious answer we need the donors’ money!) Sustainability is much more than a ruse in a game. It goes to the very essence of what kind of organisation we belong to; plus all the others with us whether staff, supporters or beneficiaries; how we originated and what are our real long- term plans?
Many NGOs are artificially created groupings of people, unlike the first ones last century that emerged as people on a mission to address specific issues that they felt strongly about. Latterly, NGOs are now lumped in to “Civil Society” which is another recent fashionable label in development jargon. This is despite many officials and even NGO workers in Cambodia having no idea that it is supposed to encompass more than NGOs, to embrace other groups such as the press, trade unions, etc.
Many NGOs have actually been started by or for charismatic individuals, tapping in to somebody else’s cause or source of funding, rather than part of a collective if not mass movement in its own right towards a common end. Sometimes, international departing NGOs promote them, as part of “exit-strategies” to demonstrate that they leave something behind to show for their good work and all the money spent. They may have even included a plan for it in their sustainability proposal write-up. In Cambodia the “gravy train” that accompanied
UNTAC, the massive international effort to bring lasting peace and democracy in the early 90s, spawned many. Some of these NGOs have been good and stood the test of time. Many have fallen by the wayside. Others have been co-opted by political interests. Few have proper accountable self-governance structures.
◄“It’s the money that matters”, but will these NGO beneficiaries, the final players, get what they need to be sustainable?
So how can they be really sustainable? What is driving them – apart that is from the obvious – money? It is true that many do good work. They often do work that local authorities should be doing. But, I ask, towards what end? For example “poverty alleviation” is not an end in itself; for it to be sustained it needs much more than the usual 1-3 year time-frames that donors favour for their projects. Yet the usual pattern is –identify your target groups, go there, pass on whatever to them, then move on (to the next ones). There are exceptions. Lutheran World Federation (LWF) expect to work for 10 or more years in their target communities before they “graduate” and begin a systematic staged withdrawal. Mostly, however, the projects end on time or soon after, the files are closed, and that is that, at least until next time.
Meanwhile NGOs try to source repeat funding or new funding, and the game rules dictate where and how they proceed. It is only by luck rather than design that there will be a true match between what they want to do and what the donor is willing to give the money for. Usually there is accommodation, most likely on the part of the NGO; indeed some big donors explicitly rule out comments, queries, and changes to their guidelines which become grails of holiness. The most desperate NGOs have to re-invent themselves; depart from their original mission, suddenly acquire new skills in often far removed fields to stay in the game. I have seen an election-monitoring organisation become an agency to consult displaced families affected by a road-widening. I know of one local rural development NGO in one province become a pro-citizen governance campaigner in another. Adaptability and learning to diversify are good qualities, but when they cause such radical changes within an NGO, it cannot be re-assuring for sustainability.
The nature of what an NGO does and its underlying philosophy is therefore key to sustainability. Those NGOs created to work in the immediate post-conflict or disaster emergency relief periods are prone to short-term visions, and sometimes they leave legacies which handicap development such as “dependency” and even “easy-come-easy- go” attitudes when foreign money seems plentiful. Those NGOs born in the next phase, i.e., after emergency relief, the start of infrastructure reconstruction and restoring public services and the economy, can also be equally short-term in their vision. In fact they have an inherent flaw. If they succeed, they do themselves out of a job and few want that as it would mean no future jobs and income! Even the Cambodian Government, despite an addiction to foreign aid, now maintains that some have overstayed their welcome.
These NGOs tend to be “welfare” or “service-provision” providers. They are confident in their abilities “we know best” but are they committed to passing their best skills and knowledge on and to the right people to take progress forward without them?
Cambodia is not alone in that politics plays a big part. The ruling party now has a 73% majority in the National Assembly, holds 98% of the 1,629 Commune Council Chiefdoms and 70% of Councillors. As the national and commune members form the constituency for the Senate, Provincial, and District Authorities, the party is guaranteed monopoly control. The situation is not helped by the absence of a neutral civil service or public service – in fact it is mystifying that UNTAC and every international donor has not tried to cultivate one. So we are left with what we have; we are where we are. It means that sustainability will only follow if we accept that reality. We have to engage constructively with the powers-that-be; we have to find the best people we can to work with, and through them, reach out to others. If not, eventual opposition or just plan lack of good will and support will affect the final outcome. Authorities always outlast NGOs, at least in Cambodia they do!
Cambodia did not have a good start when NGOs first came on the scene. Many of the first NGOs were human rights activists needed at that time and to a certain extent now, to expose calamitous treatment meted out to victims. Unfortunately this profile, still high in perceptions, has made many in power believe that this is only or mainly what NGOs do and stand for1. The legalistic approach to human rights where abuses are reported, perpetrators identified, and “name, blame shame” attached, cannot be a development tool in the sustainability tool-kit. It must be separated out and equally important alternative human rights approaches such as “rights-based development” which arouse less hostility co-exist with similar enthusiasm and means. NGOs and civil society will never have sustainable activities while their undoubted overall positive contribution gets little or no recognition by the people that count most when it comes to change.
NGOs are agents of change, which if mishandled does lead to suspicion, so to achieve change, NGOs must be clear in their message to persuade all (or a majority) that their change is worthwhile. If a long-term, wide cross-section commitment towards that change is not implanted, it is not sustainable. Too many development initiatives in Cambodia have resulted in temporary change. The “status-quo” reverts soon afterwards. In some cases the change is only tacitly accepted “take their money”, “go along with them” but “once they have gone, we go back to how we were, OK?” This is the opposite of sustainability.
There have to be contextually appropriate solutions, which can only be country-by- country, culture-by-culture. We should not have to operate on the basis of big international donors with their “one-size-fits-all” development policies and calls for proposals that allow just one format (theirs) that automatically favours the big international NGOs. They have their professional fund-raisers, who can knock out proposals that score high marks in the assessment/evaluation boxes, without many of the authors and assessors concerned ever going near the intended target beneficiaries! Yet be under no doubt, the words they pen and peruse answer beautifully on how such beneficiaries were involved, but who ever checks?
I may not be a good team-player in the present development game, so what am I suggesting as an alternative? First of all I would like to see fewer NGOs, ones which are smaller, more self-contained, and manageable to operate country-by country, sector-by- sector, region-by-region. They need to have good links to others elsewhere for best practice to be shared, but their core mission needs to be focussed to bring about certain defined changes; with the right people and the resources they need, and in the fullness of time. Therefore 5 years is an absolute minimum and asking for “core costs” to be provided should not be regarded as a mortal sin, as it tends to be with most donors. It has to be allowed, to be seen as value for money, and though indirect, still an essential element in bringing about that change. If not, how can sustainability be served?
Ironically, it is only with core support or independent means, that NGOs can play the game, so again favouring the big players. How else does an NGO cover its costs in preparing bids to donors? For example after UK-DfiD released their worldwide Global Transparency Fund in 2008, 450 organisations applied, and just 38 succeeded. Even a recent in-country release by UNDP for environmental projects attracted no less than 67 applications, of which just 13 won out. This means that for 412 in the DfiD case and 54 in the UNDP case who had devoted considerable effort, on top of their normal work, the process ultimately proved to be a waste of time; to be disappointing and especially for local NGOs to be discouraging.
I have two (NGO) organisations in mind while writing this article. Neither conforms to the pattern I criticize. They are different and I am not the only one to think that they are better. Both have poor disabled people as their target beneficiaries. One is in sports. The other is in poverty alleviation/new livelihoods or careers and self-advocacy. Both are now purely local NGOs, with none of the trappings or spending power of the big international players that dominate the disability sector. In fact neither has anything like a long-term future, because of funding gaps, and so a lot of their work, despite excellent results so far, cannot be said to be sustainable. If they go out of business too soon, how will their beneficiaries stay involved, if sustainability is to be realised eventually?
Local NGO “Cambodia National Volleyball League Disabled2” is the sports one. Most interestingly, it is taking a route party by choice, partly by necessity, towards the private sector or “corporate social responsibility” funds in its hope to realise sustainability. CNVLD has earned a worldwide reputation for transforming the self-esteem of disabled athletes. They actually enjoy high standing on the world stage unlike their “able-bodied” compatriots. They play volley-ball, pursue wheel-chair racing and some athletes may well qualify for the 2012 London Paralympics, even if there may be no money to support them to go and compete there.
◄Disabled Sports Athletes of NGO CNVLD playing the game at its best – but do they have a future?
Now CNVLD’s quest is to raise such money and cover their modest (compared to INGO) costs. Yet this laudable aim is treated with derision by some in the sector. Pursuing private funding is viewed as an anathema to many who see it as contradictory to the “not- for-profit” concept. Does this make sense? Does such obstruction make for sustainability? Is it a sin not to want to depend solely on the usual institutional sources of funding? One critic is interesting. It has in its mission that all its services to beneficiaries must be provided free. No charges whatsoever must be levied even for those who can afford to pay! In Cambodia, everybody pays, even when services are supposed to be free3. Even if a direct charge is not levied, recipients expect and are expected to show their gratitude4, and do so especially the poorest who see it as an inescapable obligation. Surely sustainability means (a) people who can afford to pay should do so, and (b) NGOs who can attract funding and not depend on taxpayers’ money should be welcomed5?
The second organisation, New Horizons Society6, is not as lucky as CNVLD, as they cannot go down the route of sponsorship which is an accepted feature of sport. This is an NGO that did localise from an INGO but on their own terms. They voted against joining another national body created by and favoured by the big international disability NGOs. Over 200 of their Focus Persons (Group Leaders) voted in a secret ballot to form their own NGO in order to stay true to their close-knit grassroots upwards origins and growth. Now they have 3,175 members in 135 self-help groups federated up to provincial level and going on to the national stage. They have remarkable accomplishments in creating new livelihoods for their [once] ultra-poor members and have accumulated over $130,000 in revolving funds. Individual lives have been transformed. One boy has gone from beggar in the market to national singing celebrity. One young man went from lonely at home; never seen a computer; no English, to being one of today’s high-flying geeks. His class-mate, from a similar start, went on to become the Publicity Officer for CNLVD and to lead her own troupe of dancers in the NHS Child Advocacy Group performing at international conferences.
◄NGO Child Advocates demonstrate “We can do” but will donors let them?
The 135 groups went from fear of talking to officials to successful advocacy. They started with the right to education and health-care for disabled youngsters, and once they were confident went on to persuade ministers to take action to stop their meagre pension rights being denied to them. These people chose not to ask for pity, or welfare, or for service provisions to be given to them. Instead they ask simply for the chance to show that “they can do” and that they can be self-sufficient when given the opportunities and means.
Their problem is that they cannot do this for all members yet, let alone go on to include others in the same fate as they once were. Yet despite their accomplishments, right now they can only win project activity funds. Donors refuse to pay more than 20% for running costs. Some specify as little as 5%. That does not even cover the running costs of their multi-purpose centre where meetings, training, sports, dancing, computer classes etc., go on. It may stretch to pay modest salaries to 2 or 3 staff, but they have to depend on consultant/advisors like me to help them voluntarily. Their entire organisation is radically different from the familiar set-up to be seen in international disability, donor and development organisations. There is not an air-conditioner, land-cruiser, or voucher paying university fees of expatriate’s children, etc., in sight. Yet despite its low cost and high yield, it is not yet sustainable within the present rules of most donors. If it can get over its current shortfalls and continue to build the revolving funds in to a sizeable trust or investment fund, with many members whose incomes have grown sufficiently able to subscribe fees to run their organisation, then they may have an independent viable future. But is there a donor who can adopt such a long-term vision; who will give enough to meet the real needs they identify, and who will then stay the course even when inevitable setbacks happen on the way?
So finally sustainability should be expressed in one simple notion and by the last player. It should be a measure of the change made in individual lives and over life-times of beneficiaries and their families. They are the last players in the game – who else but them can make that assessment? The present game means that it is the other players that have most say. They arrive on the scene much earlier; play in their own compact time-frames, and to their own rules. Then as external entrants, they depart the scene as soon as they can. Sustainability?
1 The perception is not helped by the limitations of the Khmer language. When the word “advocacy” was first introduced “tasumateh” was used, literally “to struggle for” associated with confrontation, not partnership, and so it was viewed by many as an alien Western concept.
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?
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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