Maximizing what we’ve got… Time is now!

Maximizing what we've got… Time is now!

 

We had a stirring conversation here in D.C. with someone very knowledgeable about sustainability; this person is a strong proponent of local ownership of all development. They also said vehemently, why evaluate the sustainability of projects after closeout; we all know what that will show!  What was implied is that our system of international development and aid is so flawed, so broken, that the inevitable result of not focusing on local ownership as the fundamental basis for our work means Nothing. Will. Be. Left…. All. Is. Lost. 

 

We disagree. Our development industry does some good, some bad, and is ever-changing (albeit slowly). Billions of dollars each year are spent trying to improve people's lives and livelihoods around the world, and we've seen great good be done. While. We. Remain.

 

We know far, far less about what remains after our projects end because less than 1% of the time we return post-project (ex-post) to evaluate anything.

 

Our problem with time begins with fixed timelines within projects that say we have 1, 3, 5 years to get to success. They work with participants and partners who need to make substantial changes to how they use their resources and beliefs over a relatively short time of a few months to a few years. We expect immediate results from them, changing how they farm (use new seeds, new methods, new ways of interacting with markets) and save money (learn new concepts of profit and interest, repayment and re-lending), and improve their health and that of their families (get prenatal exams, vaccinate your children, exclusively breastfeed without adding water or tea). Everyone in our projects is 'on the clock' from the donor and implementer to partners and participants. This clock ticks down irrevocably as project closeout looms, promised-successes-to-donors at hand or a mirage in the distance. We assume sustained results.

 

How many of us have ever gone on a diet? How many have learned a new language? How many of us have transferred jobs and had to learn new skills on the job? How quickly have we managed to do all that successfully, all at once?!  Probably many. How many of you have had to do this on a fixed timeline? Were you successful when there was a limited, fixed time and you did not set your own pace?

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/psd/7739861570

 

It takes time to implement projects well enough to ensure that most participants ‘got it’, not just the 'early adopters'. It takes time to hand over projects so well that our partners and participants are ready to take over at least some of what we worked so hard to transfer. It took leadership and staff two years in the very successful participatory USAID/ Food For Peace food security project by CRS Niger that was a continuation of similar programming for 15 years.  It also takes time to pass for conditions to be ready for our return, to isolate what people could self-sustain from what the project supplied, to learn what was so well designed and implemented during projects that to 'took root' in people's lives, that they have made it their own.  We estimate optimal evaluation time is 2-7 years after closeout. Valuing Voices also believes we should not just evaluate the sustainability of outputs and outcomes of what we put in place that we thought they would continue, and the sustained impact of those cumulative investments, but also the emerging, unintended new activities and impacts we never imagined people would innovate from our projects.  We are doing just such evaluations in Zimbabwe and Uganda now and hope to do and catalyze much more fieldwork around the world.

 

And why does it matter? Why shouldn't we write off our time-limited donor-funded projects? Because:

 

1) It's all we've got. Our current development system is not going anywhere soon, and there is success to learn from.

 

2) We need to quickly learn from what worked sustainably best and stop wasting time and resources on what we refuse to admit fails because we are too scared to return to see. Go back with the intention to learn what does and focus on doing more of what works.

 

3) Such analysis – and design of new projects – must have country ownership as a centerpiece throughout the project cycle assumptions, but to throw out decades of good work simply because we are just learning the value of country ownership is foolish.

 

Finally, here's a lovely example from Brazil of how local, participation (and yes, as my colleague thought, local ownership) works best. And. It. Takes. Time.

 

"Our results also show that Participatory Budgeting’s influence strengthens over time… Participatory Budgeting’s increasing impact indicates that governments, citizens, and civil society organizations are building new institutions… cities incorporate citizens at multiple moments of the policy process, allowing community leaders and public officials to exchange better information."  How often do we return to do what are called longitudinal reviews of our work abroad, using the same rigorous standards we evaluate our domestic projects? Not often. Shouldn't that change?

 

Only by working together, honoring the value of our participants, that they deserve the same chance at change that we take for granted will things change. We must value both the voices of our participants and our own expertise for development to improve for true aid effectiveness…. Let us begin anew!

 

Making money– is this a way to sustainable livelihoods? PACT’s Nepalese Lessons

 

Making money– microenterprise– is this a way to sustainable livelihoods? PACT’s Nepalese Lessons

 

Many Americans are steeped in the belief that we must ‘pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’, that hard work and especially faith in small businesses is the way to success. This is one of the many reasons why microfinance so appeals to donors as an investment. Does it work?

The US NGO-umbrella, Interaction, posted some “Aid Works” global results, including “the percentage of USAID-funded microfinance institutions that achieved financial sustainability jumped from 38% in 2000 to 76% in 2012.” Yet there have been numerous detractors of the model and the unsustainability of control over resources/ empowerment [1] [2].

What does one ex-post evaluations that we have on hand tell us? PACT’s USAID-funded WORTH program in Nepal was focused on women ending poverty through business, banking and literacy/ bookkeeping [3]. The project, implemented between 1999 and 2001 worked with 240 local NGOs to reach 125,000 women in 6,000 economic groups across Nepal’s southern Terai (in 2001 a Maoist insurgency led to the groups being on their own) [3]. By then, 1,500 of these groups led by the women themselves (35,000-strong) received training to become informal-sector Village Banks [3]. Working with local NGOs enabled them to reach 100,000 women in a few months due to the NGOs’ presence and connections in the communities. The collaboration worked well due to a shared belief by PACT and the NGOs that dependency is not empowering. As the report says “WORTH groups and banks were explicitly envisaged as more than just microfinance providers; they were seen as organizations that would build up women as agents of change and development in their communities” [3].

In 2006, PACT and Nepalese Valley Research Group looked to see sustainability of the banks, the extent of retained income by the women as well as any effect on community development and broader issues such as domestic abuse [3]. They went to 272 Banks from a random sample of 450 from seven of the 21 WORTH districts. Remarkably, they found even more functioning: 288 (16 more) of them were thriving and – wow- WORTH women had spawned another 400 more groups on their own [3]. Participant interviews were done with members and management as well as those women who had left their Banks and members of groups that had dissolved plus they interviewed a ‘control group’ of poor, non-WORTH women in Village Bank communities.

Was it a universal success? Almost. See the bar chart below showing what impacts the management committee felt the village banks had had on members, which is mostly better off, some the same, some far better off. This held true for the original village bank members and the new bank members.

 

[3]

 

The SEEP network reviewed WORTH’s ex-post and found five key findings:

  • Wealth creation: A Village Bank today holds average total assets of over Rs. 211,000, or $3,100, more than three times its holdings in 2001. Each woman member of WORTH now has an average equity stake of $116 in her Village Bank [3].
  • Sustainability: Approximately two-thirds (64 percent) of the original 1,536 Village Banks are still active eight and a half years after the program began and five to six years after all WORTH-related support ended. That means there are nearly 1,000 surviving groups with approximately 25,000 members [3].
  • Replication: A quarter of the existing WORTH groups has helped start an estimated 425 new groups involving another 11,000 women with neither external assistance nor prompting from WORTH itself. If all these groups are currently operating, then more Village Bankers are conducting business today in Nepal than when formal WORTH programming ended in 2001. The report also said 63% of the Village Bank members derived the income from agriculture/ sale of food versus 17% in commerce/ retail trade and the rest in miscellaneous trades. Over 40% of the participants said they borrowed to pay for education and health costs and another 20% to pay off other loans plus for festivals (e.g. birth, death) [3].
  • Literacy: 97 percent of respondents reported that literacy is “very important” to their lives; 83 percent reported that because of WORTH they are able to send more of their children to school [3].
  • Domestic disputes and violence: Two-thirds of groups reported that members bring their personal or family problems to the group for advice or help. Of these, three-quarters reported helping members deal with issues of domestic disputes and related problems. Forty-three percent of women said that their degree of freedom from domestic violence has changed because of their membership in a WORTH group. One in 10 reported that WORTH has actually helped “change her life” because of its impact on domestic violence [3].

The report outlines other impacts, including self-help actions such as two-thirds of groups being engaged in community action, and three-quarters said that the group has done something to help others in the community. Speaking of community, it is notable that the self-selected women were primarily from wealthier groups (60%), 15% from the middle class, with only 20% from the most disadvantaged castes [3]. Frankly this is not as surprising, as those most willing to take on risk are rarely the poorest until later; 67% of the very poor later wanted to join such a bank (once the risk was shown not to be too high versus income) [3].

The study’s author asks “Yet for all this documented success, WORTH and other savings-led microfinance programs remain among the best kept secret in the world of international development and poverty alleviation. Although together such programs reach some two million poor people, they go almost unnoticed by the $20 billion credit-led microfinance industry… The empowered women in this study—like WORTH women elsewhere in Asia and Africa— have proved themselves equipped to lead a new generation of entrepreneurs who can take WORTH [onward] through a model of social franchising now being pilot-tested [which is] as creative and potentially groundbreaking as is WORTH…WORTH has the potential to become an “international movement that supports women’s efforts to lift themselves, their families, and their communities out of poverty” [3].

So why aren’t are we learning from such projects and scaling them up everywhere? PACT is [4]. They have reached 365,000 women in 14 countries – including Myanmar, Cambodia, Colombia, Swaziland, DRC, Ethiopia, with Nigeria and Malawi starting this year [4]. Coca-Cola awarded $400,000 to PACT in 2013 to replicate WORTH in Vietnam with 2,400 women [5]. Who else is replicating this model? It’s not clear from many excellent microenterprise sites I visited except one tells me that Mastercard Foundation and Aga Khan are looking into wider replication as well. Let’s track their results and ask participants!

 

 

Sources:

[1] Bateman, M. (2011, September 20). Microcredit doesn’t work – it’s now official. Retrieved from https://opinion.bdnews24.com/2011/09/20/microcredit-doesn%E2%80%99t-work-%E2%80%93-it%E2%80%99s-now-official/

[2] Vaessan, J., Rivas, A., & Duvendack, M. (2014, November). The Effects of Microcredit on Women’s Control Over Household Spending in Developing Countries: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Retrieved from https://www.findevgateway.org/paper/2014/11/effects-microcredit-womens-control-over-household-spending-developing-countries

[3] Mayoux, L. (2008, June). Women Ending Poverty: The WORTH Program in Nepal – Empowerment through Literacy, Banking and Business 1999-2007. Retrieved from https://www.findevgateway.org/case-study/2008/06/women-ending-poverty-worth-program-nepal-empowerment-through-literacy-banking

[4] PACT. (n.d.). WORTH. Retrieved 2015, from https://web.archive.org/web/20141106013639/http://www.pactworld.org/worth

[5] PACT. (2013, August 13). The Coca-Cola Foundation awards $400,000 grant to Pact. Retrieved from https://www.pactworld.org/article/coca-cola-foundation-awards-400000-grant-pact

 

What should projects accomplish… and for whom?

 

What should projects accomplish… and for whom?

 

An unnamed international non-profit client contacted me to evaluate their resilience project mid-stream, to gauge prospects for sustainable handover. EUREKA, I thought! After email discussions with them I drafted an evaluation process that included learning from a variety of stakeholders, ranging from Ministries, local government and the national University who were to take over the programming work about what they thought would be most sustainable once the project ended and how in the next two years the project could best foster self-sustainability by country-nationals. I projected several weeks for in-depth participatory discussions with local youth groups and sentinel communities directly affected by the food security/ climate change onslaught and who benefited from resilience activities to learn what had worked, what didn’t and who would take what self-responsibility locally going forward.

Pleased with myself, I sent off a detailed proposal. The non-profit soon answered that I hadn’t fully understood my task.  In their view the main task at hand was to determine what the country needed the non-profit to keep doing, so the donor could be convinced to extend their (U.S.-based) funding.  The question at hand became how could I change my evaluation to feed them back this key information for the next proposal design?

Maybe it was me, maybe it was the autumn winds, maybe it was my inability to sufficiently subsume long-term sustainability questions under shorter-term non-profit financing interests that led me to drop this.  Maybe the elephant in the living room that is often unspoken is the need for some non-profits to prioritize their own organizational sustainability to ‘do good’ via donor funding rather than working for community self-sustainability.

Maybe donor/funders should share this blame, needing to push funding out, proving success at any cost to get more funding and so the cycle goes on. As a Feedback Lab feature on a Effective Philanthropy report recently stated: “Only rarely do funders ask, ‘What do the people you are trying to help actually think about what you are doing?’ Participants in the CEP study say that funders rarely provide the resources to find the answer. Nor do funders seem to care whether or not grantees are changing behavior and programs in response to how the ultimate beneficiaries respond” [1].

And how much responsibility do communities themselves hold for not balking?  Why are they so often ‘price-takers’ (in economic terms) rather than ‘price-makers’? As wise Judi Aubel asked in a recent evaluation list-serve discussion When will communities rise up to demand that the “development” resources designed to support/strengthen them be spent on programs/strategies which correspond to their concerns/priorities??” 

 

We can help them do just that by creating good conditions for them to be heard.  We can push advocates to work to ensure the incoming Sustainable Development Goals (post-MDGs) listen to what recipient nations feel are sustainable, more than funders. We can help their voices be heard via systems that enable donor/ implementers to learn from citizen feedback, such as Keystone has via their Constituent Voice practice (in January 2015 it is launching an online feedback data sharing platform called the Feedback Commons) or GlobalGiving’s new Effectiveness Dashboard (see Feedback Labs).

We can do it locally in our work in the field, shifting the focus from our expertise to theirs, from our powerfulness to theirs. In field evaluations can use Empowerment Evaluation. We can fund feedback loops pre-RFP (requests for proposals), during project design, implementation and beyond, with the right incentives tools for learning from community and local and national-level input so that country-led development begins to be actual not just a nice platitude.  We can fund ValuingVoices’ self-sustainability research on what lasts after projects end. We can conserve project content and data in Open Data formats for long-term learning from country-nationals.

 

West.Mali_.TFSI_.Water_.Women_.Well_.Africare.1

 

Most of all, we can honour our participants as experts, which is what I strive to do in my work. I’ll leave you with a story from Mali. in 1991 I was doing famine-prevention research in Koulikoro Mali where average rainfall is 100mm a year (4 inches). I accompanied women I was interviewing to a deep well which was 100m deep (300 feet). They used plastic pliable buckets and the first five drew up 90% of the bucket full. When I asked to try, they seriously gave me a bucket. I laughed, as did they when we saw that only 20% of my bucket was full. I had splashed the other 80% out on the way up. Who’s the expert?

How are we helping them get more of what they need, rather than what we are willing to give? How are we prioritizing their needs over our organizational income? How are we #ValuingVoices?

 

Sources:

[1] The Center for Effective Philanthropy. (2014, October 27). Closing the Citizen Feedback Loop. Retrieved December 2014, from https://web.archive.org/web/20141031130101/https://feedbacklabs.org/closing-the-citizen-feedback-loop/

[2] Better Evaluation. (n.d.). Empowerment Evaluation. Retrieved December 2014, from https://www.betterevaluation.org/plan/approach/empowerment_evaluation

[3] Sonjara. (2016). Content and Data: Intangible Assets Part V. Retrieved from http://www.sonjara.com/blog?article_id=135

 

Data for whose good?

Data for whose good?

Many of us work in international development because we are driven to serve, to make corners of the world better by improving the lives of those that live there. Many of us are driven by compassion to help directly through working ‘in the field’ with ‘beneficiary’/ participants, some of us manifest our desire to help through staying in our home countries, advocating to powers that be for more funding, while others create new technologies to help improve the lives of others all over the world. Some of us what to use Western funds and report back to our taxpayers that funds were well-spent, others want to create future markets via increasing globally-thriving economies.  We use data all the time to prove our case.

USAID has spent millions on USAID Forward and monitoring and evaluation systems. Organizations such as 3ie rigorously document projected impact of projects while they are being implemented. Japan’s JICA and the OECD are two of the rarest kinds of organizations – returning post-project to look at the continued impact (as USAID did 30 years ago and stopped).  Sadly the World Bank and USAID have only done one post-project evaluation each in the last 20 years that drew on communities’ opinions. While a handful of non-profits have used private funds to do recent ex-post evaluations, the esteemed American Evaluation Association has (shockingly) not one resource.

Do we not care about sustained impact? Or are we just not looking in the right places with the right perspective? Linda Raftree has a blog on Big Data and Resilience. She says, “instead of large organizations thinking about how they can use data from afar to ‘rescue’ or ‘help’ the poor, organizations should be working together with communities in crisis (or supporting local or nationally based intermediaries to facilitate this process) so that communities can discuss and pull meaning from the data, contextualize it and use it to help themselves….” Respect for communities’ self-determination seems to be a key missing ingredient.

As an article from the Center for Global Development cites the empowerment that data gives citizens and our own international donors knowledge by which to steer: Citizens.  When statistical information is released to the public through a vigorous open government mechanism it can help citizens directly.  Citizens need data both to hold their government accountable and to improve their private decision-making.  (On the CGD website, see discussions of the value of public disclosure for climate policy here and for AIDS foreign assistance here.)

In my experience, most communities have information but are not perceived to have data unless they collect it using 'Western' methods. Having data to support and back information, opinions and demands can serve communities in negotiations with entities that wield more power. (See the book “Who Counts, the power of participatory statistics” on how to work with communities to create ‘data’ from participatory approaches). Even if we codify qualitative (interview) data and quantify it via surveys, this is not enough if there is no political will to make change to respond to the data and to demands being made based on the data. This is due in some part to a lack of foundational respect that communities’ views count.

Occasionally, excellent thinkers at World Bank 'get' this: "In 2000, a study by the World Bank, conducted in fifty developing countries, stated that “there are 2.8 billion poverty experts: the poor themselves. Yet the development discourse about poverty has been dominated by the perspectives and expertise of those who are not poor … The bottom poor, in all their diversity, are excluded, impotent, ignored and neglected; the bottom poor are a blind spot in development." (This came from a session description for the 2014 World Bank Spring Meetings Civil Society Forum meetings, where I presented for Valuing Voices this spring, see photo below).

WorldBankPanelEngaging NGOs in Development & Dialogue0414

And as Anju Sharma’s great blog on community empowerment says, “Why do we continue to talk merely of community “participation” in development? Why not community-driven development, or community-driven adaptation, where communities don’t just participate in activities meant to benefit them, but actually lead them?” Valuing Voices would like to add that we need participatory self-sustainability feedback data from communities documenting Global Aid Effectiveness, ‘walking’ Busan’s talk.  Rather than our evaluating their effectiveness in carrying out our development objectives, goals, activities and proposed outcomes, let’s shift to manifest theirs!

Our centuries-old love affair with data is hard to break.  Fine, data has to inform our actions, so let’s make it as grassroots, community-driven as possible, based on respect for the knowledge of those most affected by projects, where the rubber hits the road. While that may make massive development projects targeted at hundreds of thousands uniformly… messy… but at least projects many be more efficacious, sustainable and theirs.   What do you think?

 

Sustainability SPRINGing out all over the place… and Disrupting!

Sustainability SPRINGing out all over the place… and Disrupting

 

So what is sustainability? You may think it's the climate's long-term wellbeing and how to gauge changes to that.  You may think it's linked to sustainable development regarding consumption, trade, education and environment and how to assess it. You may think it's data-driven organizational success as Chelsea Clinton describes, or is it Michael Porter's business' view of Creating Shared Value on social and environmental concerns or is it about people, as hallowed University of Cambridge trains experts in its Institute for Sustainability Leadership (I revel that I was a Fellow there in the '90s). Finally, is it WCED’s lovely definition "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"? Yes, when applied to communities' abilities to self-sustainably and resiliently chart their own development! 

So how are we to get there? A Sustainable Brands Conference this year gets us there through being clear about their own consumption, and USAID is no different. USAID Forward is putting their money where their keyboards are (so to speak), toward more sustainable local delivery by directing a huge 30 percent of its funding to “local solutions” through procurement in coming years.  This framework is to “support the ‘new model of development’ that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah has touted, which entails a shift away from hiring U.S.-based development contractors and NGOs to implement projects, and toward channeling money through host-country governments and local organizations to build their capacity to do the work themselves and sustain programs after funding dries up. I, and others celebrate the investments this will enable local firms to make in their own capacity, in leading development!

Of course all sorts of safeguards are needed, and ideally US firms would be providing capacity development, but shouldn’t we have been doing this all along, to move toward transferring ‘development’ to the countries themselves?

 GAO_Sustain_LocalSyst0514

Source: GAO report

Also vital to sustainable development is learning from what works and doing more of it. USAID is finally planning to incorporate more ex-post evaluations into its toolkit of evaluating sustainability!  Two weeks ago, PPL/LER shared their great new policy document- “Local systems: A framework for supporting sustained development on how they can better incorporate local systems thinking into policy as well as DIME (Design, Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation).  Industry insider DevEx tells us "even though the agency plans to use ex-post evaluations to measure whether development projects are successful or not, these evaluations will not focus on “specific contractor performance” but instead consider the “types of approaches that contribute to more sustainable outcomes…to inform USAID’s country strategies and project design." While PVO implementing partners will not [yet?] be required to do ex-post evaluations as part of their projects, having this door cracked open is excitingly opening. Notably, it is a ‘back to the future’ moment, as 30 years ago USAID led the development world in post-project evaluations, yet in the last 24 years has done none (or at least not published any) except for the Food for Peace retrospective below, as I found in our Valuing Voices research of USAID's Development Experience Clearinghouse.

There is far more to watch. In our view, the whole development industry needs to grapple with the perceived barrier that funding ends with projects (note: a trust could be set up to document post-project impact 1, 3, 5 years later and results retained, much as 3ie does now for impact evaluations) and the view that one cannot discern attributable project impact with a time-lag of several years. Yet even the General Accounting Office is asking for longitudinal data; they reviewed USAID’s document and wants to see clear measures of success at Mission and HQ level by different indicators of local institutional sustainability and impact four years on.

Why should we care? As Chelsea Clinton of the Clinton Global Initiative puts it, "you can't measure everything, but you can measure almost everything through quantitative or qualitative means, so that we know what we're disproportionately good at. And, candidly, what we're not so good at, so we can stop doing that.

Yes! Development should be about doing more of what works, sustainably, and less of what doesn’t. USAID’s Local Systems Framework found the best could also be free, as in this one Food For Peace evaluation shows:

FFPBox8

Returning to Chelsea Clinton, I’ll conclude by stating something obvious. She "wants to see some evidence of why we're making decisions, as opposed to the anecdotes” which is what getting post-project evaluation data from our true clients, our participants, is all about. Clinton says this will transform CGI into a smart, accountable, and sustainable support system for philanthropic disrupters around the world. USAID is radical for me, today, with their Local Systems investments… my neighborhood disrupter.

 

Are you such a disrupter too? Who else is one whom we can celebrate together? 

Pineapple, Apple- what differentiates Impact from Sustainability Evaluation?

Pineapple, Apple- what differentiates Impact from Sustainability Evaluation?

There is great news.  Impact Evaluation is getting attention and being funded to do excellent research, such as by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie), by donors such as the World Bank, USAID, UKAid, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in countries around the world.  Better Evaluation tell us that “USAID, for example, uses the following definition: “Impact evaluations measure the change in a development outcome that is attributable to a defined intervention; impact evaluations are based on models of cause and effect and require a credible and rigorously defined counterfactual to control for factors other that the intervention that might account for the observed change.”

William Savedoff of CGD reports in Evaluation Gap reports that whole countries are setting up such evaluation institutes:  “Germany’s new independent evaluation institute for the country’s development policies, based in Bonn, is a year old.  DEval has a mandate that looks similar to Britain’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (discussed in a previous newsletter ) because it will not only conduct its own evaluations but also help the Federal Parliament monitor the effectiveness of international assistance programs and policies. DEval’s 2013-2015 work program is ambitious and wide – ranging from specific studies of health programs in Rwanda to overviews of microfinance and studies regarding mitigation of climate change and aid for trade.” There is even a huge compendium of impact evaluation databases.

There is definitely a key place for impact evaluations in analyzing which activities are likely to have the most statistically significant (which means definitive change) impact. One such study in Papua New Guinea found SMS (mobile text) inclusion in teaching made a significant difference in student test scores compared to the non-participating ‘control group’ who did not get the SMS (texts).  Another study, the Tuungane I evaluation by a group of Columbia University scholars showed clearly that an International Rescue Committee program on community-level reconstruction did not change participant behaviors. The study was as well designed as an RCT can be, and its conclusions are very convincing.  But as the authors note, we don’t actually know why the intervention failed. To find that out, we need the kind of thick descriptive qualitative data that only a mixed methods study can provide.

Economist Kremer from Harvard says ““The vast majority of development projects are  not subject to any evaluation of this type, but I’d argue the number should at least be greater than it is now.” Impact evaluations use ‘randomized control trials’, comparing the group that got project assistance to a similar group that didn’t to gauge the change. A recent article that talks about treating poverty as a science experiment says “nongovernmental organizations and governments have been slow to adopt the idea of testing programs to help the poor in this way. But proponents of randomization—“randomistas,” as they’re sometimes called—argue that many programs meant to help the poor are being implemented without sufficient evidence that they’re helping, or even not hurting.”  However we get there, we want to know – the real (or at least likely)- impact of our programming, helping us focus funds wisely.

Data gleaned from impact evaluations is excellent information to have before design and during implementation.  While impact evaluations are a thorough addition to the evaluation field, experts recommend they be done from the beginning of implementation. While they ask “Are impacts likely to be sustainable?”, and “to what extent did the impacts match the needs of the intended beneficiaries?” and importantly “did participants/key informants believe the intervention had made a difference?” they focus only on possible sustainability, using indicators we expect to see at project end rather than tangible proof of sustainability of the activities and impacts that communities define themselves that we actually return to measure 2-10 years later.

PineappleApple

That is the role for something that has rarely been used in 30 years – for post-project (ex-post) evaluations looking at:

  1. The resilience of expected impacts of the project 2, 5, 10 years after close-out
  2. The communities’ and NGOs’ ability to sustain which activities themselves
  3. Positive and negative unintended impacts of the project, especially 2 years after, while still in clear living memory
  4. Kinds of activities the community and NGOs felt were successes which could not be maintained without further funding
  5. Lessons for other projects across projects on what was most resilient that communities valued enough to do themselves or NGOs valued enough to get other funding for, as well as what was not resilient.

Where is this systematically happening already? There are our catalysts ex-post evaluation organizations, drawing on communities’ wisdom. Here and there there are other glimpses of ValuingVoices, mainly to inform current programming, such as these two interesting approaches:

  • Vijayendra Rao describes how a social observatory approach to monitoring and evaluation in India’s self-help groups leads to “Learning by Doing”– drawing on material from the book Localizing Development: Does Participation Work? The examples show how groups are creating faster feedback loops with more useful information by incorporating approaches commonly used in impact evaluations. Rao writes: “The aim is to balance long-term learning with quick turnaround studies that can inform everyday decision-making.”
  • Ned Breslin, CEO of Water For People talks about “Rethinking Social Entrepreneurism: Moving from Bland Rhetoric to Impact (Assessment)”. His new water and sanitation program, Everyone Forever, does not focus on the inputs and outputs, including water provided or girls returning to school. Instead it centers instead on attaining the ideal vision of what a community would look like with improved water and sanitation, and working to achieve that goal. Instead of working on fundraising only, Breslin wants to redefine the meaning of success as a world in which everyone has access to clean water.

We need a combination. We need to know how good our programming is now through rigorous randomized control trials, and we need to ask communities and NGOs how sustainable the impacts are.  Remember,  99% of all development projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year are not currently evaluated for long-term sustainability by their ultimate consumers, the communities they were designed to help.  

We need an Institute of Sustainable Evaluation and a Ministry of Sustainable Development in every emerging nation, funded by donors who support national learning to shape international assistance. We need a sustainability global database, mandatory to be referred to in all future project planning. We need to care enough about the well-being of our true client to listen, learn and act.