Sustaining “Sustainable Development”?
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.”
 IDEAS 2019 Global Assembly. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://2019.global-assembly.org/
 Rowe, A. (2019). Sustainability‐Ready Evaluation: A Call to Action. New Directions for Evaluation, 162, 29-48. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333616139_Sustainability-Ready_Evaluation_A_Call_to_Action
 USAID. (2013, October 31). Environmental Compliance Procedures. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/our_work/environment/compliance/pdf/216
 OECD. (2015). Element 4, Paper 1: Global and local environmental sustainability, development and growth. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/dac/environment-development/FINAL%20POST-2015%20global%20and%20local%20environmental%20sustainability.pdf
 Haraguchi, T. (2017). Socialist Republic of Viet Nam: FY 2017 Ex-Post Evaluation of Japanese ODA Loan Project “Small-Scale Pro Poor Infrastructure Development Project (III)”. Retrieved from https://www2.jica.go.jp/en/evaluation/pdf/2017_VNXVII-5_4.pdf
 Coates, J., Kegode, E., Galante, T., & Blau, A. (2016, February). Sustaining Development: Results from a Study of Sustainability and Exit Strategies among Development Food Assistance Projects: Kenya Country Study. USAID. Retrieved from https://www.globalwaters.org/resources/assets/ex-post-evaluation-senegal-pepam
 Madagascar Rural Access To New Opportunities For Health And Prosperity (RANO-HP) Ex-Post Evaluation. (2017, June 1). USAID. Retrieved from https://www.globalwaters.org/resources/assets/madagascar-rural-access-new-opportunities-health-and-prosperity-rano-hp-ex-post-0
 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
Wishing for Ex-Post Evaluation Christmas Lights
Rather than Needles in Haystacks
This is what life of most ex-post evaluation researchers looks like, mostly without the counting congratulator:
I recently spent three days looking for ex-post evaluations for a client across nearly a dozen organizations. I was hard-pressed to find 16 actual ones. Sorting through ‘impact evaluations’ that were done in the middle of implementation does not tell us anything about what was sustained after we leave, nor do delayed final evaluations that happen to be done after closure. While these (rightly) focus on cost-effectiveness, relevance and efficiency, measures of sustained impact are projections, not actual measures of what outcomes and impacts stood the test of time. I weeded out some desk studies that did not return to ask anyone who participated. Others titled ‘ex-post’ were barely midterms (I can only gather they misconstrued ‘ex-post’ as after-starting implementation?) and a few more reports only recommended doing ex-post evaluation after this final evaluation. For more lessons on how random and misconstrued ex-posts can be, see Valuing Voices’ research for Scriven. None of these 16 actual ex-posts even told us anything about what emerged (as we look at during Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluations) from local efforts in the years after assistance ended .
This is what I wish my ex-post haystack would look like, bountiful treasures of numerous ex-post-project evaluations, as numerous as these Christmas lights here in Tabor, Czech Republic.
If we had more ex-posts to learn from, we could learn from what lasted. What could locals sustain? Why? Why not? How can we do better next time? We could compare across sectors and countries, and we could see what conditions and processes during implementation supported sustainability -and importantly – why some failed, so we don’t repeat those mistakes.
We could move from our current orange slices that ends at closure to green sustainability of the project cycle:
I will be adding the ones I found to our Catalysts list soon, but when my client asked me who held databases of ex-post evaluations, I had to say only Valuing Voices and Japan’s JICA (since 1993 who even differentiates the ex-posts between Technical Grants and ODA Loans). This is not to say some cannot be found by trawling the OECD or the World Bank, but this is Needle-in-Haystack work again and so there are only 2 databases to learn from. Isn’t that shocking?
Now JICA has really upped the illumination ante, so to speak: They are now doing what they are calling ‘JICA’s Ex-post Monitoring’ which was like Christmas come early ! Returning to learn at least 7 years after the ex-post which was 1-3 years after closure, such as among this case of ex-post monitoring and learning from 10 projects (2007). They have done ex-post monitoring for a total of 91 cases, evaluating the sustained impacts of results, see if JICA’s recommendations to their partners had been implemented, how they had adapted to changes over a decade post-closure, and find learning for new programming. “Ex-post monitoring is undertaken 7 years after a project was completed in principle in order to determine whether or not the expected effects and impacts continue to be generated, to check that there are no sustainability-related problems with the technical capacities, systems and finances of the executing agency nor with the operation and management of developed facilities, etc., and to ascertain what action has been taken vis-a-vis the lessons learned and recommendations gleaned during the ex-post evaluation.” While it was unclear why these specific projects were selected, it is amazing they are doing 5-10 per year.
They are my ex-post gods/ goddesses and I fawned over two JICA evaluators at the last European Evaluation Society Conference. Why do I fawn? JICA lists 2273 results under ex-post evaluations of Technical Cooperation, Grant Aid, ODA loans! They are literally the only organization I know whose searched reports are actually ‘ex-post’.
What we can learn from returning again is illustrated by one of JICA’s water project loans in RSA, which ended in 2003, had an ex-post in 2006, followed by monitoring of sustainability in 2013 . While the report included issues of data access and evaluators expressed caution in attributing causation of positive changes to the project, but it not only continued functioning, the government of South Africa (RSA) solved barriers found at the ex-post:
- “Data for the supply and demand of water pertaining to the Kwandebele region could not be obtained. However, considering the calculation from the water supplied population and supplied volume and the result from the DWAF interview, water shortage could not be detected in the four municipalities studied by this project…” 
- “The ex-post evaluation indicated that the four components were not in the state to be operated and managed effectively. Currently, the components are operated and managed effectively and are operating under good condition [and] concerning sustainability, improvement can be seen from the time of ex-post evaluation. Shortage of employees and insufficient technical knowledge has been resolved…” 
- “Compared to the time of ex-post evaluation, improvement was seen in the under-five mortality and life expectancy. However, since the components implemented by this project are limited in comparison with the scope of the project, it is impossible to present a clear causal relationship” .
In another, from Indonesia’s air quality testing labs which involved capacity building and equipment maintenance 6 years after the ex-post, they mostly found training and use continued despite organizational changes and maintenance challenges: 
- “After the ex-post evaluation, many of the target laboratories changed their affiliation from the Ministry of Public Works (MOPW) and MOH to provincial governments. While the relocation of equipment has been carried out in a handful of provinces, in other provinces equipment is still located at the laboratories where it was originally installed and these laboratories still have the right of use” 
- In spite of some irregularities ”As the Ministry of Environment (MOE) still has ownership of the equipment, some laboratories have inappropriate audit results that show allocation of O&M budget to equipment which is not included in their accounting…” 
- “Out of 20 laboratories where the questionnaire survey confirmed that equipment still remained, 15 laboratories replied that spare parts for equipment are still available but are difficult to obtain…It takes several months to one year to obtain spare parts, occasionally out of Indonesia, even if a repair service is available” .
In this case, there were lessons learned for JICA and Indonesia’s Ministry of the Environment programs about ownership and the right use of the equipment and retiring obsolete equipment. Talk about a commitment to learning from the ongoing success or failure of one’s projects!
As you have read here on Valuing Voices for more than six years, unless we include post-project sustainability that asks our participants and partners how sustained their lives and livelihoods could be, and even resilient to shocks like political or climate change, we cannot say we are doing Sustainable Development. We need such lessons about what could be sustained and why.
We can prepare better to foster sustainability. In the coming months we are working on checklists to consider during funding, design, implementation, M&E pre-and post-exit, to foster sustainability. Will keep you posted, but as World Vision also found: “Measuring sustainability through ex-posts requires setting clear benchmarks to measure success prior to program closure, including timelines for expected sustainment.”
And as my gift to you this Holiday Season, let me share WV’s Learning Brief about Sustainability, with wise and provocative questions to ponder about dynamic systems, benchmarking, continuous learning, attribution, and managing expectations . World Vision shares how infrastructure and community groups and social cohesion fared well, yet lessons circled back to the need for JICA-like ‘monitoring’ and mirror rich ex-post lessons from FFP/Tufts (Rogers, Coates) and Hiller et al. that explains why we do ex-posts at all: “Project impact at the time of exit does not consistently predict sustainability“ .
Now my gift: a few big lessons from the six years of researching sustainability across the development spectrum. I have found no evaluations that were only positive. Most results trended downwards, a few held steady, and all were mixed. We cannot assume the sustainability of results at closure, nor optimistic projections as we’ve seen in the climate arena.
- Designing with our participants and partners so what we do,
- Implementing with partners far longer to make sure things still work,
- Adapting exit based on benchmarks to see how well the resources, partnerships, capacities, and ownership have been transferred,
- Using control or comparison groups to make sure ‘success’ was due to you and being careful about attributing results to your projects while considering how you contributed to a larger whole of ongoing country progress or stagnation,
- Being willing to jettison what is unlikely to be sustained and learn from what we designed and implemented poorly (due to our design, their implementation, external conditions),
- Given climate-change, learning fast, adaptively and revising fast given changing conditions,
- Without knowing what has been sustained we cannot replicate nor scale-up,
- Sharing lessons with your leaders – for people’s lives depend on our work,
- Learning from what emerged as our participants and partners refashioned implementation in new ways could sustain it (without the millions we brought),
- Refocusing ‘success’ from how much we have spent, to how much was sustained.
Please make our next Christmas merry. Do MANY ex-post evaluations, Learn TONS, Share WIDELY WHAT WORKED AND FAILED TO WORK (you will be praised!), and let’s CHANGE HOW WE DO SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT.
May 2020 bring health, happiness, and to all of us a more sustainable world!
 Cekan, J., Zivetz, L., & Rogers, P. (2016). Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation (SEIE). Retrieved from https://www.betterevaluation.org/en/themes/SEIE
 JICA. (n.d.). Ex-post Monitoring. Retrieved December, 2019, from https://www.jica.go.jp/english/our_work/evaluation/oda_loan/monitoring/index.html
 Matsuyama, K. (2012). Ex-Post Monitoring of Japanese ODA Loan Project: South Africa, Kwandebele Region Water Augmentation Project. Retrieved from https://www.jica.go.jp/english/our_work/evaluation/oda_loan/monitoring/c8h0vm000001rdlp-att/2012_full_03.pdf
 Kobayashi, N. (2009, August). Ex-post Monitoring of Completed ODA Loan Project: Indonesia, The Bepedal Regional Monitoring Capacity Development Project. Retrieved from https://www.jica.go.jp/english/our_work/evaluation/oda_loan/monitoring/c8h0vm000001rdlp-att/indonesia2008_01.pdf
 Trandafili, H. (2019). Learning Brief: What does sustainability look like post-program? Retrieved from https://valuingvoices.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Sustainability-Learning-Brief_final_WV-icons.pdf
 Rogers, B. L., & Coates, J. (2015, December). Sustaining Development: A Synthesis of Results from a Four-Country Study of Sustainability and Exit Strategies among Development Food Assistance Projects. Retrieved from https://www.fsnnetwork.org/ffp-sustainability-and-exit-strategies-study-synthesis-report
When Funders Move On: Donors and nonprofits need to learn more about how to help program participants keep progressing after the support ends.
Imagine standing in Detroit or South-Central Los Angeles. A team of experts has come to help you out of grinding poverty. Some of these experts specialize in credit issues, others in education or health or gardening. They have funding for three years, so they set up offices, create participant lists and prioritize problems to tackle. They give you seeds and loans, and advice. And you—and others from your neighborhood—begin creating small businesses and home gardens. You and other adults learn about infant nutrition; children who live in your area get free school materials; teachers at your local schools receive extra training. Everyone begins to do better.
A year and a half passes. Another expert arrives to find out how things are going relative to the team’s projections. Some businesses are succeeding, others have faltered; some gardens are flourishing, others are neglected. You participate in a focus group, and you answer questions optimistically.
At the three-year mark, many of your neighbors are participating in this project, and tangible successes appear to be spreading. But suddenly, the experts are packing their boxes. The project office closes. The initiative has supposedly been “handed over” to the community. No one who worked for the project comes back.
No one comes back. This is the state of affairs for too many so-called “sustainable international development” initiatives around the world, and it has to change.
As Gugelev and Stern brilliantly note in a recent SSIR article, we must be transparent about our “endgame”: Too many international development projects are bound to fixed endings and “fail to reckon with the gap between what the nonprofit can achieve and what the problem actually requires.” Due to fixed funding requirements, donors often leave when the calendar tells them to, whether or not a project has achieved the desired impact. And according to Valuing Voices research, they don’t even go back to assess the outcomes of their work or consider what (if anything) might help progress continue!
Since 2000, the US government has spent more than $280 billion on bilateral and multilateral assistance; the EU has spent $1.4 trillion. Just in 2002, US foundations, businesses, and NGOs spent more than $34 billion overseas. And while most taxpayers believe that this spending supports “sustainable development,” our research shows that 99 percent of the nonprofit grant and for-profit contracted projects these funds enabled were not evaluated after the funding concluded. Unfortunately, this continues: In 2014, the US spent $20 billion and the EU spent $80 billion on program assistance without any plan for post-project evaluation. This does not mean the projects are not sustainable; we simply do not know.
In fact, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—once considered the leader in post-project evaluations assessing relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability—has managed only one post-project evaluation in 30 years (due later this year). And although thousands of documents appear in multilateral donor database searches as evaluations, most are “desk studies”—conducted remotely and not based on new fieldwork. Of these, only a few include feedback from program participants (leading the way are Japan’s International Cooperation Agency and the UN’s Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which have systematically done post-project evaluations).
There is usually terrific monitoring and evaluation during project implementation (red) and evaluation at start-mid-end (green), virtually no one returns afterwards (blue).
Why don’t we do a better job of following up? Are we afraid of the possibility of seeing poor results? If so, it’s time to face that fear. In some cases, we will surely see good results or even unanticipated positive impact—we’re missing that too.
Hewlett Foundation’s Fay Twersky implored nonprofits to “systematically solicit feedback from intended beneficiaries” in an SSIR podcast on Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). We agree. We need to know more than whether those participants’ situations are improving while a program is in full swing, and we need to know what it will take for things to continue to improve after the funding goes away. Imagine the cost efficiencies we would gain by replicating activities that they could sustain. Imagine the cost-efficiencies and productivity if we prioritized activities with the largest sustainable return on investment (ROI). Now that is something impact investors could buy into.
There are positive signs on the horizon. According to Keystone Accountability, an increasing number of nonprofit organizations are committing to “making governments, NGOs, and donors more responsive to the needs of their constituents.” And funding that supports the idea of using participant feedback to improve programs and make them sustainable is on the rise, as Center for Effective Philanthropy’s “Hearing from Those We Seek to Help” and the Fund for Shared Insight have noted. All of this could yield a hugely different array of endgames that are sustainable by communities that can perhaps later even select development aid offers based on past effectiveness.
But there is still much to do. We offer the following recommendations to project implementers and donors, based on our own experience, and on our observations of several initiatives where we have seen project participants independently continuing and adapting work that was begun with external support:
- Shift the development model from what donors and implementers think would be best to what the intended participants think is best. Design projects with them, and mandate that request for proposals (RFP) design involves communities.
- Document, share, and discuss what was most sustained and what participating communities and local partners can do to sustain projects, and how we can sustainably support them through design and implementation to make them more effective.
- Require a plan for transitioning to sustainability after projects close for any project that uses more than $1 million dollars. This should include handover plans to local nonprofits, with training and financial support; training for communities on how to manage the sustainable activities it prioritizes; financing mechanisms for those activities; and report sharing in IATI open-data format, with project data saved and stored in the cloud for global access.
- Do post-project sustainability evaluations on all these projects, and discuss the results widely with other funders, the government, and the private sector, including how to feed back lessons into future design.
- Advocate for participatory input in all evaluations. This input should make up 30 percent of future evaluation findings (now far less).
- Consistently solicit feedback from local communities through national evaluators, both during and after projects, to better understand how the program you’re running or supporting from afar is working on the ground. Invest in building the national capacity and systems needed to make that feedback helpful for all stakeholders, including national governments.
- Advocate for extensive civil society input into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals so they serve our participants’ visions for the world they want.
As Peter Kimeu of Catholic Relief Services said to me, “It will be sustainable development if the people at community level are involved in designing and delivering their own dreams of development.”
Jindra Cekan (@WhatWeValue) is founder of Valuing Voices, with 28 years in international development design, monitoring, and evaluation. She has a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; was a University of Cambridge Fellow; and works with foundation, nonprofit, and for-profit clients.
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).
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?
The lack of ex-post project evaluation at the World Bank: One has no power
The World Bank has a huge repository of 8,483 evaluation resources in its e-library database, so naturally Valuing Voices was very interested in investigating how many of those resources were ex-post evaluations of past World Bank projects. After searching the term “ex post evaluation” in the e-library, I ended up with 260 hits from those initial 8,483 resources that were a match. This looked like great news to have so many potential ex-post evaluations to analyze from such a powerhouse in international development as the World Bank. From the initial 260 hits, I expected about 50 of them to be what we consider to be ‘true’ ex-post, which is an evaluation conducted a few years after a project has been completed to assess for factors such as sustainability and long-term effectiveness of the program after donor resources had been withdrawn.
However, when I began to sift through the resources in more detail, the results were not exactly as we had anticipated. In order to determine how many of the 260 “ex-post evaluation” hits were true ex-post the process was simple, albeit time consuming. I looked through every hit, reading the abstracts provided by the World Bank and investigating individual resources in more detail if they seemed promising. While doing this, I categorized each hit by document type, keeping a tally of all the totals. The results were as follows:
Non-Evaluations (literature review, recommendations, guidelines, etc. related to evaluations)
Other (Policy reports, annual reports, sourcebooks, etc. not related to evaluations)
Did anything about these results surprise you? Yes, you read that right. Out of all 260 hits that came up from the search “ex-post evaluation” in the World Bank online database, an astounding grand total of one was a true ex-post evaluation of a past project. A bilateral counterpart, Japan’s JICA, has done 236 in 2009-2011 on past ODA projects, one of our rare stars in ex-post learning.
Suffice it to say, Valuing Voices was shocked by these results. There exists a clear need, based on this research, for the World Bank to contribute to the process of informing future projects by learning from past experiences, successes, mistakes, and community feedback through the valuable ex-post evaluation method. While impact and retrospective evaluations are indeed important, the nature of compiling many evaluations into one broad analysis doesn’t allow for a detailed assessment of how individual projects performed, especially when the respondents in many other multilateral ex-posts tend to remain government counterparts rather than local respondents. This type of comprehensive analysis of the long-term sustainability of completed projects can only be done by conducting ex-post evaluations for projects on a case-by-case basis.
Jindra Cekan (head of ValuingVoices) was invited to attend and speak at the World Bank’s Civil Society Organization spring meetings last week, and, armed with my findings, asked why we don’t see ex-posts at two sessions. Astrid Marroh, a senior staffer tasked with setting new strategy for the Bank, answered that longitudinal learning is, “a nut we have not yet cracked”. Varun Gauri, writing the major World Development Report 2015 on Mind and Culture at the Bank, said that not only do Bank staff need to, “change the incentives from managing projects as managers to focus on the project’s ultimate aim,” but also that the Bank, “needs to follow the private sector’s approach by ‘Dog-fooding’ our projects– living our own projects“ (where private sector producers try and eat the dog food themselves).
So what is the takeaway lesson learned form all this? Organizations like the World Bank are what set the precedent in international development, yet even this influential international organization fails to conduct regular ex-post evaluations. Despite having plentiful literature and recommendations on how to conduct ex-post evaluations and why they are important to the development process, it is clear that ex-post is not happening at the World Bank. Now is time for the organization to change the status quo and start valuing the voices of their project participants by conducting rigorous ex-post evaluations of their projects including feedback from the community level, in order to finally address this deficiency and establish a cycle of feedback loops and informed decision making that will benefit all involved – and make ‘development aid’ obsolete.
What are the prospects for self-sustained impact at the Macro level? (Part 1)
After studying various impact evaluations, it became clear that different development projects also have different scales, with multilaterally-funded macro-level being focused on higher scale objectives from the municipal up to the national level while micro-level are geared towards improving socioeconomic aspects of communities. Our research revealed that there is a recurring error among projects that makes them ineffective: a lack of community involvement in all stages of the project, or more specifically, their lack of involvement in both the design and the evaluation process. This results in a lack of opinions from the local level regarding project self-sustainable goals, and prospects for ultimate success in self-sustainability. We have seen both macro projects, implemented by multilaterals, and micro projects, implemented by international non-profits, that fail to include local participation in their methodology, but one trend we have noticed is that projects on the macro level, have a tendency to plan, implement, and complete projects with little input from local participants or consideration for the possibility of self-sustainability impacts.
A particularly egregious example of non-self-sustainability at any level is the project for OECD-funded Improving the Performances and Management of Public Lighting in Ho Chi Minh City, which was a project with no ground level/community participation, but rather took place at the municipal level between French company Citelum (supplying technical assistance and equipment) and Sapulico (Saigon Public Lighting Company, Ho Chi Minh City's public lighting authority). From the evaluation summary, we saw the project was most concerned with propagating appreciation for French expertise in the area of public lighting at the national level rather than fostering national electrical self-sustainability. With organizational sustainability as a main objective, the project itself was not considered self-sustainable for a few key reasons:
“Sapulico's engineers acquired the necessary [skills required to operate the system], however, their current skill level is insufficient to handle present and future technical difficulties without the assistance of Citelum.” This means that the local company in Vietnam would continue to be reliant on foreign expertise in the likely event of future technical difficulties.
Also, jarringly, “there are also concerns even about the project's current viability as Sapulico's budget doesn't allow for the purchase of equipment from abroad, therefore the company will be unable to replace equipment that has reached the end of its lifecycle.”
This highlights an obvious overlooking of future project sustainability due to the local budget conditions and insufficient training. Had the project been more concerned with guaranteeing even national self-sustainability rather than the financial sustainability of the foreign implementing organization, the project overall could have been more successful far into the future….
A more promising example of a macro level project aiming for more localized impact, yet still failing to consider self-sustainability, is the JICA Agricultural Development Project in Kambia District. While we commend JICA as the most active multilateral to do ex-post evaluation, we again see the tendency of macro level projects to focus on systemic changes at the national or at least regional level which often self-sustainability buy-in, whereas micro level projects tend to focus on communities or at most sub-regions with the objective of fostering longer-term sustainability. This project, on the other hand, is a hybrid of macro- and micro- as it was to intervene at a district level and it did try to create agricultural extension buy-in. The key takeaways from JICAs post-project evaluation:
This project was concerned with improving agricultural productivity at select sub-district pilot sites, and then a further extension of the project throughout the entire Kambia District. The evaluation focuses heavily on the inability of the project to complete this objective of extending the project geographically because there was insufficient manpower, technical support, and funding to complete project dissemination, which suggests that sustained impact was not fully considered when planning implementation. It also suggests it did not expand because lessons seem not to have been learned from the implementation, and funding was not longer available.
The key point here is that the project did not secure adequate resources or funding for the true completion of its objective, which was to extend the successful outcomes that they observed at the pilot sites further across the region. This resulted in an evaluation analysis of sustainability that was only “fair”.
This project also fails to mention any local participation in the design, planning, implementation, or long-term sustainability phases, so despite seeing successful outcomes in increased crop production at the pilot locations, the evaluation was ultimately negative.
It is clear from the evaluation that the project was being executed from the side of the implementing agency rather than involving local participation beyond the extensionists, and no input was asked from community members about resulting agricultural self-sustainability.
The crux is that had the project been more focused on local self-sustainability beyond the regional extension system, its own organizational deficiencies (lack of manpower, technical support, and funding mentioned above) might not have hindered the ability to expand the project further.
Compare these findings to those we have analyzed in other blogs which illustrated the far more successful project and evaluation results that micro level non-profit development agencies like Mercy Corps, Plan International, and Partners for Democratic Change fostered when they made community participation the key to their development process. However, JICAs Kambia project and the Vietnamese Public Lighting program are not alone in their shortcomings, because the consistent lack of local community involvement in community-focused projects is a theme that we continue to see with macro level and micro level development schemes – a pattern that Valuing Voices is determined to change.
Overall, what we have discerned from this analysis is that projects conducted by macro level multilateral actors have a lower chance of ensuring self-sustainability, in part because they usually aren’t linked directly to the community in regional or national-scale projects. By contrast, micro level projects by international non-profits tend to have a higher chance of fostering greater self-sustainability because they are linked more closely to the end users of development, thereby benefiting both the organization itself as well as the local participants from more inclusionary practices.
We can clearly see that at least a few organizations, both at the macro and micro level, are asking the right questions by conducting these post-project evaluations. However, a systemic problem persists in that virtually no one is designing for self-sustainability. But without it, how successful are we really?