Hard-wiring and Soft-wiring in Sustainability via health program examples: by Laurence Desvignes and Jindra Cekan/ova
We all want things to last. Most of us joined the ‘sustainable development’ industry hoping our foreign aid projects not only do good while we are there but long afterward. Following on last month’s blog on better learning about project design, implementation, and M&E, here are some things to do better.
Long-term sustainability rests on four pillars: the first rests on how the project is designed and implemented before exit and the second is to what degree conditions are needed for the continuation of results the project generated are put into place. While the first one embeds sustainability into its very results, the second invests in processes to foster the continuation of results. The other two of the four pillars, returning to see what lasts by evaluating the sustainability of results two or more years later and bringing those lessons back to funding, design, implementation, and building in shock-resilience, e.g., such as to climate change, are in other Valuing Voices blogs.
We focus on 1 and 2 in this blog, and use an analogy of hard-wiring and soft-wiring sustainability into the fabric of the project:
- Hardwiring, ‘baking-in’ sustainability involves the design/ implementation which predisposes results lasting. This includes investing in Maternal Child Health and Nutrition’s first 1000 days from conception to age two that are vital for child development. The baby’s physical development and nutrition are so important as is maternal well-being. Investing in these early days leads to better health and nutrition throughout their lives. So too are buying local. Too often our projects rely on imported technology and inputs that are hard to replace if broken. A project on hand pumps used by UNICEF suggested local purchase of those “designed to optimize the chances of obtaining good quality hand pumps and an assured provision of spare parts” involves both the hardware of the pump and also the “capacity building plan and a communication strategy.” Also using local capacity/specialists when available vs external consultants can also be key to building the sustainability of a project.
Another example of baking-in sustainability is using participatory approaches to ensure that those implementing- such as the communities/ local authorities. In this example, it’s grassroots where participants are heard during design in terms of their priorities and how the project should be implemented. This includes targeting discussions and monitoring and evaluation being done with and by communities. The seminal research of 6,000 interviews with aid recipients, Time to Listen, found that they want to participate and when they do, things are more likely to be sustained, rather than being passive recipients…. there is ex-post proof such programming is more ‘owned’ and more sustained.
Conducting in-depth needs assessments at design is usually the way to collect information about what is needed and how projects should be implemented to last. Unfortunately, very often, the time is very limited for the proposal development and (I)NGOs are under pressure of short deadlines to submit the proposal, and needs assessments are either done quickly, collecting very basic information or not done at all. Yet time spent valuing the voices of participants can bring great richness. In 2022, the UN’s FAO did a monitoring and evaluation study in Malawi validating indicators for poverty by asking communities how they identify it from the start. “Researchers were impressed at how accurately the people they interviewed were able to gauge the relative wealth of their neighbors.” We were not surprised as the locals often know best. Another example with Mines Advisory Group in Cambodia, we developed a community-based participatory approach for design whereby project staff would work with the mine-affected communities to draw local maps of their villages, highlighting the location of the dangerous places and the key areas/places used by the communities. Staff and communities discussed the constraints, risks, needs, etc. to make their community safer, which the project would follow up with risk education, clearance, victim assistance, and/or alternative economic /development solutions to make the community safer. Other mine action agencies, e.g. Danish Refugee Council (Danish Demining Group) are also now using safer community approaches, involving local residents to decide on how to make their village safer depending on the community priorities.
Hardwiring in participatory feedback-loop learning from locals during implementation is also key. Implementation of a community feedback strategy once the programme is running is also essential. The community feedback mechanism (CFM) is a formal system established to enable affected populations to communicate information on their views, concerns, and experiences of a humanitarian agency or of the wider humanitarian system. It systematically captures, records, tracks, and follows up on the feedback it receives to improve elements of a response. CFM is key to ensuring that people affected by crisis have access to avenues to hold humanitarian actors to account; to offer affected people a formalized structure for raising concerns if they feel their needs are not being met, or if the assistance provided is having any unintended and harmful consequences; to understand and solicit information on their experience of a humanitarian agency or response; as part of a broader commitment to quality and accountability that enables organizations to recognize and respond to any failures in response; to promote the voices and influence of people affected so their perspectives, rights, and priorities remain at the forefront of humanitarian/development work.
Promoting and implementing community engagement, such as a community feedback strategy, provides a basis for dialogue with people affected on what is needed and on how what is needed might best be provided, especially as needs change during implementation. This will help identify priority needs and is a means to gauge beneficiaries’ understanding of activities being carried out, to assist in the identification of local partners and establishment and follow-up of partnerships, and in the organizational development and capacity building of local institutions and authorities. It can strengthen the quality of assistance by facilitating dialogue and meaningful exchange between aid agencies and affected people at all stages of humanitarian response and result in the empowerment of those involved. Targeted people are viewed as social actors that can play an active role in decisions affecting their lives.
OXFAM’s project in Haiti starting in 2012 came as a result of a cholera epidemic that began in 2010 (“Preventing the Cholera Epidemic by Improving WASH Services and Promoting Hygiene in the North and Northeast”), whose goal was to contribute to the cholera elimination, experimented with the community feedback strategy as a means of gauging the recipients’ understanding of the activities carried out and of further strengthening the links between OXFAM and the communities during implementation. The initial process of community feedback was intended to both receive recommendations from project participants for better management of the action and also to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Oxfam interventions. Based on the information and recommendations applied, OXFAM served as a bridge between the community and the actors involved (e.g. private firm contracted to carry out some health centers/ water systems renovation work or other) in the implementation of the project. This is also part of Oxfam’s logic of placing more emphasis on the issue of accountability and community engagement.
The feedback-loop benefits of such a community process are manyfold, especially on Protection, human rights, risk management, and further below, adapting Implementation, M&E, and fostering organizational learning:
- CFMs assist in promoting the well-being, rights, and protection of people by offering them a platform to have a voice and be heard
- it fosters participation, transparency, and trust
- It uses Do No Harm and conflict-sensitive programming
- It helps identify staff misconduct
- It functions as a risk management and early warning system
Adapting Implementation and Improving M&E:
- This process makes it possible to adapt to the priorities of the beneficiaries, to better meet their needs hence ensuring the agency’s accountability to the affected population
- It facilitates and guarantees a better quality of the project.
- It represents a means of monitoring our approaches and our achievements.
- It makes it possible to construct a common vision shared between the various actors and the project participants/targeted communities.
- Ensuring the programme quality and accountability through the establishment of an appropriate accountability strategy (including Transparency, Feedback, Participation, Monitoring, and Effectiveness) and relevant methodologies and tools (since the planning stage of the project) is a key exercise which allow to think and plan for the sustainability of the programme at an early stage.
- It allows us to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the interventions while offering us the opportunity to learn from our experiences, hence allowing for programmatic learning and adaptative programming.
- It conveys the impact of the project and the change brought about in the lives of the beneficiaries.
- It is part of the logic of capitalizing on experiences to improve the quality of future projects.
2. Soft-wiring is creating conditions to make sustainability more likely for local communities and partners by thinking about how to replace what has been brought by the projects’ donors and implementers. This involves an analysis as well as actions that put conditions for sustainability into place before and during the time that foreign aid projects close. Valuing Voices’ checklists for exiting sustainably involves local ownership, sufficient capacities, and resources, viable partnerships, how well risks such as climate and economic shocks were identified and managed, and benchmarking for success 1-2 years before closure. Later it is important to return to check findings at ex-post project, comparing completion results to what was sustained 2-30 years later.
There are four categories of sustainability-fostering actions to do pre-exit which were identified by Rogers and Coates of Tufts for USAID for sustained exit:
Several blogs on Valuing Voices deal with resources, including assumptions donors make. Donor resource investments cannot be assumed to be sustained. The checklists outline a wide array of questions to ask during design and latest a year pre-exit, including what assumptions do aid projects make? USAID water/ sanitation/ hygiene investments have mostly not been sustained, due to a combination of lack of resources to maintain them and low ownership of the resources invested. Some key questions are:
- Did the project consider how those taking over the project would get sufficient resources, e.g., grant funding or other income generation available or renting out their facility or infrastructure that they own or shift some of their activities to for-profit production, sold to cover part of project costs?
- Does the project or partner have a facility or infrastructure that they own and is rentable to increase resources outside donor funding or can the project shift to for-profit, including institutional and individual in-kind products or technical knowledge skills that can be sold to cover part of project costs?
- What new equipment is needed, e.g. computers, vehicles, technical (e.g. weighing scales) for activities to continue, and which stakeholder will retain them?
- Or even no resources are needed because some project activities will scale down, move elsewhere, focus on a smaller number of activities that are locally sustainable, or the whole project will naturally phase-out)
The objective of that Oxfam project was to reduce the risks of communities placed in a situation of acute vulnerability to the cholera epidemic in two departments in Haiti (where about 1.5 million inhabitants reside). It focused on sustainability by effectively supporting and accompanying governmental WASH and health structures in the rapid response to alerts and outbreaks recorded in the targeted communities. How? Through awareness-raising activities among the populations concerned, by strengthening the epidemiological surveillance system and coordination between concerned stakeholders. The project also aimed to improve drinking water structures such as drinking water distribution points, drinking water networks or systems, catchments, and boreholes. As part of this intervention, Oxfam worked in close collaboration and in support of the Departmental Directorates of Health (DH), DINEPA (government services responsible for water and sanitation), and local authorities at the level of cities, towns and neighborhoods, and community structures including civil protection teams. Oxfam and DINEPA staff intervened through mixed mobile response teams that included technical and managerial staff from the health department to whom Oxfam provided ongoing technical support in terms of WASH analysis and actions, WASH training, finance training, and monitoring, as well as logistical support for the deployment of teams in the field (provision of vehicles and drivers). Oxfam was therefore working to ensure that cholera surveillance and mitigation actions were led by state and community actors, and by supporting state structures to build their capacities and allow ownership of the various aspects of the fight against cholera. Concretely, this was done as follows:
- Preliminary meetings and discussions were held with concerned governmental authorities to agree on a plan of action based on needs, implementation means, priorities, and budget for the health and wash governmental services/teams to be able to function. This was followed by the signature of an MoU between Oxfam and the Departmental Directorates of Health (DH).
- An action plan was set up with the DH and DINEPA (governmental water and sanitation agency) at the very beginning of the project.
- Outbreak response teams were managed directly by the DH and the staff was recruited, managed, and paid by the DH. The DH and DINEPA implemented the activities, managed the staff of the mobile teams, and provide technical monitoring in coordination with Oxfam.
- The epidemiological monitoring activities carried out by the DH were also monitored by the Oxfam epidemiologist who, in close coordination with the DH, built the capacities of epidemiologists and staff at the departmental level and at the level of the treatment centers to ensure adequate monitoring and communication.
- An Oxfam social engineering officer worked with DINEPA to ensure that the various water committees at the sources/infrastructure rehabilitated by Oxfam were functional. Sources/infrastructures were rehabilitated in concert with DINEPA to ensure the proper ownership.
- Oxfam provided funding, and technical supervision and wrote and submitted the final report to the donor. Based on DH’s regular reports on activities which were then consolidated by Oxfam for the donor.
- Teams were paid directly by the DH from funds received by Oxfam, based on the budget agreed by both Oxfam and the DH, and were based on government salary scales.
- The Oxfam WASH team, which systematically accompanies case investigations in the field, further encouraged the participation of DINEPA and its community technicians, through regular meetings with the DINEPA departmental directors.
- Overall, Oxfam ensured to provide support and capacity building of the DH, DINEPA, and community actors involved in the fight against cholera, to ensure proper ownership and to avoid substitution of the health/wash authorities.
The type of peer-partnering at design and during implementation described above is vital for ownership and sustainability. Unless we consider people’s ownership of the project and capacities to sustain results, they won’t be sustained. See Cekan’s exiting for sustainability checklists on phasing over before phasing out and exit, strengthening ownership, which brings us full circle to the participatory hard-wiring described above in Haiti.
We have to strengthen capacities at the most sustainable level. Taking an example from IRC’s Sierra Leone Gender-based Violence project involves looking at what happens when capacities training done for local participants and partners to take over are not done right. In this case, there were two-year consultancies to the Ministry (MSWGCA) on strategic planning and gender training, but “it is not clear if this type of support has had a sustainable impact. The institutional memory often disappears with the departure of the consultant, leaving behind sophisticated and extensive plans and strategies that there is simply no capacity to implement.” The report found that community-based initiatives that are the “primary sources of support for GBV victims living in rural areas in a more innovative and sustainable way that promotes local ownership. They also may yield more results,” most donor agencies find it hard to partner with community-based organizations so they recommended a focus on training and capacity-building of mainstream health workers to respond to GBV and aim for the government will assume control of service provision in approximately five years. The excellent manual by Sarriot et al on Sustainability Planning, “Taking the Long View: A Practical Guide to Sustainability Planning and Measurement in Community-Oriented Health Programming puts local capacity strengthening at the core. We have to consult and collaborate throughout and create an ‘enabling environment’ so that the activities and results are theirs.
Source: Sarriot et al 2008
Obviously, we should check on the sustainability we hope for. As ITAD/CRS note, we should do and learn from more ex-post evaluations which is much of what Valuing Voices advocates for.
Recommendations for fostering sustainability:
Few donors require information on how hard-wired or how soft-wired programming pre-exit is at closure which would make sustainability likely. Even fewer demand actual post-closure sustainability data to confirm assumptions at exit, sadly we believe most of our foreign aid has had limited sustained impacts. But this can change. Donors need to be educated that the “localization” agenda is the new trend (just as gender, resilience, and climate change have been at one point). It is beyond the “nationalization” of staff members (e.g. replacing expatriates with national staff), which is only one of the elements relating to locallization. True localization is to promote the local leadership of communities in their own ‘sustainable development’. While this is easier to say than to do, sustainability depends on it. We foster it through the hard-wiring and soft-wiring we discussed above and more steps, below. Here are specific steps from Laurence’s and Jindra’s experiences with the Global South:
- Funds & additional time for local partnership and ownership need to be embedded in the design and planned for, which requires a different approach on which the donors also need to be sensitized/ educated/ advocated to;
- In-depth needs assessment must be carried out just before or when an NGO sets up an operation – it usually takes time and should be integrated into any operation. Advocating this approach to donors is key so that it can be included in the budget or the NGO needs to find its own funds to do so) and the NGO country and sector strategy can then be updated yearly to embed such activities into the (I)NGO DNA;
- Conduct a capacity strengthening assessment of the local authorities or partners with whom we are going to conduct the project. This can take between 3 to 6 months, depending on the number and type of actors involved but this is an essential element to build self-sustaining local capacities and ensure that comprehensive capacity building is going to take place. This transparent step is also an essential step to ensure ownership by national/governmental stakeholders;
- It is vital to allow time to plan for an exit strategy at an early stage, even as early as design. This requires time and needs to be included in the budget for the implementation of the plan at least one year before the end, for phasing over to local implementing partners to take over before the donors/ Global North implementers exit, and for possibly strengthening capacities or extending programming to deliver on their timeline rather than ours before exiting out. More on this from CRS’ Participation by All ex-post and of course the oft-cited “Stopping As Success: Locally-led Transitions in Development” by Peace Direct, Search for Common Ground, and CDA. Also do not forget shared leadership noted by UK’s INTRAC’s “Investing in Exit”;
- Finally, don’t forget about evaluating ex-posts and embedding those lessons into future design/ implementation/ monitoring and evaluation.
Investing in sustainability by hard-wiring or soft-wiring works! Let us know what you do…
Who is accountable for the ‘sustained development’ of those who suffer, and for how long?
Some of the rarely discussed myths of ‘sustainable development is that the aid we donors and implementers bring will help everyone, and that recipient governments can take over once donors leave and that what we left when the project ended was sustainable. The fact that our ‘global development aid’ helps a small fraction of all those who have equally ‘worthy’ needs in the countries we target is unspoken, as is the fact that these projects aren’t often built to sustainably withstand shocks such as climate changes bearing down now. As evaluator Michael Quinn Patton writes, “Effective programs… create islands of protected effectiveness in a sea of need and suffering… [we must] assess sustainability over time for Adaptive Resilience.”
More often, countries need to be: a) so poor, b) so ‘fragile’, or c) so geopolitically important to warrant our aid. The fact that most USAID and EU bilateral funding (not necessarily multilateral funding to IMF, World Bank, African or Asian or other Development Banks) is focused on fragile/ war-torn or the strategically important countries edges out what is left for the impoverished people of the world. Most of our taxpayers have little idea of this and believe it is needs-based. So, many of us assume that: d) our mostly short-term aid is either only the brief support that they need (the ‘shot in the arm school’) as might be true of emergency or humanitarian aid post-emergencies or e) the results will be so excellent as to spontaneously spread (scale) ‘forever’ that no more aid will be needed or f) that national governments – not donors- need to carry the accountability for sustained improvements forward. Yet those stakeholders in poor or fragile countries (governments, non-profit NGOs) often have the weakest capacities to sustain results. Rutere Kagendo, a fellow Kenyan on the Valuing Voices team, wrote a moving blog about who ends up tasked with sustaining project activities and results: communities, especially women.
This is in spite of the fact that ex-post project evaluations done 1+ to 30 years after completion who asked participants and partners about sustainability, show ‘mixed’ results, namely that results fall off as early as 2 years after closure, by between 10-100%. Rarely do ex-posts have results improve or be as sustained as we assume. Some project activities do show somewhat lasting results, ranging from those that provide credit to those generating agriculture. Mostly lackluster results are because global development projects aim for success by closure over sustainability over decades by exiting better with accountability to our participants and partners over time. We do not design what can be locally sustained. Imagine how much would be saved if we did!
Jindra Čekan/ova of the USA/ Czech Republic and Peter Kimeu of Kenya offer our perspectives about who is accountable for aid, and for how long.
I have worked for international NGOs (e.g. Catholic Relief Services, the international division of the American Red Cross, large INGOs such as CARE, World Vision, Lutheran World Relief, and others), including bilaterals (USAID) and foundations (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Aga Khan Foundation) for over 30 years. Most of our projects strove to fulfill objectives of the grants and were successful. Yet rarely did we ask ‘for how long?’ At one point, I worked for a huge International NGO with a program that had been feeding 50,000 West African children breakfast for 30 years. This was part of a bilateral aid education support + ‘safety net’ program. Many studies, including this terrific one from the UN’s World Food Program, show that such school feeding improves “school participation (enrolment, attendance, completion) and learning (scores on cognitive, language and mathematics tests)… [and] decrease child marriages, etc.“
Clearly, they do good. Yet the donor suddenly wanted proof that the effects of this long-term aid had improved national GDP rather than just the nutritional and learning outcomes of assisted individuals, otherwise, the project would be canceled. Letters from the impoverished country– including the country’s president and cabinet -stating they themselves had benefitted from the program which in turn led them to great educational outcomes and leadership had some effect. Yet without lobbying from the donor country’s agriculture and food aid industry that cutting food aid exports would harm them, it would have been canceled. Did they care about the schoolchildren’s learning or only providing outlets to US agricultural surplus producers? Was 30 years too long to keep helping? How do we have these discussions as equal partners? As evaluator Zenda Offir notes regarding the SDG’s No One Left Behind, “the burden of supporting and sustaining a majority of ‘leaving no-one behind’ efforts fall inevitably on many of the poorest (low-income) countries in the Global South. The problem is that they cannot afford it, nor can they sustain it. It will therefore be unfair to hold such countries accountable for ‘leaving no-one behind’ strategies. “
This brings up the questions of sustainability and accountability ‘to whom’ and ‘for how long’? You may have other questions, including ‘why’ and ‘how we know, which I look forward to addressing, but for now, these two are the focus of this blog. While 65% of Americans favor foreign aid, believing we spend up to 25% of our GDP abroad, the US spends just over 1%. Most US aid goes to the fragile and geopolitically strategic: “More than two hundred countries receive U.S. aid. It disproportionately goes to a few, however, with the top five all receiving over $1 billion per year as of 2016: Iraq ($5.3 billion), Afghanistan ($5.1 billion), Israel ($3.1 billion), Egypt ($1.2 billion), and Jordan ($1.2 billion).” In Europe, only 3 countries met the OECD goal of giving 0.7% of GNI: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark while the Czech Republic was at 0.13%, just below the USA 0.16%(2019). A fascinating measure of ‘commitment to development” (CDI) looking at the ‘quality of aid’ found that in the Czech Republic aid performance was very poor: “Adding up both quality-adjusted aid (95.7 million USD) and quality-adjusted charity induced by public policy (1.1 million USD), we arrive at 96.8 million USD for 2009 which amounts to 0.054% of GNI. Translating the percentage onto the standardised CDI scale the Czech Republic… [has] the third least favorable aid policy towards developing countries among DAC countries… [and] Aid allocation is not primarily focused on low-income countries” which is in part explained by the recent shift from aid recipient to aid donor (Syrovatka and Krylova 2012). Even, worse now, donors and international NGOs distribute aid (especially what is left for the poor countries of the world) that is annually allocated, but as the pandemic has led more spending to be domestic, aid to the poorest has decreased among almost all donor countries, bad news as Covid-economic downturns continue and climate change ramps up.
Is there proof there is no more need for aid to places or people? We do not know as we return to evaluate the sustainability after projects close far less than 1% of the time. Mostly this is because we assume that the recipient governments have ‘taken over’, that there is funding from elsewhere, or that the communities and organizations helped have become as resilient as to keep up the good work themselves. Yet the ex-post evaluation data does not bear this out. Few such evaluations are done or done well and many assumptions of positive trajectories are unproven. Donors and INGOs want to help, must leave after money is spent, and assume the best. Local participants implement the projects but they do not design or lead their implementation, which limits continuation after donor support exits.
So who is accountable to the poor whom we help? Peter comments on that from the perspective of the CEO of a local Kenyan NGO targeting 15,000 farmers.
I have over forty years of experience in development; 8 years lead in Community Initiated (Harambee) High schools, 35 years with Catholic Relief Services in Emergency Relief, Sustainable Development and Justice and Peace Programs, and currently 6 years with the (Kenyan) county-devolved sustainable development. I am the Founder and CEO of Decent Living Institute of Organic Farming promoting avocado farming, aquaculture, and apiculture for improved decent livelihoods. My early life as a young boy makes me a living witness of a life in deep poverty, which the New York Times featured.
The question ‘who is accountable for sustained development’ and ‘for how long’ has an assumption that it is possible to attain sustainable development without the continued involvement of those who suffer. I don’t think so. Sustained development occurs as a process to a transformed situation from abject poverty, a condition of want without the capacity to satisfy even the most basic needs, a position of lacking continuously leading to untold suffering and living in dehumanized conditions for the sufferer and the generations to come to the desired decency of fulfilled living. Living as a pauper in my first 30 years of life, having been born in a paupers’ family, I accepted the conditions of poverty and hunger as a way of life. After all, you know nothing better and when you see wealth around you, it is meant for the lucky few, and not for you. The situation limits the poor to survival conditions, eating from hand to mouth and everything is left to luck.
Aid to the poor would make sense if it is used as a catalyst to motivate and enable the poor depart from the circle of poverty (the poor giving birth to more poor) and is able to sustain the conditions of being above the poverty line of US$2 a day. Such aid would enable them to have enough to take care of their daily basic needs and create wealth without falling back below the poverty line repeatedly, for generations to come. The impact measure for aid should therefore be participatory learning from and measuring the extent to which success is sustained documenting representative success stories by participants who have left the circle of poverty sustainably. Such would include ‘in the past I couldn’t to find enough to eat occasionally slept without food and now my family has no idea of how it feels like to be hungry.
Unfortunately, the manner of delivering aid is seen as pure luck by the targeted poor for it comes without involving the poor as to strategically plan long-term impact that they can sustain. The aid donors and implementing agencies will target a given county, while the identification of targeted community cluster location for aid will be influenced by either by powerful persons from the locality or larger numbers in the public participation, so those with greater authority or louder voice will take the day. The decision on who will participate in the project finally will be determined by the same criteria and not the poverty levels. One example is the aid fund for COVID-19 response in Kenya which was distributed to the well connected to persons of authority and not to those who championed the control of the coronavirus. A decision was made at the county governments to disperse one million Kenya shillings to every cluster of villages to pay the youth for engaging in communal work such as community road works, terracing a degraded land, or even constructing an earth dam and paid per piece work completed – termed employment -to cushion the youth who have lost job opportunities due to the COVID -19 effects. A million shillings in a cluster of ten villages would perhaps engage 100 young people for a week earning Kenya shillings 500 (US$5) a day or $30 a week. The rest of the money – 50% of the total or more – does not go for wages as planned but is used to cover the management of the program by the county officials. The youth will spend this money like it is good luck for it is too little to ever think of the future investments.
However, the same amount is what it costs to support a member of the self-help group and collective community-led development in our Decent Living NGO per family of a vulnerable child to grow a vegetable garden, keep six chicks and grow three Hass avocado seedlings. Further, the participants commit to support another poor family with six chicks in a years’ time. From the onset, the poor are involved in ‘planning in advance’ to help others. Their developing vision is guided by the long-term impact they hope for, such as the family economic boost that will cover the full cost of schooling, medical expenses, and family meals, clothing, and shelter for all the children including the most vulnerable. Other long-term indicators will be the percentage of poor families that are above the poverty line meeting the family basic needs sustainably.
I see the role of the aid donor as to holding the aid receiver (local government and recipient communities) to their goals of sustainable development and to account for the funds given by reaching their goals and targets that must be time-bound. The aid receivers are also responsible to account for their aid distribution to their intermediary implementing partners (often local non-profits/ NGOs) to meet their targets, goals and should track expected and measurable long-term outcomes within three years after the closure of the project. This means to deliver not only the aid funds but also through the funding the systems established or improved at the conception of the project should be accounted for during the project implementation period and will be impacting long term results transforming the community to the desired state long after the project activities.
It could be building sustainable infrastructure for long-term support to the poor. The sustained impact would then be numbers of poor that have transformed their poverty and created wealth through the developed infrastructure in an intergenerational, long-lasting way that could be measured in later years. Sadly, most of the aid givers do not see their role beyond the performance short-term outputs such as trainings given or outcomes leading to a change in farming practices, like the deliverables for the specific objectives in an agriculture project. Hence the success of the project is defined by these short-term indicators that measure outputs such as the target number reached with food aid, or even some changes in practices leading to improved yields, but once the project ends, all tracking of results end. The national stakeholders are – or should be- responsible to demonstrate how the results of the project will be assumed by the community’s self-help groups so that the impacts become intergenerational. For it is vital to see that the project does not end with the implementing agencies. It is not only short-sighted by aid donors to believe that it ends, but national stakeholders are absconding their responsibility of accountability to the long-term impacts that are related to relationships and behavior change sustainably when they do not sustain them.
The UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ are merely a dream for most poor until the individual struggling with conditions of want is able to take steps towards permanent solutions for themselves and their future generations. It takes an oppressed dreamer (the poor with empty stomachs) who believes a change is possible to demand accountability. It also takes a progressive facilitator (donors and national stakeholders) who believes in creating enabling conditions for the oppressed to succeed. Both the oppressed dreamers (project participants, local implementing NGO agencies and the progressive facilitator (donor) are accountable to the transformed conditions. For the ‘sustained development’ to occur it must be intentionally dreamed of by all parties engaged in the process of development.
I dream of “a just world where everyone is fully a participant and celebrates sustainable development for all” wrote Pope Francis in his 2015 Laudato Si encyclical. He calls for all humanity to take care of our Mother Earth and in return, she will provide for all, including addressing issues of global warming. In my world dream, I see a time when a transformation of the sufferer from distressful and oppressive conditions of living is eased by putting future dreams into action, for those who suffer with deprivation today and are thirsty for change. I wish to make reference to a story told in the bible Jesus meeting a blind beggar (Mark 10:51) shouting to Jesus for help. Jesus asked the beggar to identify what type of aid he needed. And the blind beggar’s request for the power to see was heard and his sight was fully restored, emancipating him from the bondage of begging. We are told he transformed from a beggar into a disciple of Jesus. The transformation of conditions to sustainable options starts with the bilateral donor engaging a poor government to undertake a particular development agenda that in return facilitates its citizens to enjoy sustained development. The donor government should hold the recipient government responsible and accountable of delivering sustainable options for its citizen as per the grant agreements with evaluation two to three years after the project closure.
The poor who may be targeted with the aid may seem passive, not having been involved right from the beginning of design, and may have limitations of identifying what to ask for, perhaps those with intermediary implementing INGOs may be aware of how well what is being offered can meet their needs. Setting up the appropriate structures, they may dictate and demand sustained development options for themselves and those who are suppressed in poverty. The major issue is that most often the victims of poverty are never engaged in aid’s design and only implement what is offered. The situation creates room for corrupt national governments, INGOs, and NGOs to make quick money. The donors should hold recipient countries and INGOs accountable for tangible results toward the Sustainable Development Goals indicators for every grant in aid for as long as it takes, not just reporting at the national level.
I see a world where what matters most, is how engaged those who have empty stomachs are in the development aid agenda, and how the aid is administered and accounted for themselves and the neighboring suffering households. That development is all about a sustained transformation for empty stomachs of our project participants, their immediate neighbors, their children, their husbands, and their fathers/in law and mothers /in law, their brothers/ in law and sisters/ in law. It is about a better living standard of their neighbors who lends salt and water, the generosity of their firewood friends, those neighbors who will never turn down an opportunity to offer help no matter what. If these impacts and long term outcomes are not evaluated and accounted for, those who suffer poverty will always consider projects as myths of ‘sustainable development’ and the aid provided by bilateral, multilateral donors or through INGOs/NGOs as beneficial to the lucky few, while recipient governments and participating communities and their future generations have no sustainable impact results.
 MQ Patton in New Directions for Evaluation “Transformation to Global Sustainability: Implications for Evaluation and Evaluators, 2019 (link inaccessible)
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:
1) Donors have Compliance for grantees to meet (money spent, not lost, and results met by fixed deadlines of 1-5 years – look at some of the European Commission Contracting rules) and
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 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. 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?
What do you think?
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?
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!
Whose responsibility is it to sustain project activities?
Billions of dollars are pumped into development activities in developing countries all over the world. Communities getting involved in these projects have a clear objective, which is to have their lives improved in the sectors that the projects target. As to whether this is the main objective of the development partners is not clear. What is clear is that the development partners focus more on numbers than on getting people to participate.
We note that majority of these projects are designed to last between 2-5 years. Delays occasioned poor planning or other unforeseen factors eat into the implementation time to an extent that in some projects it takes about 1-2 years to get a program running. This means that the planned implementation time is reduced. Baselines, midlines and end lines studies are conducted to inform changes that may have occurred within the program life, and in most cases they happen shortly after the program has started or just before it ends. In fact, some baselines are conducted after programs have started.
Considering the reduced implementation time and the fact that it takes a much longer time to get concrete behavior change related results, questions emerge whether indeed the reported changes are solid enough during implementation to be sustained. There is also a difference between measuring what can be referred to artificial changes (activities that community members adopt as a way of short-term trial in their excitement, but don't find useful afterward) and long lasting changes that community members adopt because they are useful part and parcel of their lives.
Almost all projects have logical frameworks (logframes) that show how project activities will be implemented and to some extent there are also exit strategies for closing out the project. This can be an illusion long-term. In most cases donors and implementers assume that communities will adopt activities that are being implemented within a specified period of time, and so projects close down at the end of the specified period of implementation assuming things will continue, but have no proof. Valuing Voices has done projected sustainability work in Ethiopia which points to possible differences between what donors expect to the sustained versus what communities are able to sustain.
The big questions remain: "whose responsibility is it to ensure that whatever has been adopted is continued? Whose responsibility is it to sustain project activities post project implementation?" It is silently assumed that communities can take up this responsibility and a key question is "what guarantees are there that this is possible and is happening?" Project sustainability should not be seen as a community-alone responsibility but rather a responsibility for all those who are involved in program activities. Sustainability studies should be planned for and executed in the same breath that the baselines, midlines, end-lines and in the rare cases impact assessments in real time should be planned for. We must do sustainability studies as they provide an additional realistic opportunity to inform us on actual community development post project implementation. Communities should not be left alone with it.
It's not just Me, it's We
Many of us want to be of service. That's why we go into international development, government, and many other fields. We hope our words and deeds help make others' lives better.
For 25 years I've written proposals, designed and evaluated projects, knowing that while I could not live in-country due to my family constraints, I could get resources there and help us learn how well they are used. I became a consultant so I could raise my kids without being on the road 60% of the time, one who promotes national consultants so that African, Asian, Latin American and European experts evaluate their own projects. I put myself into the shoes of our participants and realized any local person my age wants to leave behind a better, more sustainably viable livelihood for her family, so I looked to see what was most sustained and how we knew it. I took my love of participatory approaches of listening to and learning from the end-users and founded Valuing Voices to promote learning from projects whose activities were most self-sustained.
Yet this is not enough. I am one person with only my views (however great I think they are :), many of us have great views and knowledge about how to best promote sustainable development. For the state of things today seem to me that too often our donors have limited funds for limited time with goals that they limit because they can only assure success by holding the outcome and funding reins so tightly that none of us are fostering self-sustainable development which takes time, faith in one's participants. I have found that the lack of post-project evaluation (see ValuingVoices.com/blogs such as this one on causes and conditions being ripe for sustainability) is a symptom but doing them also provides a huge opportunity to design projects well learning from what communities were able to sustain themselves, based on why/how it worked and how can we do this well again? For instance, from my fieldwork I have realized that questions such as ‘sustainable by whom for how long’ are ones I never asked and don’t think others have ways to go about it well (yet)… unless you have ideas!
How can we foster aid effectiveness, effective philanthropy, community-driven-development, community-driven and NGO-led impact , and effective policy? It takes many of us – giraffes, ostriches, wliderbeast, gazelles, each with our own expertise.
This takes Time to Listen, respect for local capacities (Doing Development Differently) and an openness to step out of the limelight of 'we saved you' to asking "how can we best work together for a sustainable world?". This takes you, me, WE. One way is to join together in a LinkedIn Group: Sustainable Solutions for Excellent Impact where we can discuss how can we best design, implement, evaluate, fund, promote (etc!) projects well that are programmatically, financially, institutionally and environmentally sustainable. Please join us!