Sustainable Development Goals and Foreign Aid– How Sustainable and Accountable to Whom?  Reposting Blog from LinkedIn Pulse


Sustainable Development Goals and Foreign Aid–
How Sustainable and Accountable to Whom?


Jindra Cekan, PhD of ValuingVoices

World leaders will paint New York City red next week at the UN Summit adopting the new post-2015 development agenda.  The agreed plans set 17 new ‘Sustainable’ Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. These are successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

While many of us have heard of them, how many of us know whether we met them and what prospects are there for the Sustainable Development Goals to do well or better?  According to Bill Gates the MDGs were “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I have ever seen.” The Brookings Institute goes on to praise the eight MDG targets for aiming high by setting targets such as halving world poverty and reducing child mortality, improving universal primary education and gender equality and empower women etc. [1]. Donor countries pledged three times more than they had until that time (raising the percentage of gross national income for international development assistance from 0.2% to 0.7%, not huge amounts but laudable).  From 2000 to 2015 extreme poverty did fall by half (although some argue China and Asia were well on their way before this aid came) and in some countries (Senegal, Cambodia) child deaths fell by half.  Global health improved via huge coalitions on immunization and HIV/AIDS. Yet while poverty dropped and health increased, hunger, environment and sanitation targets were not met, for instance, and there are 850 million people still hungry worldwide (11% of all people) [2]. Yet gains far outweigh losses.  The new Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved in 15 years, by 2030. The UN and member nations will track a remarkable 169 indicators,monitoring progress towards the SDGs at the local, national, regional, and global levels… [3]




Overall, one would feel rather tickled by these results — not 100% but still amazing given global disparities. Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development thinks measurement is not the goal: “Growing global interconnectedness means that the problems the world faces, that hold back development, are increasingly shared… we’re making a promise to ourselves that we are one world, one planet, one society, one people, who look out for each other…” [4]

But I’m a fan of measurable results, I must admit. One would logically think that our international development projects funded by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDS), the Millennium Challenge Corporation and others could outline how the caused the good results that some MDGs showed. USAID’s website links its work to the MDGs clearly: “in September 2010, President Obama called for the elevation of development as a key pillar of America’s national security and foreign policy. This set forth a vision of an empowered and robust U.S. Agency for International Development that could lead the world in solving the greatest development challenges of our time and, ultimately, meet the goal of ending extreme poverty in the next generation” [5]. It goes on to talk about work to “Promote sustainable development through high-impact partnerships and local solutions“ [5]. USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service states their “non-emergency food aid programs help meet recipients’ nutritional needs and also support agricultural development and education. These food assistance programs, combined with trade capacity building efforts, support long-term economic development” [6]. Finally, MCC states they are “committed to delivering results throughout the entire lifecycle of its investments. From before investments begin to their completion and beyond… MCC’s continuum of results is designed to foster learning and accountability” [7].

Maybe. We don’t actually know because 99% of the time we never return to projects after they end to learn how sustainable they actually were. We could be fostering super-sustainability. Or not.

For international development programming works on 1-5 year programming cycles. Multi-million dollar project requests for proposals are designed and sent out by these funders to non-profit or for-profit implementers. These are awarded to one or more organization, quite rigorously monitored, and most have very good results. Then they end. Since 2000, the US Agency for International Development has spent $280 billion on country-to-country development and humanitarian aid projects as well as funding multilateral aid and in spite of much work evaluating the final impact of projects at the end, they never go back [8]. The EU has spent a staggering $1.4 trillion. USAID has funded one evaluation that has gone back to see what communities and partners could sustain… in the last 30 years, and that is about to be published. A handful of international non-profits have taken matters in their own hands and funded such studies privately. The EU’s track record is even more dismal, with policies being proposed but not done [10]. The World Bank, which has funded over 12,000 projects has an independent evaluation arm, the Independent Evaluation Group. They returned after projects closed out to evaluate results only 33 times and we found only three of them systematically talked to project participants about what was sustained.

The bottom line is, how do we know anything we’ve done in international development or SDGs is sustainable unless we go back to see? What amazing or awful results must we know for future design? If we do not return, are we really accountable to our taxpayers and our real clients: the participants and the national countries foreign aid recipients themselves?

The UN has pledged to have an SGD report card to “measure progress towards sustainable development and help ensure the accountability of all stakeholders for achieving the SDGs….[and a] Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, to help drive the Data Revolution….by using data we can ensure accountability for the policies that are implemented to reduce global and local inequities” [3]. I completely agree that having citizen generated data at the local, national, regional, and global levels is so very important “to fill gaps in our knowledge, establish global norms and standards and…help countries develop robust national strategies for data development.”  And as the World Bank IEG’s Caroline Heider states, measuring them is complex (e.g. agriculture affected by climate change and measuring changes across sectors is hard) but worthwhile [11].

While SDG data tells us what donor-funded activities and policies work, very few in international development know how sustainably our programming works for our ultimate clients, our participants and partners.  And the price needn’t be high—a recent post-project evaluation we did cost under $120,000 which is a pittance given the project cost over $30 million and reached 500,000 folks.  We found clear (mostly successful) lessons. USAID has, after 30 years, funded one post-project evaluation that also has clear cost-effective lessons (forthcoming). Really, in this era of cost-effectiveness, don’t we want data on what worked best (Note to self: do that more) and what worked least (Note to self: stop doing that)?

Learning what participants and partners could self-sustain after we left is actually all we should care about. They want to get beyond aid. Shouldn’t we know if we are getting them there? Self-sustainability of outcomes is a clear indicator of good Return on Investment of our resources and expertise and their time, effort and expertise. It shows us we want to put ourselves out of a job, having built country-led development that really has a future in-country with their own resources.

Two steps are:

1) Donors to add a funding equivalent to 1% of program value for five years after closeout for all projects over $10 million to support local capacity-building of NGOs and national partners to take over implementation plus to evaluate lessons across different sector’s sustainability outcomes.

2) A cross-donor fund for country-led analysis of such learning plus lessons for what capacity needs to be built in-country to take over programming. This needs support from regionally-based knowledge repositories and learning centers in Africa, Asia, etc. Online and tangible centers could house both implementer reports/ evaluations and analyze/ share lessons learned across sectors and countries from post-project evaluations for projects that closed out 2-7 years ago for future design.

Now that is accountability. Let’s advocate for sustainability funding, data and learning now.

What are your suggestions? How can we improve sustainability?




[1] McArthur, J. (2013, February 21). Own the Goals: What the Millennium Development Goals Have Accomplished. Retrieved from

[2] End Poverty 2015 Millennium Campaign. (n.d.). MDG 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger. Retrieved from

[3] Sharma, S. (2015, August 20). From Aspirations to Reality: How to Effectively Measure the Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from

[4] Mirchandani, R. (2015, September 22). Does It Matter If We Don’t Achieve the SDGs? A New Podcast with Nancy Birdsall and Michael Elliott. Retrieved from

[5] USAID. (n.d.). USAID Forward. Retrieved from

[6] United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (n.d.). Food Assistance. Retrieved from

[7] Millennium Challenge Corporation. (n.d.). Our Impact. Retrieved 2016, from

[8] Cekan, J. (2015, March 13). When Funders Move On. Retrieved from

[9] Global Issues. (n.d.). Foreign Aid for Development Assistance: Foreign Aid Numbers in Charts and Graphs. Retrieved from

[10] Florio, M. (2009, November/December). Sixth European Conference on Evaluation of Cohesion Policy: Getting Incentives Right — Do We Need Ex Post CBA? Retrieved from

[11] Heider, C. (2015, September 15). Evaluation Beyond 2015: Implications of the SDGs for Evaluation. Retrieved from


What should projects accomplish… and for whom?


What should projects accomplish… and for whom?


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

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

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

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

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


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

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




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

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



[1] The Center for Effective Philanthropy. (2014, October 27). Closing the Citizen Feedback Loop. Retrieved December 2014, from

[2] Better Evaluation. (n.d.). Empowerment Evaluation. Retrieved December 2014, from

[3] Sonjara. (2016). Content and Data: Intangible Assets Part V. Retrieved from


Stepping up community self-sustainability, one [Ethiopian] step at a time


Stepping up community self-sustainability, one [Ethiopian] step at a time


Having just come back from evaluation and design fieldwork for an Ethiopian Red Cross (ERCS)/ Swedish Red Cross/ Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent project, the power of communities is still palpable in my mind. They know what great impact looks like. They know what activities they can best sustain themselves. It’s up to us to ask, listen and learn from them and support their own monitoring/ evaluating/ reporting. It’s up to us to share such learning with others and to act on it everywhere.

There are a myriad of possible sustainability indicators, and the outcome indicators below, suggested by 116 rural participants from Tigray, Ethiopia seem to fall into two categories of expected changes: Assets and Life Quality (Table 1). As the food security/ livelihood project extended credit for animal purchases, it is logical that tracking increased income, savings, assets, and home investments plus expenditures on food and electricity appeared.

We gleaned this from discussions with participants, asking them “what can we track together that would show that we had impact”? Our question led to a spirited discussion of not only what was traceable, but also what could be publicly posted and ‘ground-truthed’ by the community. Discussing indicators led to even deeper conversations about the causes of food insecurity which were illuminating to staff.  What was surprising, for instance, was the extent to which families saw changing seasonal child-field labor practices in favor of 100% child-school attendance as great indicators.  School attendance (or lack thereof) was dependent on families’ need for children’s seasonal labor in the fields. Community members said they knew who sent their children or not, which no only ‘cleaned’ the publicly posted data but triangulated implementer surveys and opened room for discussions of vulnerability.





Not only is this exciting for the project’s outcome tracking but even more importantly, our team proposed to create a community self-monitoring system, suggested in by Causemann/Gohl in an IIED PLA Notes article– “Tools for measuring change: self-assessment by communities” used in Africa and Asia. This learning, management and reporting process will fill a gaping need as current “monitoring systems serve only for donor accountability, but neither add value for poor people nor for the implementing NGOs because they do not improve effectiveness on the ground.” The authors found that not only “participatory data collection produces higher quality data in some fields than standard extractive methodologies [as] understanding the context leads to a higher accuracy of data and learning processes [which] increase the level of accountability… “ but also that such shared collaboration builds mutual learning and bridge-building.” While our community members may have offered to track this publicly to make this partner happy, men and women discussed this excitedly and embraced the idea of self-monitoring happily. ERCS will be discussing with communities to either track data monthly in notebooks or on a large chart hung in the woreda office for transparency.  Data (Chart 1) would include these asset and quality of life indicators as well as loan repayments (tracked vertically) while households (tracked horizontally) could see who was meeting the goal (checked boxes), not meeting it fully (dashed boxes) or not meeting it at all yet (blank boxes).  Community members corrected each other as they devised the indicators during our participatory research and this openness reassures us that the public monitoring will be quite transparent as well.





Further, what was especially satisfying was getting feedback from across the three tibias (sub-regions) on what activities they felt they could sustain themselves irrespective of the project’s continuation. Table 2 shows us which activities communities felt were most self-sustainable by households; these could form the core of the follow on project. Sheet/goats, poultry and oxen for fattening were highly prioritized by both women and men, in addition to a few choosing improved dairy cows. The convergence of similar responses was gratifying and somewhat unexpected, as there were several other project activities.  The communities’ own priorities need to be seriously considered as currently they get only one loan per family and thus self-sustainable activities are key.




There is more to incorporate in future project planning by NGOs like ERCS. The NGO-IDEAs concept mentioned above also includes involving project participants in setting goals and targets themselves, differentiating between who achieved them and why, and brainstorming who/what contributes to it and what they should do next. Peer groups, development agencies and any actors could collect and learn from the data. Imagine the empowerment were communities to design, monitor and evaluate and tell us as their audience!

And they must, according to ODI UK’s Watkins, who has a clear vision on how to achieve a global equity agenda for the post-2015 MDG goalsHe suggests converting the principle of ‘leave no one behind’ into measurable targets. He argues that, by introducing a series of ‘stepping stone’ benchmarks, the world can set ambitious goals on equity by 2030. He writes, wisely, that “narrowing these equity deficits is not just an ethical imperative but a condition for accelerated progress towards the ambitious 2030 targets. There are no policy blueprints. However, the toolkit for governments actively seeking to narrow disparities …has to include some key elements [such as] identifying who is being left behind and why is an obvious starting point. That’s why improvements to the quality of data available to policy-makers is an equity issue in its own right”. Valuing Voices believes who creates that data is an equally compelling equity issue.


So how will we reach these ambitious targets by 2030? By putting in stepping stone targets, returning project design functions to the ultimate clients – the communities themselves- and matching their wants with what we long to transfer to them. In this way we will be Valuing their Voices so much that they evaluate our projects jointly and we can respond. That’s how it should always have been.

What are your thoughts on this? We long to know.




[1] Ashley, H., Kenton, N., & Milligan, A. (Eds.). (2013). Tools for supporting sustainable natural resource management and livelihoods. Participatory Learning and Action, (66). Retrieved from

[2] Watkins, K. (2013, October 17). Leaving no-one behind: An equity agenda for the post- 2015 goals. Retrieved from