THE CONTENTIOUS POWER OF EVALUATIONS
or why sustainable results are so hard to come by….
A while ago, I reacted to a discussion among development aid/cooperation evaluators about why there are so few NGO evaluations available. It transpired that many people do not even know what they often look like, which is why I wrote a kind of Common Denominator Report: only about small evaluations, and self-explanatory in the sense that one understands why they are rarely published. The version below is slightly different from the original.
Most important elements of a standard evaluation report for NGOs and their donors; about twenty days of work; about 20,000 Euros budget (TVA included).
In reality, the work takes at least twice as much time as calculated and will still be incomplete/ quick, and dirty because it cannot decently be done within the proposed framework of conditions and answering all 87 questions or so that normally figure in the ToR.
The main issues in the project/ programme, the main findings, the main conclusions, and the main recommendations, presented in a positive and stimulating way (the standard request from the Comms and Fundraising departments) and pointing the way to the sunny uplands. This summary is written after a management response to the draft report has been ‘shared with you’. The management response normally says:
- this is too superficial (even if you explain that it could not be done better, given the constraints);
- this is incomplete (even if you didn’t receive the information you needed);
- this is not what we asked (even if you had an agreement about the deliverables)
- you have not understood us (even if your informants do not agree among themselves and contradict each other)
- you have not used the right documents (even if this is what they gave you)
- you have got the numbers wrong; the situation has changed in the meantime (even if they were in your docs);
- your reasoning is wrong (meaning we don’t like it);
- the respondents to the survey(s)/ the interviews were the wrong ones (even if the evaluand suggested them);
- we have already detected these issues ourselves, so there is no need to put them in the report (meaning don’t be so negative).
Who the commissioning organisation is, what they do, who the evaluand is, what the main questions for the evaluators were, who got selected to do this work, and how they understood the questions and the work in general.
In the Terms of Reference for the evaluation, many commissioners already state how they want an evaluation done. This list is almost invariably forced on the evaluators, thereby reducing them from having independent status to being the ‘hired help’ from a Temp Agency:
- briefings by Director and SMT [Senior Management Team] members for scoping and better understanding;
- desk research leading to notes about facts/ salient issues/ questions for clarification;
- survey(s) among a wider stakeholder population;
- 20-40 interviews with internal/ external stakeholders;
- analysis of data/ information;
- processing feedback on the draft report.
In the Terms of Reference, many commissioners already state which deliverable they want and in what form:
- round table/ discussion of findings and conclusions;
- draft report;
- final report;
- presentation to/ discussion with selected stakeholders.
PROJECT/ PROGRAMME OVERVIEW
Many commissioners send evaluators enormous folders with countless documents, often amounting to over 3000 pages of uncurated text with often unclear status (re authors, purpose, date, audience) and more or less touching upon the facts the evaluators are on a mission to find. This happens even when the evaluators give them a short list with the most relevant docs (such as grant proposal/ project plan with budget, time and staff calculations, work plans, intermediate reports, intermediate assessments, and contact lists). Processing them leads to the following result:
According to one/ some of the many documents that were provided:
- the organisation’s vision is that everybody should have everything freely and without effort;
- the organisation’s mission is to work towards having part of everything to not everybody, in selected areas;
- the project’s/ programme’s ToC indicates that if wishes were horses, poor men would ride;
- the project’s/ programme’s duration was four/ five years;
- the project’s/ programme’s goal/ aim/ objective was to provide selected parts of not everything to selected parts of not everybody, to make sure the competent authorities would support the cause and enshrine the provisions in law, The beneficiaries would enjoy the intended benefits, understand how to maintain them and teach others to get, enjoy and amplify them, that the media would report favourably on the efforts, in all countries/ regions/ cities/ villages concerned and that the project/ programme would be able to sustain itself and have a long afterlife;
- the project’s/ programme’s instruments were fundraising and/ or service provision and/ or advocacy;
- the project/ programme had some kind of work/ implementation plan.
This is where practice meets theory. It normally ends up in the report like this:
Due to a variety of causes:
- unexpectedly slow administrative procedures;
- funds being late in arriving;
- bigger than expected pushback and/ or less cooperation than hoped for from authorities- competitors- other NGOs- local stakeholders;
- sudden changes in project/ programme governance and/ or management;
- incomplete and/ or incoherent project/ programme design;
- incomplete planning of project/ programme activities;
- social unrest and/ or armed conflicts;
The project/ programme had a late/ slow/ rocky start. Furthermore, the project/ programme was hampered by:
- partial implementation because of a misunderstanding of the Theory of Change which few employees know about/ have seen/ understand, design and/ or planning flaws and/ or financing flaws and/ or moved goalposts and/ or mission drift and/ or personal preferences and/ or opportunism;
- a limited mandate and insufficient authority for the project’s/ programme’s management;
- high attrition among and/ or unavailability of key staff;
- a lack of complementary advocacy and lobbying work;
- patchy financial reporting and/ or divergent formats for reporting to different donors taking time and concentration away;
- absent/ insufficient monitoring and documenting of progress;
- little or no adjusting because of absent or ignored monitoring results/ rigid donor requirements;
- limited possibilities of stakeholder engagement with birds/ rivers/ forests/ children/ rape survivors/ people in occupied territories/ murdered people/ people dependent on NGO jobs & cash etc;
- internal tensions and conflicting interests;
- neglected internal/ external communications;
- un/ pleasant working culture/ lack of trust/ intimidation/ coercion/ culture of being nice and uncritical/ favouritism;
- the inaccessibility of conflict areas;
Although these issues had already been flagged up in:
- the evaluation of the project’s/ programme’s first phase;
- the midterm review;
- the project’s/ programme’s Steering Committee meetings;
- the project’s/ programme’s Advisory Board meetings;
- the project’s/ programme’s Management Team meetings;
Very little change seems to have been introduced by the project managers/ has been detected by the evaluators.
In terms of the OECD/ DAC criteria, the evaluators have found the following:
- relevance – the idea is nice, but does it cut the mustard?/ others do this too/ better;
- coherence – so so, see above;
- efficiency – so so, see above;
- effectiveness – so so, see above;
- impact – we see a bit here and there, sometimes unexpected positive/ negative results too, but will the positives last? It is too soon to tell, but see above;
- sustainability – unclear/ limited/ no plans so far.
If an organisation is (almost) the only one in its field, or if the cause is still a worthy cause, as evaluators you don’t want the painful parts of your assessments to reach adversaries. This also explains the vague language in many reports and why overall conclusions are often phrased as:
However, the obstacles mentioned above were cleverly navigated by the knowledgeable and committed project/ programme staff in such a way that in the end, the project/ programme can be said to have achieved its goal/ aim/ objective to a considerable extent.
Galileo: “Eppur si muove” = “And yet it moves”
Most NGO commissioners make drawing up a list of recommendations compulsory. Although there is a discussion within the evaluation community about evaluators’ competence to do precisely that, many issues found in this type of evaluation have organisational; not content; origins. The corresponding recommendations are rarely rocket science and could be formulated by most people with basic organisational insights or a bit of public service or governance experience. Where content is concerned, many evaluators are selected because of their thematic experience and expertise, so it is not necessarily wrong to make suggestions.
They often look like this:
Project/ programme governance
- limit the number of different bodies and make remit/ decision making power explicit;
- have real progress reports;
- have real meetings with a real agenda, real documents, real minutes, real decisions, and real follow-up;
Project/ programme management
- review and streamline/ rationalise structure to reflect strategy and work programme;
- give project/ programme leaders real decision making and budgetary authority;
- have real progress meetings with a real agenda, real minutes, real decisions, and real follow-up;
- implement what you decide, but monitor if it makes sense;
- consult staff on recommendations/ have learning sessions;
- draft implementation plan for recommendations;
- carry them out;
Processes and Procedures
- get staff agreement on them;
- commit them to paper;
- stick to them – but not rigidly;
Obviously, if we don’t get organisational structure and functioning, programme or project design, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and learning right, there is scant hope for the longer-term sustainability of the results that we should all be aiming for.
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)
Learning from a river of ex-post project evaluations and tools… Thanks USAID!
Dear ex-post aficionados. It’s raining ex-post project evaluations. Here’s hoping learning from such evaluations in water/ sanitation, maternal/child health and even capacity building/ peacekeeping, and their number increases!
1. WATER/ SANITATION & HYGIENE:
USAID has a series of six ex-post evaluations of the water/ sanitation and hygiene sectors since 2017! What is exciting is that they are also looking to the future. These evaluations will “provide insight into what happens after an activity ends, and how to mitigate challenges in future programming, potentially. The series will inform USAID’s WASH activity design and implementation and contribute to a larger sector discussion on achieving sustainability.”
The E3 water division (Water CKM ) took sustainability on as their strategy and have made great strides these last two years. They have done five ex-post project evaluations, cited below, and MSI has completed one more wat/san/ hygiene ex-post evaluations, specifically:
Madagascar Rural Access to New Opportunities for Health and Prosperity (RANO-HP) – Published June 2017
The first evaluation in the series explores the sustainability of the sanitation and hygiene components of the RANO-HP activity, implemented in 26 communes from 2009–2013.
Indonesia Environmental Services Program (ESP) – Published August 2017
The second evaluation in the series examines the sustainability of water utility capacity building, microcredit, and financial outcomes associated with the ESP activity, which was implemented from 2004–2010.
Ethiopia Millennium Water Alliance (MWA-EP) – Published May 2018
The third evaluation in the series examines the long-term sustainability of outcomes related to rural water point construction, rehabilitation, and management, as well as participatory sanitation and hygiene education and construction related to the MWA-EP activity, implemented in 24 rural districts between 2004–2009.
Financial Institutions Reform and Expansion–Debt and Infrastructure (FIRE-D) – Published September 2018
This evaluation is the fourth in the series. It examines how urban water and sanitation services in India have changed since FIRE-D closed and to what extent policies, practices, and financing mechanisms introduced through FIRE-D have been sustained.
Millennium Water and Sanitation Program in Senegal (PEPAM/USAID) – Published July 2019
The fifth ex-post evaluation in the series looks at the PEPAM project (Programme d’Eau Potable et d’Assainissement du Millénaire au Sénégal), implemented from 2009–2014 to improve sustainable access to WASH in four regions of Senegal.
USAID-funded by MSI: USAID/Ghana’s Water Access, Sanitation, and Hygiene for Urban Poor (WASH-UP)– published Nov 2018
Also USAID and Rotary International developed a WASH Sustainability Index Tool, “to assess a WASH activity’s likelihood to be sustainable according to the following factors: availability of finance for sanitation; local capacity for construction and maintenance of latrines; the influence of social norms; and governance.” This is similar to what we learned from USAID/ FFP/ Tufts/ FHI360 12 ex-posts that resources, capacities, motivation and linkages (aka partnerships, including governance) are vital to sustaining outcomes and impacts.
It will be interesting to see whether they examine the other ex-posts for excellent lessons, as they have the Senegalese evaluation:
- “Whether or not to subsidize sanitation access …Based on this evaluation’s findings and exploration of the literature, subsidies can help improve the quality of household latrines, but increasing use of those latrines remains a challenge.
- In contrast, CLTS (a nonsubsidized approach) is often credited with increasing use of unimproved latrines, but serious questions linger about quality and long-term sustainability of the latrines built after CLTS triggering, particularly as it relates to moving up the sanitation ladder. This evaluation… provides the opportunity to examine the potential value of a hybrid approach….
- The handwashing results suggest that low-cost, low-quality handwashing stations such as tippy taps do not lead to sustained behavior change. It may be worth considering hygiene investments that reduce the behavior change burden on targeted beneficiaries.
2. MATERNAL/ CHILD HEALTH & NUTRITION:
“Sustainability of a Community-Based CHOICE Program to Improve the Health and Nutrition Status of Mothers and Infants in Indonesia,” The report focused on whether the USAID-funded CHOICE program had left sustainable impacts: improving the health and nutrition status of children under the age of five, as well as the health status of pregnant and lactating women and mothers or caretakers of young children in the Pandeglang District of Indonesia. “After examining the data collected from the PSS, the researchers found that there were significant improvements in many indicators—such as births attended by skilled personnel, the treatment of diarrhea, and the nutritional quality of food fed to infants—in the six years after the CHOICE program ended. However, despite these improvements, the researchers found no significant statistical differences between villages that received the CHOICE program interventions and comparison villages, which did not. This speaks to using such a comparison methodology to focus on actual contribution and rule out the “rising tide lifts all boats” phenomenon.
3. CAPACITY DEVELOPMENT & PEACEBUILDING:
USAID’s Regional Office in Thailand evaluated its capacity building and peacebuilding program 1.5 years ex-post. While civil society was strengthened and there were inroads made on peacebuilding, “many interventions initiated during Sapan did not continue post-Sapan, although some did remain. For example, “stakeholders cite evidence of continuing to use some governance tools in local governance related to service delivery [although] because of limited financial resources after Sapan ended, they had to change some of their interventions and reduce the range of people they could include. There are lessons for whose capacities are built, two-way feedback loops with local partners, using local organizations such as universities to sustain training, planning sufficient time for partners to internalize training lessons, etc.
4. USAID FUNDED GUIDANCE:
‘Impact Evaluations’ have a new focus on long-term impact, rather than effectiveness during implementation (which was at least the original intent of impact evaluation in the 1980s)! In September 2018, USAID and Notre Dame issued a Guide for Planning Long-term Impact Evaluations as part of the Utilizing the Expertise of the ERIE Program Consortium. The guide covers the difference between traditional impact evaluation designs and data collection methods and how to apply them to long-term impact evaluations (LTIE). It also shares examples across a range of sectors, including later evaluating past impact evaluations, which ended before final evaluation.
Finally, in new 2018 USAID guidance, ex-post evaluation is clarified as the source of the sustainability of services and benefits. USAID clarifies that “questions about the sustainability of project services and benefits can be asked at any stage, but must usually be adjusted to take evaluation timing into account. Thus, for example, in a mid-term evaluation, a question about the existence of a sustainability plan and early action on that plan might be appropriate. An end-of-project evaluation could address questions about how effective a sustainability plan seems to be, and early evidence concerning the likely continuation of project services and benefits after project funding ends. Only an ex-post evaluation, however, can provide empirical data about whether a project’s services and benefits were sustained.”
Such richness that we can learn from. Keep the momentum going on the 99% of all global projects yet unevaluated ex-post, and change how we fund, design, implement, monitor and evaluate global development projects!
Assuming Sustainability and Impact is Dangerous to Development
(+ OECD/ DAC evaluation criteria)
We all do it; well, I used to do it too. I used to assume that if I helped my field staff and partners target and design funded projects well enough, and try to ensure a high quality of implementation and M&E, then it would result in sustainable programming. I assumed we would have moved our participants and partners toward projected long-term, top-of-logical-framework’s aspirational impact such as “vibrant agriculture leading to no hunger”, “locally sustained maternal child health and nutrition”, “self-sustained ecosystems”.
INTRAC nicely differentiates between what is typically measured (“outputs can only ever be the deliverables of a project or programme…that are largely within the control of an agency”) and what is not: “impact as the lasting or significant changes in people’s lives brought about by an intervention or interventions” . They continue: “as few organisations are really judged on their impact, the OECD DAC impact definition (“positive and negative, primary and secondary long-term effects produced by a development intervention, directly or indirectly, intended or unintended“) allows for long-term changes in institutional capacity or policy change to be classed as impact” . Do we do this? Virtually never. 99% of the time we only evaluate what happened while the project and its results is under the control of the aid implementer. Yet the five OECD/DAC evaluation criteria asks us to evaluate relevance, effectiveness, efficiency (fair enough, this is important to know if a project was good) and also impact and sustainability. So in addition to the prescription to evaluate ‘long-term effects’ (impact), evaluators are to measure “whether the benefits of an activity are likely to continue after donor funding has been withdrawn… [including being] environmentally as well as financially sustainable” .
How do we know we are getting to sustained outcomes and impacts? We ask people on the receiving end ideally after projects end. It is dangerous to assume sustainability and impact, and assume positive development trajectories (Sridharan) unless we consistently do “ex-post” project evaluations such as these from our research or catalytic organizations that have done at least one ex-post. At very minimum we should evaluate projected sustainability at end of project with those tasked to sustain it before the same project is repeated. Unfortunately we rarely do so and the assumed sustainability is so often not borne out, as I presented at the European Evaluation Society conference Sustainability panel two weeks ago along with AusAid’s DFAT, the World Bank, University College London and UNFEM.
Will we ever know if we have gotten to sustained impacts? Not unless the OECD/DAC criteria are drastically updated and organizations evaluate most projects ex-post (not just good ones :)), learn from the results and fund and implement for country-led sustainability with the country nationals. We must, as Sanjeev Sridharan tells us in a forthcoming paper embed sustainability into our Theories of Change from the onset (“Till time (and poor planning) do us part: Programs as dynamic systems — Incorporating planning of sustainability into theories of change” (Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 2018).*
There are remarkable assumptions routinely made. Many projects put sustainability into the proposal, yet most close out projects in the last 6 months. Rarely do projects take the time to properly phase down or phase over (unlike CRS Niger); many exit ceremonially ‘handing over’ projects to country-nationals, disposing project assets, and leaving only a final report behind. Alternatively, this USAID Uganda CDCS Country Transition Plan which looks over 20 years in the future by when it assumes to have accomplished sustained impact for exit . Maybe they will measure progress towards that goal and orient programs toward handover, as in the new USAID “Journey to Self-Reliance” – we hope! Truly, we can plan to exit, but only when data bears out our sustained impact, not when the money or political will runs out.
As OXFAM’s blog today on the evaluation criteria says, “Sustainability is often treated as an assessment of whether an output is likely to be sustained after the end of the project. No one, well, hardly anyone, ever measures sustainability in terms of understanding whether we are meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need” and “too often in development we evaluate a project or programme and claim impact in a very narrow sense rather than the broader ecology beyond project or programme parameters” . In fact, most ‘impact evaluations’ actually test effectiveness rather than long-term impact. Too rarely do we test impact assumptions by returning 2-10 years later and gather proof of what impacted locals’ lives sustainably, much less – importantly – what emerged from their own efforts once we left (SEIEs)! Oh, our hubris.
if you’re interested in the European Evaluation Society’s DAC criteria update discussion, see flagship discussion and Zenda Offir’s blog which stresses the need for better design that include ownership, inclusivity, empowerment . These new evaluation criteria need to be updated, including Florence Etta’s and AGDEN‘s additional criteria participation, non-discrimination and accountability!
We can no longer afford to spend resources without listening to our true clients – those tasked with sustaining the impacts after we pack up – our partners and participants. We can no longer fund what cannot be proven to be sustained that is impactful. We talk about effectiveness and country ownership (which is paramount for sustainability and long-term impact), with an OECD report (2018) found “increases [in[ aid effectiveness by reducing transaction costs and improving recipient countries ownership” . Yet donor governments who ‘tie’ aid to their own country national’s contracts benefit a staggering amount from ‘aid’ given. “Australia and the United Kingdom both reported … 93 percent and 90 percent of the value of their contracts respectively went to their own firms” . It is not so different in the USA where aid is becoming bureaucratically centralized in the hands of a few for-profit contractors and centralized hundreds of millions in a handful of contracts. We must Do Development Differently. We can’t be the prime beneficiaries of our own aid; accountability must be to our participants; is it their countries, not our projects, and we cannot keep dangerously assuming sustained impact. Please let us know what you think…
[*] This paper is now available at https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/cjpe/article/view/53055
 Simister, N. (2015). Monitoring and Evaluation Series: Outcomes Outputs and Impact. Retrieved from https://www.intrac.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Monitoring-and-Evaluation-Series-Outcomes-Outputs-and-Impact-7.pdf
 OECD. (n.d.). DAC Criteria for Evaluating Development Assistance. Retrieved September, 2018, from https://web.archive.org/web/20180919035910/http://www.oecd.org/dac/evaluation/daccriteriaforevaluatingdevelopmentassistance.htm
 USAID. (2016, December 6). USAID Uganda Country Development Cooperation Strategy 2016-2021. Retrieved October, 2018, from https://www.usaid.gov/uganda/cdcs
 Porter, S. (2018, October 18). DAC Criteria: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Retrieved from https://views-voices.oxfam.org.uk/2018/10/dac-criteria-the-hand-that-rocks-the-cradle/
 European Evaluation Society Biennial Conference: Flagship Symposia. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.ees2018.eu/1539782596-flagship-symposia.htm
 Ofir, Z. (2018, October 13). Updating the DAC Criteria, Part 11 (FINAL). From Evaluation Criteria to Design Principles. Retrieved from https://zendaofir.com/dac-criteria-part-11/
 OECD. (2018, June 11). 2018 Report On The DAC Untying Recommendation. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/dac/financing-sustainable-development/development-finance-standards/DCD-DAC(2018)12-REV2.en.pdf
The Name of the Game is “Sustainability” but Does the Last Player Count?
by John Lowrie, Reblog from https://www.scribd.com/document/11621086/The-Name-of-the-Game-is-Sustainability-but-Does-the-Last-Player-Count-by-John-Lowrie
Today, it is obligatory to answer the question “how will your proposed activities be sustainable after the project?” Most of us dutifully play the game and repeat various sentences that describe the measures that “should” bring sustainability about. Then it is usually left at that. We all move on to the next project and donor. Seldom does anyone look back over the passing of many years to check to see if promise has turned in to reality. At best there may be an end-project evaluation which will say that planned outcomes are achieved and “likely” to be sustained. It would be a very brave evaluator to be more committed beyond that.
My question is why do we play this game? (I should add: apart from the obvious answer we need the donors’ money!) Sustainability is much more than a ruse in a game. It goes to the very essence of what kind of organisation we belong to; plus all the others with us whether staff, supporters or beneficiaries; how we originated and what are our real long- term plans?
Many NGOs are artificially created groupings of people, unlike the first ones last century that emerged as people on a mission to address specific issues that they felt strongly about. Latterly, NGOs are now lumped in to “Civil Society” which is another recent fashionable label in development jargon. This is despite many officials and even NGO workers in Cambodia having no idea that it is supposed to encompass more than NGOs, to embrace other groups such as the press, trade unions, etc.
Many NGOs have actually been started by or for charismatic individuals, tapping in to somebody else’s cause or source of funding, rather than part of a collective if not mass movement in its own right towards a common end. Sometimes, international departing NGOs promote them, as part of “exit-strategies” to demonstrate that they leave something behind to show for their good work and all the money spent. They may have even included a plan for it in their sustainability proposal write-up. In Cambodia the “gravy train” that accompanied
UNTAC, the massive international effort to bring lasting peace and democracy in the early 90s, spawned many. Some of these NGOs have been good and stood the test of time. Many have fallen by the wayside. Others have been co-opted by political interests. Few have proper accountable self-governance structures.
◄“It’s the money that matters”, but will these NGO beneficiaries, the final players, get what they need to be sustainable?
So how can they be really sustainable? What is driving them – apart that is from the obvious – money? It is true that many do good work. They often do work that local authorities should be doing. But, I ask, towards what end? For example “poverty alleviation” is not an end in itself; for it to be sustained it needs much more than the usual 1-3 year time-frames that donors favour for their projects. Yet the usual pattern is –identify your target groups, go there, pass on whatever to them, then move on (to the next ones). There are exceptions. Lutheran World Federation (LWF) expect to work for 10 or more years in their target communities before they “graduate” and begin a systematic staged withdrawal. Mostly, however, the projects end on time or soon after, the files are closed, and that is that, at least until next time.
Meanwhile NGOs try to source repeat funding or new funding, and the game rules dictate where and how they proceed. It is only by luck rather than design that there will be a true match between what they want to do and what the donor is willing to give the money for. Usually there is accommodation, most likely on the part of the NGO; indeed some big donors explicitly rule out comments, queries, and changes to their guidelines which become grails of holiness. The most desperate NGOs have to re-invent themselves; depart from their original mission, suddenly acquire new skills in often far removed fields to stay in the game. I have seen an election-monitoring organisation become an agency to consult displaced families affected by a road-widening. I know of one local rural development NGO in one province become a pro-citizen governance campaigner in another. Adaptability and learning to diversify are good qualities, but when they cause such radical changes within an NGO, it cannot be re-assuring for sustainability.
The nature of what an NGO does and its underlying philosophy is therefore key to sustainability. Those NGOs created to work in the immediate post-conflict or disaster emergency relief periods are prone to short-term visions, and sometimes they leave legacies which handicap development such as “dependency” and even “easy-come-easy- go” attitudes when foreign money seems plentiful. Those NGOs born in the next phase, i.e., after emergency relief, the start of infrastructure reconstruction and restoring public services and the economy, can also be equally short-term in their vision. In fact they have an inherent flaw. If they succeed, they do themselves out of a job and few want that as it would mean no future jobs and income! Even the Cambodian Government, despite an addiction to foreign aid, now maintains that some have overstayed their welcome.
These NGOs tend to be “welfare” or “service-provision” providers. They are confident in their abilities “we know best” but are they committed to passing their best skills and knowledge on and to the right people to take progress forward without them?
Cambodia is not alone in that politics plays a big part. The ruling party now has a 73% majority in the National Assembly, holds 98% of the 1,629 Commune Council Chiefdoms and 70% of Councillors. As the national and commune members form the constituency for the Senate, Provincial, and District Authorities, the party is guaranteed monopoly control. The situation is not helped by the absence of a neutral civil service or public service – in fact it is mystifying that UNTAC and every international donor has not tried to cultivate one. So we are left with what we have; we are where we are. It means that sustainability will only follow if we accept that reality. We have to engage constructively with the powers-that-be; we have to find the best people we can to work with, and through them, reach out to others. If not, eventual opposition or just plan lack of good will and support will affect the final outcome. Authorities always outlast NGOs, at least in Cambodia they do!
Cambodia did not have a good start when NGOs first came on the scene. Many of the first NGOs were human rights activists needed at that time and to a certain extent now, to expose calamitous treatment meted out to victims. Unfortunately this profile, still high in perceptions, has made many in power believe that this is only or mainly what NGOs do and stand for1. The legalistic approach to human rights where abuses are reported, perpetrators identified, and “name, blame shame” attached, cannot be a development tool in the sustainability tool-kit. It must be separated out and equally important alternative human rights approaches such as “rights-based development” which arouse less hostility co-exist with similar enthusiasm and means. NGOs and civil society will never have sustainable activities while their undoubted overall positive contribution gets little or no recognition by the people that count most when it comes to change.
NGOs are agents of change, which if mishandled does lead to suspicion, so to achieve change, NGOs must be clear in their message to persuade all (or a majority) that their change is worthwhile. If a long-term, wide cross-section commitment towards that change is not implanted, it is not sustainable. Too many development initiatives in Cambodia have resulted in temporary change. The “status-quo” reverts soon afterwards. In some cases the change is only tacitly accepted “take their money”, “go along with them” but “once they have gone, we go back to how we were, OK?” This is the opposite of sustainability.
There have to be contextually appropriate solutions, which can only be country-by- country, culture-by-culture. We should not have to operate on the basis of big international donors with their “one-size-fits-all” development policies and calls for proposals that allow just one format (theirs) that automatically favours the big international NGOs. They have their professional fund-raisers, who can knock out proposals that score high marks in the assessment/evaluation boxes, without many of the authors and assessors concerned ever going near the intended target beneficiaries! Yet be under no doubt, the words they pen and peruse answer beautifully on how such beneficiaries were involved, but who ever checks?
I may not be a good team-player in the present development game, so what am I suggesting as an alternative? First of all I would like to see fewer NGOs, ones which are smaller, more self-contained, and manageable to operate country-by country, sector-by- sector, region-by-region. They need to have good links to others elsewhere for best practice to be shared, but their core mission needs to be focussed to bring about certain defined changes; with the right people and the resources they need, and in the fullness of time. Therefore 5 years is an absolute minimum and asking for “core costs” to be provided should not be regarded as a mortal sin, as it tends to be with most donors. It has to be allowed, to be seen as value for money, and though indirect, still an essential element in bringing about that change. If not, how can sustainability be served?
Ironically, it is only with core support or independent means, that NGOs can play the game, so again favouring the big players. How else does an NGO cover its costs in preparing bids to donors? For example after UK-DfiD released their worldwide Global Transparency Fund in 2008, 450 organisations applied, and just 38 succeeded. Even a recent in-country release by UNDP for environmental projects attracted no less than 67 applications, of which just 13 won out. This means that for 412 in the DfiD case and 54 in the UNDP case who had devoted considerable effort, on top of their normal work, the process ultimately proved to be a waste of time; to be disappointing and especially for local NGOs to be discouraging.
I have two (NGO) organisations in mind while writing this article. Neither conforms to the pattern I criticize. They are different and I am not the only one to think that they are better. Both have poor disabled people as their target beneficiaries. One is in sports. The other is in poverty alleviation/new livelihoods or careers and self-advocacy. Both are now purely local NGOs, with none of the trappings or spending power of the big international players that dominate the disability sector. In fact neither has anything like a long-term future, because of funding gaps, and so a lot of their work, despite excellent results so far, cannot be said to be sustainable. If they go out of business too soon, how will their beneficiaries stay involved, if sustainability is to be realised eventually?
Local NGO “Cambodia National Volleyball League Disabled2” is the sports one. Most interestingly, it is taking a route party by choice, partly by necessity, towards the private sector or “corporate social responsibility” funds in its hope to realise sustainability. CNVLD has earned a worldwide reputation for transforming the self-esteem of disabled athletes. They actually enjoy high standing on the world stage unlike their “able-bodied” compatriots. They play volley-ball, pursue wheel-chair racing and some athletes may well qualify for the 2012 London Paralympics, even if there may be no money to support them to go and compete there.
◄Disabled Sports Athletes of NGO CNVLD playing the game at its best – but do they have a future?
Now CNVLD’s quest is to raise such money and cover their modest (compared to INGO) costs. Yet this laudable aim is treated with derision by some in the sector. Pursuing private funding is viewed as an anathema to many who see it as contradictory to the “not- for-profit” concept. Does this make sense? Does such obstruction make for sustainability? Is it a sin not to want to depend solely on the usual institutional sources of funding? One critic is interesting. It has in its mission that all its services to beneficiaries must be provided free. No charges whatsoever must be levied even for those who can afford to pay! In Cambodia, everybody pays, even when services are supposed to be free3. Even if a direct charge is not levied, recipients expect and are expected to show their gratitude4, and do so especially the poorest who see it as an inescapable obligation. Surely sustainability means (a) people who can afford to pay should do so, and (b) NGOs who can attract funding and not depend on taxpayers’ money should be welcomed5?
The second organisation, New Horizons Society6, is not as lucky as CNVLD, as they cannot go down the route of sponsorship which is an accepted feature of sport. This is an NGO that did localise from an INGO but on their own terms. They voted against joining another national body created by and favoured by the big international disability NGOs. Over 200 of their Focus Persons (Group Leaders) voted in a secret ballot to form their own NGO in order to stay true to their close-knit grassroots upwards origins and growth. Now they have 3,175 members in 135 self-help groups federated up to provincial level and going on to the national stage. They have remarkable accomplishments in creating new livelihoods for their [once] ultra-poor members and have accumulated over $130,000 in revolving funds. Individual lives have been transformed. One boy has gone from beggar in the market to national singing celebrity. One young man went from lonely at home; never seen a computer; no English, to being one of today’s high-flying geeks. His class-mate, from a similar start, went on to become the Publicity Officer for CNLVD and to lead her own troupe of dancers in the NHS Child Advocacy Group performing at international conferences.
◄NGO Child Advocates demonstrate “We can do” but will donors let them?
The 135 groups went from fear of talking to officials to successful advocacy. They started with the right to education and health-care for disabled youngsters, and once they were confident went on to persuade ministers to take action to stop their meagre pension rights being denied to them. These people chose not to ask for pity, or welfare, or for service provisions to be given to them. Instead they ask simply for the chance to show that “they can do” and that they can be self-sufficient when given the opportunities and means.
Their problem is that they cannot do this for all members yet, let alone go on to include others in the same fate as they once were. Yet despite their accomplishments, right now they can only win project activity funds. Donors refuse to pay more than 20% for running costs. Some specify as little as 5%. That does not even cover the running costs of their multi-purpose centre where meetings, training, sports, dancing, computer classes etc., go on. It may stretch to pay modest salaries to 2 or 3 staff, but they have to depend on consultant/advisors like me to help them voluntarily. Their entire organisation is radically different from the familiar set-up to be seen in international disability, donor and development organisations. There is not an air-conditioner, land-cruiser, or voucher paying university fees of expatriate’s children, etc., in sight. Yet despite its low cost and high yield, it is not yet sustainable within the present rules of most donors. If it can get over its current shortfalls and continue to build the revolving funds in to a sizeable trust or investment fund, with many members whose incomes have grown sufficiently able to subscribe fees to run their organisation, then they may have an independent viable future. But is there a donor who can adopt such a long-term vision; who will give enough to meet the real needs they identify, and who will then stay the course even when inevitable setbacks happen on the way?
So finally sustainability should be expressed in one simple notion and by the last player. It should be a measure of the change made in individual lives and over life-times of beneficiaries and their families. They are the last players in the game – who else but them can make that assessment? The present game means that it is the other players that have most say. They arrive on the scene much earlier; play in their own compact time-frames, and to their own rules. Then as external entrants, they depart the scene as soon as they can. Sustainability?
1 The perception is not helped by the limitations of the Khmer language. When the word “advocacy” was first introduced “tasumateh” was used, literally “to struggle for” associated with confrontation, not partnership, and so it was viewed by many as an alien Western concept.
2 firstname.lastname@example.org or www.standupcambodia.net
3 Understanding pro-poor political change:the policy process Cambodia by Caroline Hughes and Tim Conway, Overseas Development Institute, 2003 – DfiD Publication.
4 It is this “tradition” that is at the heart of a current dispute within the UN-backed Khmer Rouge
Trials, where Cambodian staff are alleged to have paid a proportion of their salary to officials with a role in their appointment.
5 Subject of course to disclosure and transparency.
6 email@example.com or www.newhorizonsunlimited.org