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!
Are We Done Yet?
When are we off the hook, so to speak, for the well-being of the participants whom we said we'd make healthier, better fed, more educated, safer, etc?
America’s Agency for International Development (USAID) is the main channel for international development aid. It is also an organization interested in learning from its programming and numerous contracts support such work. One such contract by FHI360/FANTA was Food for Peace tasking them to review the agency’s Title II development food aid from 2003-2009 covering 28 countries. This Second Food Aid and Food Security Assessment (FAFSA-2) Summary found that such programs can “reduce undernutrition in young children, improve health and nutrition outcomes, and increase access to income and food” and also found practices that did not work well.
While USAID has made enormous strides in the intervening six years on monitoring and evaluation (I was a consultant to USAID/PPL/LER from 2013-14), excellent recommendations that would support great, sustainable programs are unfulfilled:
Recommendations #1, 4 “USAID/FFP should develop an applied research agenda and sponsor studies that focus on the implementation of Title II programs in the field to better define what works and what does not…. [and] should select the review panel for new Title II applications… and give reviewers a ‘cheat sheet’ on interventions and approaches that USAID/FFP is and is not interested in funding because they work better or do not work as well, [and] provide this same information in the Request for Assistance” [Request for proposals].
Yes, all across our industry there is little learning from past evaluations for future design and Valuing Voices believes local participants and stakeholders need to be consulted to tell us what (still) works and what they want more of not only during implementation but long after. Their voices must support great design, as it’s their lives we go there to improve; they must be involved in the design of these original requests that non-profits design and fulfill. Further, the study found that only 1/3 of all evaluations were included in USAID’s database, and as Valuing Voices’ partner Sonjara has written in our blog, aid transparency requires data retention and access for learning to happen.
Recommendation #3 “USAID/FFP should include options for extensions of awards or separate follow-on awards to enable USAID/FFP to continue to support high-performing programs beyond five years and up to ten years… [as] longer implementation periods are associated with greater impact.”
This would address the ‘how much impact can we accomplish in 1, 3, 5 years” question that many of us in international non-profits ask ourselves. Finally, the graphic below is self-explanatory – USAID sees its role ending at close-out.
The crux lies in their honest statement: "It was beyond the scope and resources of the FAFSA-2 to explore in any depth the sustainability of Title II development programs after they ended." While they state that there is merit in having impact while you intervene, such as "having a positive impact on the nutritional status of the first cohort of children is of immense benefit in its own right", they go on to say that "ideally, one would like to see mothers continuing positive child feeding practices and workers continuing to deliver services long after programs end… [yet] whether the [maternal child health and nutrition] interventions are sustainable beyond one generation is unknown and would require research." This is because funding is pre-programmed, fixed to end within set 1, 3, 5 year increments, and no one goes back to learn how it all turned out. This is what most needs to change, this illusion that what happens after closeout is no longer our issue, that the ‘positive impact’ we had while there is enough.
They are not alone. I think of NORAD, the Government of Norway's development arm as very progressive. So I went to NORAD's website and searched for 'ex-post' (we do a lot of that at ValuingVoices). So like our World Bank blog on finding real ex-post evaluations, many many things are considered 'ex-post', including one actual evaluation in Palestine with fieldwork which asked participants and a few that looked at institutional sustainability. Many of the 100+ 'finds' were actually documents recommending ex-post. Typical of our other searches of other donors. I emailed NORAD whether there were more with participant voices, yet they assured me they did them. Maybe our problem is in definitions and taxonomy again. Maybe we should call them post-project participant feedback?
Most of my colleagues would agree that the sustainability of activities aimed at making communities food secure in the long-term and independent of aid is a shared goal, one which short-term assistance aimed at huge impacts such as to ‘make communities food secure’ and ‘sustainably decrease malnutrition’ (common proposal goals) is unrealistic. We need participant voices to teach us how well we served them. We need to return, learn “what works and what does not”, and Value Voices in true sustained partnership. We all look forward to being done.
 “Another major obstacle to transparency and learning from the Title II program experience was the fact that only one-third of the final evaluations were publicly available on the Development Experience Clearinghouse (DEC), despite the requirement that Awardees post them to the DEC…. [There was a lack of] cross-cutting studies or in-depth analyses of Title II evaluation results to advance organizational learning [and] much greater use could be made of the evaluation data for systematic reviews, meta-analyses, secondary analyses, and learning.”
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” .
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?
 The Center for Effective Philanthropy. (2014, October 27). Closing the Citizen Feedback Loop. Retrieved December 2014, from https://web.archive.org/web/20141031130101/https://feedbacklabs.org/closing-the-citizen-feedback-loop/
 Better Evaluation. (n.d.). Empowerment Evaluation. Retrieved December 2014, from https://www.betterevaluation.org/plan/approach/empowerment_evaluation
 Sonjara. (2016). Content and Data: Intangible Assets Part V. Retrieved from http://www.sonjara.com/blog?article_id=135
Sustainability SPRINGing out all over the place… and Disrupting
So what is sustainability? You may think it's the climate's long-term wellbeing and how to gauge changes to that. You may think it's linked to sustainable development regarding consumption, trade, education and environment and how to assess it. You may think it's data-driven organizational success as Chelsea Clinton describes, or is it Michael Porter's business' view of Creating Shared Value on social and environmental concerns or is it about people, as hallowed University of Cambridge trains experts in its Institute for Sustainability Leadership (I revel that I was a Fellow there in the '90s). Finally, is it WCED’s lovely definition "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"? Yes, when applied to communities' abilities to self-sustainably and resiliently chart their own development!
So how are we to get there? A Sustainable Brands Conference this year gets us there through being clear about their own consumption, and USAID is no different. USAID Forward is putting their money where their keyboards are (so to speak), toward more sustainable local delivery by directing a huge 30 percent of its funding to “local solutions” through procurement in coming years. This framework is to “support the ‘new model of development’ that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah has touted, which entails a shift away from hiring U.S.-based development contractors and NGOs to implement projects, and toward channeling money through host-country governments and local organizations to build their capacity to do the work themselves and sustain programs after funding dries up. I, and others celebrate the investments this will enable local firms to make in their own capacity, in leading development!
Of course all sorts of safeguards are needed, and ideally US firms would be providing capacity development, but shouldn’t we have been doing this all along, to move toward transferring ‘development’ to the countries themselves?
Source: GAO report
Also vital to sustainable development is learning from what works and doing more of it. USAID is finally planning to incorporate more ex-post evaluations into its toolkit of evaluating sustainability! Two weeks ago, PPL/LER shared their great new policy document- “Local systems: A framework for supporting sustained development” on how they can better incorporate local systems thinking into policy as well as DIME (Design, Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation). Industry insider DevEx tells us "even though the agency plans to use ex-post evaluations to measure whether development projects are successful or not, these evaluations will not focus on “specific contractor performance” but instead consider the “types of approaches that contribute to more sustainable outcomes…to inform USAID’s country strategies and project design." While PVO implementing partners will not [yet?] be required to do ex-post evaluations as part of their projects, having this door cracked open is excitingly opening. Notably, it is a ‘back to the future’ moment, as 30 years ago USAID led the development world in post-project evaluations, yet in the last 24 years has done none (or at least not published any) except for the Food for Peace retrospective below, as I found in our Valuing Voices research of USAID's Development Experience Clearinghouse.
There is far more to watch. In our view, the whole development industry needs to grapple with the perceived barrier that funding ends with projects (note: a trust could be set up to document post-project impact 1, 3, 5 years later and results retained, much as 3ie does now for impact evaluations) and the view that one cannot discern attributable project impact with a time-lag of several years. Yet even the General Accounting Office is asking for longitudinal data; they reviewed USAID’s document and wants to see clear measures of success at Mission and HQ level by different indicators of local institutional sustainability and impact four years on.
Why should we care? As Chelsea Clinton of the Clinton Global Initiative puts it, "you can't measure everything, but you can measure almost everything through quantitative or qualitative means, so that we know what we're disproportionately good at. And, candidly, what we're not so good at, so we can stop doing that.
Yes! Development should be about doing more of what works, sustainably, and less of what doesn’t. USAID’s Local Systems Framework found the best could also be free, as in this one Food For Peace evaluation shows:
Returning to Chelsea Clinton, I’ll conclude by stating something obvious. She "wants to see some evidence of why we're making decisions, as opposed to the anecdotes” which is what getting post-project evaluation data from our true clients, our participants, is all about. Clinton says this will transform CGI into a smart, accountable, and sustainable support system for philanthropic disrupters around the world. USAID is radical for me, today, with their Local Systems investments… my neighborhood disrupter.
Are you such a disrupter too? Who else is one whom we can celebrate together?
Transparency and Accountability via open [Cambodian] data that ValuesVoices
My colleague pointed out this fascinating article about a new transparency program for garment factories, using data collected meticulously by the International Labor Organization (ILO) on working conditions in Cambodia in a publically accessible searchable database: http://betterfactories.org/transparency/. and this story about it:
The key elements I want to point out about this great example are the following:
The data was already being collected by the ILO-thorough interviews and investigations of different factories, at a presumably high cost. But this information was not being widely shared, because the format the data was in (PDF), was not easily accessible by those who could use it, resulting in these reports not having the “shame” impact that is important for voluntary compliance.
The BFC was able to partner with the ILO to open their data, making it easier for anyone to search and use the outcomes of the ILO reports. This increased access has already made an impact in making Cambodian factory owners more focused on compliance.
This pattern is very similar to what we see occurring throughout international development, where evaluation data is being captured and collected, but not shared in formats that would make transparency and accountability easy to access.
The article hinted at the two main challenges to making this data open:
The need for a robust back end to support and maintain it – something that requires investment and thoughtfulness; and
“very public debates between the garment producer’s association and Better Factories Cambodia that ensued for months” – i.e. political concerns about transparency and what the data means.
When we unlock the data that is currently being collected (and paid for) in international development, especially during project evaluations, we find opportunities for increased transparency and accountability, as well as making the data captured more likely to provide insight for those not directly involved in the project.
This effort will take time, effort, and money, and there will be political obstacles to overcome. But the result is information to help us make better decisions on where we spend our money, invest our time, or highlight those who need to improve. The combination of ValuingVoices' debates and data work!
Siobhan Green is a partner company to ValuingVoices and can be found at Sonjara.