Hard-wiring and Soft-wiring in Sustainability via health program examples: by Laurence Desvignes and Jindra Cekan/ova
We all want things to last. Most of us joined the ‘sustainable development’ industry hoping our foreign aid projects not only do good while we are there but long afterward. Following on last month’s blog on better learning about project design, implementation, and M&E, here are some things to do better.
Long-term sustainability rests on four pillars: the first rests on how the project is designed and implemented before exit and the second is to what degree conditions are needed for the continuation of results the project generated are put into place. While the first one embeds sustainability into its very results, the second invests in processes to foster the continuation of results. The other two of the four pillars, returning to see what lasts by evaluating the sustainability of results two or more years later and bringing those lessons back to funding, design, implementation, and building in shock-resilience, e.g., such as to climate change, are in other Valuing Voices blogs.
We focus on 1 and 2 in this blog, and use an analogy of hard-wiring and soft-wiring sustainability into the fabric of the project:
- Hardwiring, ‘baking-in’ sustainability involves the design/ implementation which predisposes results lasting. This includes investing in Maternal Child Health and Nutrition’s first 1000 days from conception to age two that are vital for child development. The baby’s physical development and nutrition are so important as is maternal well-being. Investing in these early days leads to better health and nutrition throughout their lives. So too are buying local. Too often our projects rely on imported technology and inputs that are hard to replace if broken. A project on hand pumps used by UNICEF suggested local purchase of those “designed to optimize the chances of obtaining good quality hand pumps and an assured provision of spare parts” involves both the hardware of the pump and also the “capacity building plan and a communication strategy.” Also using local capacity/specialists when available vs external consultants can also be key to building the sustainability of a project.
Another example of baking-in sustainability is using participatory approaches to ensure that those implementing- such as the communities/ local authorities. In this example, it’s grassroots where participants are heard during design in terms of their priorities and how the project should be implemented. This includes targeting discussions and monitoring and evaluation being done with and by communities. The seminal research of 6,000 interviews with aid recipients, Time to Listen, found that they want to participate and when they do, things are more likely to be sustained, rather than being passive recipients…. there is ex-post proof such programming is more ‘owned’ and more sustained.
Conducting in-depth needs assessments at design is usually the way to collect information about what is needed and how projects should be implemented to last. Unfortunately, very often, the time is very limited for the proposal development and (I)NGOs are under pressure of short deadlines to submit the proposal, and needs assessments are either done quickly, collecting very basic information or not done at all. Yet time spent valuing the voices of participants can bring great richness. In 2022, the UN’s FAO did a monitoring and evaluation study in Malawi validating indicators for poverty by asking communities how they identify it from the start. “Researchers were impressed at how accurately the people they interviewed were able to gauge the relative wealth of their neighbors.” We were not surprised as the locals often know best. Another example with Mines Advisory Group in Cambodia, we developed a community-based participatory approach for design whereby project staff would work with the mine-affected communities to draw local maps of their villages, highlighting the location of the dangerous places and the key areas/places used by the communities. Staff and communities discussed the constraints, risks, needs, etc. to make their community safer, which the project would follow up with risk education, clearance, victim assistance, and/or alternative economic /development solutions to make the community safer. Other mine action agencies, e.g. Danish Refugee Council (Danish Demining Group) are also now using safer community approaches, involving local residents to decide on how to make their village safer depending on the community priorities.
Hardwiring in participatory feedback-loop learning from locals during implementation is also key. Implementation of a community feedback strategy once the programme is running is also essential. The community feedback mechanism (CFM) is a formal system established to enable affected populations to communicate information on their views, concerns, and experiences of a humanitarian agency or of the wider humanitarian system. It systematically captures, records, tracks, and follows up on the feedback it receives to improve elements of a response. CFM is key to ensuring that people affected by crisis have access to avenues to hold humanitarian actors to account; to offer affected people a formalized structure for raising concerns if they feel their needs are not being met, or if the assistance provided is having any unintended and harmful consequences; to understand and solicit information on their experience of a humanitarian agency or response; as part of a broader commitment to quality and accountability that enables organizations to recognize and respond to any failures in response; to promote the voices and influence of people affected so their perspectives, rights, and priorities remain at the forefront of humanitarian/development work.
Promoting and implementing community engagement, such as a community feedback strategy, provides a basis for dialogue with people affected on what is needed and on how what is needed might best be provided, especially as needs change during implementation. This will help identify priority needs and is a means to gauge beneficiaries’ understanding of activities being carried out, to assist in the identification of local partners and establishment and follow-up of partnerships, and in the organizational development and capacity building of local institutions and authorities. It can strengthen the quality of assistance by facilitating dialogue and meaningful exchange between aid agencies and affected people at all stages of humanitarian response and result in the empowerment of those involved. Targeted people are viewed as social actors that can play an active role in decisions affecting their lives.
OXFAM’s project in Haiti starting in 2012 came as a result of a cholera epidemic that began in 2010 (“Preventing the Cholera Epidemic by Improving WASH Services and Promoting Hygiene in the North and Northeast”), whose goal was to contribute to the cholera elimination, experimented with the community feedback strategy as a means of gauging the recipients’ understanding of the activities carried out and of further strengthening the links between OXFAM and the communities during implementation. The initial process of community feedback was intended to both receive recommendations from project participants for better management of the action and also to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Oxfam interventions. Based on the information and recommendations applied, OXFAM served as a bridge between the community and the actors involved (e.g. private firm contracted to carry out some health centers/ water systems renovation work or other) in the implementation of the project. This is also part of Oxfam’s logic of placing more emphasis on the issue of accountability and community engagement.
The feedback-loop benefits of such a community process are manyfold, especially on Protection, human rights, risk management, and further below, adapting Implementation, M&E, and fostering organizational learning:
- CFMs assist in promoting the well-being, rights, and protection of people by offering them a platform to have a voice and be heard
- it fosters participation, transparency, and trust
- It uses Do No Harm and conflict-sensitive programming
- It helps identify staff misconduct
- It functions as a risk management and early warning system
Adapting Implementation and Improving M&E:
- This process makes it possible to adapt to the priorities of the beneficiaries, to better meet their needs hence ensuring the agency’s accountability to the affected population
- It facilitates and guarantees a better quality of the project.
- It represents a means of monitoring our approaches and our achievements.
- It makes it possible to construct a common vision shared between the various actors and the project participants/targeted communities.
- Ensuring the programme quality and accountability through the establishment of an appropriate accountability strategy (including Transparency, Feedback, Participation, Monitoring, and Effectiveness) and relevant methodologies and tools (since the planning stage of the project) is a key exercise which allow to think and plan for the sustainability of the programme at an early stage.
- It allows us to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the interventions while offering us the opportunity to learn from our experiences, hence allowing for programmatic learning and adaptative programming.
- It conveys the impact of the project and the change brought about in the lives of the beneficiaries.
- It is part of the logic of capitalizing on experiences to improve the quality of future projects.
2. Soft-wiring is creating conditions to make sustainability more likely for local communities and partners by thinking about how to replace what has been brought by the projects’ donors and implementers. This involves an analysis as well as actions that put conditions for sustainability into place before and during the time that foreign aid projects close. Valuing Voices’ checklists for exiting sustainably involves local ownership, sufficient capacities, and resources, viable partnerships, how well risks such as climate and economic shocks were identified and managed, and benchmarking for success 1-2 years before closure. Later it is important to return to check findings at ex-post project, comparing completion results to what was sustained 2-30 years later.
There are four categories of sustainability-fostering actions to do pre-exit which were identified by Rogers and Coates of Tufts for USAID for sustained exit:
Several blogs on Valuing Voices deal with resources, including assumptions donors make. Donor resource investments cannot be assumed to be sustained. The checklists outline a wide array of questions to ask during design and latest a year pre-exit, including what assumptions do aid projects make? USAID water/ sanitation/ hygiene investments have mostly not been sustained, due to a combination of lack of resources to maintain them and low ownership of the resources invested. Some key questions are:
- Did the project consider how those taking over the project would get sufficient resources, e.g., grant funding or other income generation available or renting out their facility or infrastructure that they own or shift some of their activities to for-profit production, sold to cover part of project costs?
- Does the project or partner have a facility or infrastructure that they own and is rentable to increase resources outside donor funding or can the project shift to for-profit, including institutional and individual in-kind products or technical knowledge skills that can be sold to cover part of project costs?
- What new equipment is needed, e.g. computers, vehicles, technical (e.g. weighing scales) for activities to continue, and which stakeholder will retain them?
- Or even no resources are needed because some project activities will scale down, move elsewhere, focus on a smaller number of activities that are locally sustainable, or the whole project will naturally phase-out)
The objective of that Oxfam project was to reduce the risks of communities placed in a situation of acute vulnerability to the cholera epidemic in two departments in Haiti (where about 1.5 million inhabitants reside). It focused on sustainability by effectively supporting and accompanying governmental WASH and health structures in the rapid response to alerts and outbreaks recorded in the targeted communities. How? Through awareness-raising activities among the populations concerned, by strengthening the epidemiological surveillance system and coordination between concerned stakeholders. The project also aimed to improve drinking water structures such as drinking water distribution points, drinking water networks or systems, catchments, and boreholes. As part of this intervention, Oxfam worked in close collaboration and in support of the Departmental Directorates of Health (DH), DINEPA (government services responsible for water and sanitation), and local authorities at the level of cities, towns and neighborhoods, and community structures including civil protection teams. Oxfam and DINEPA staff intervened through mixed mobile response teams that included technical and managerial staff from the health department to whom Oxfam provided ongoing technical support in terms of WASH analysis and actions, WASH training, finance training, and monitoring, as well as logistical support for the deployment of teams in the field (provision of vehicles and drivers). Oxfam was therefore working to ensure that cholera surveillance and mitigation actions were led by state and community actors, and by supporting state structures to build their capacities and allow ownership of the various aspects of the fight against cholera. Concretely, this was done as follows:
- Preliminary meetings and discussions were held with concerned governmental authorities to agree on a plan of action based on needs, implementation means, priorities, and budget for the health and wash governmental services/teams to be able to function. This was followed by the signature of an MoU between Oxfam and the Departmental Directorates of Health (DH).
- An action plan was set up with the DH and DINEPA (governmental water and sanitation agency) at the very beginning of the project.
- Outbreak response teams were managed directly by the DH and the staff was recruited, managed, and paid by the DH. The DH and DINEPA implemented the activities, managed the staff of the mobile teams, and provide technical monitoring in coordination with Oxfam.
- The epidemiological monitoring activities carried out by the DH were also monitored by the Oxfam epidemiologist who, in close coordination with the DH, built the capacities of epidemiologists and staff at the departmental level and at the level of the treatment centers to ensure adequate monitoring and communication.
- An Oxfam social engineering officer worked with DINEPA to ensure that the various water committees at the sources/infrastructure rehabilitated by Oxfam were functional. Sources/infrastructures were rehabilitated in concert with DINEPA to ensure the proper ownership.
- Oxfam provided funding, and technical supervision and wrote and submitted the final report to the donor. Based on DH’s regular reports on activities which were then consolidated by Oxfam for the donor.
- Teams were paid directly by the DH from funds received by Oxfam, based on the budget agreed by both Oxfam and the DH, and were based on government salary scales.
- The Oxfam WASH team, which systematically accompanies case investigations in the field, further encouraged the participation of DINEPA and its community technicians, through regular meetings with the DINEPA departmental directors.
- Overall, Oxfam ensured to provide support and capacity building of the DH, DINEPA, and community actors involved in the fight against cholera, to ensure proper ownership and to avoid substitution of the health/wash authorities.
The type of peer-partnering at design and during implementation described above is vital for ownership and sustainability. Unless we consider people’s ownership of the project and capacities to sustain results, they won’t be sustained. See Cekan’s exiting for sustainability checklists on phasing over before phasing out and exit, strengthening ownership, which brings us full circle to the participatory hard-wiring described above in Haiti.
We have to strengthen capacities at the most sustainable level. Taking an example from IRC’s Sierra Leone Gender-based Violence project involves looking at what happens when capacities training done for local participants and partners to take over are not done right. In this case, there were two-year consultancies to the Ministry (MSWGCA) on strategic planning and gender training, but “it is not clear if this type of support has had a sustainable impact. The institutional memory often disappears with the departure of the consultant, leaving behind sophisticated and extensive plans and strategies that there is simply no capacity to implement.” The report found that community-based initiatives that are the “primary sources of support for GBV victims living in rural areas in a more innovative and sustainable way that promotes local ownership. They also may yield more results,” most donor agencies find it hard to partner with community-based organizations so they recommended a focus on training and capacity-building of mainstream health workers to respond to GBV and aim for the government will assume control of service provision in approximately five years. The excellent manual by Sarriot et al on Sustainability Planning, “Taking the Long View: A Practical Guide to Sustainability Planning and Measurement in Community-Oriented Health Programming puts local capacity strengthening at the core. We have to consult and collaborate throughout and create an ‘enabling environment’ so that the activities and results are theirs.
Source: Sarriot et al 2008
Obviously, we should check on the sustainability we hope for. As ITAD/CRS note, we should do and learn from more ex-post evaluations which is much of what Valuing Voices advocates for.
Recommendations for fostering sustainability:
Few donors require information on how hard-wired or how soft-wired programming pre-exit is at closure which would make sustainability likely. Even fewer demand actual post-closure sustainability data to confirm assumptions at exit, sadly we believe most of our foreign aid has had limited sustained impacts. But this can change. Donors need to be educated that the “localization” agenda is the new trend (just as gender, resilience, and climate change have been at one point). It is beyond the “nationalization” of staff members (e.g. replacing expatriates with national staff), which is only one of the elements relating to locallization. True localization is to promote the local leadership of communities in their own ‘sustainable development’. While this is easier to say than to do, sustainability depends on it. We foster it through the hard-wiring and soft-wiring we discussed above and more steps, below. Here are specific steps from Laurence’s and Jindra’s experiences with the Global South:
- Funds & additional time for local partnership and ownership need to be embedded in the design and planned for, which requires a different approach on which the donors also need to be sensitized/ educated/ advocated to;
- In-depth needs assessment must be carried out just before or when an NGO sets up an operation – it usually takes time and should be integrated into any operation. Advocating this approach to donors is key so that it can be included in the budget or the NGO needs to find its own funds to do so) and the NGO country and sector strategy can then be updated yearly to embed such activities into the (I)NGO DNA;
- Conduct a capacity strengthening assessment of the local authorities or partners with whom we are going to conduct the project. This can take between 3 to 6 months, depending on the number and type of actors involved but this is an essential element to build self-sustaining local capacities and ensure that comprehensive capacity building is going to take place. This transparent step is also an essential step to ensure ownership by national/governmental stakeholders;
- It is vital to allow time to plan for an exit strategy at an early stage, even as early as design. This requires time and needs to be included in the budget for the implementation of the plan at least one year before the end, for phasing over to local implementing partners to take over before the donors/ Global North implementers exit, and for possibly strengthening capacities or extending programming to deliver on their timeline rather than ours before exiting out. More on this from CRS’ Participation by All ex-post and of course the oft-cited “Stopping As Success: Locally-led Transitions in Development” by Peace Direct, Search for Common Ground, and CDA. Also do not forget shared leadership noted by UK’s INTRAC’s “Investing in Exit”;
- Finally, don’t forget about evaluating ex-posts and embedding those lessons into future design/ implementation/ monitoring and evaluation.
Investing in sustainability by hard-wiring or soft-wiring works! Let us know what you do…
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
What happens after the project ends?
Lessons about Funding, Assumptions and Fears (Part 3)
In part 1 and part 2 of this blog, we showcased 11 of the 18 organizations that have done post-project evaluations. While this was scratching the surface of all that is to be learned, we shared a few insights on How we do it Matters, Expect Unexpected Results and Country-national Ownership. We gained some champions in this process of sharing our findings, including Professor Zenda Ofir of South Africa, who said “we cannot claim to have had success in development interventions if the outcomes and/or impacts are not durable, or at least have a chance to sustain or endure.”
In this third blog of Lessons Learned from What Happens After the Project Ends, we turn to some of the curious factors that hold us back from undertaking more post project evaluations: Funding, Assumptions, and Fears.
- Why haven’t we gone back? For the last 2+years Valuing Voices has been researching the issue, we have heard from colleagues: ‘we would love to evaluate post-project but we don’t have any money, ‘donors don’t fund this’, ‘it is too expensive’[*]. Funding currently from bilateral donors such as USAID is given in 1-5 year tranches with fixed terms for completion of results and learning from them and one-year close-out processes . Much of the canon of evaluations conducted after close out that we amassed was from international NGOs that had used their private funds to evaluate large donor-funded projects for their own learning. Many aimed also to show leadership in sustainability and admittedly dazzle their funders – join them!.
- We fund capacity building during projects but if we do not return to evaluate how well we have supported our partners and communities to translate this to sustainability, then we fall short. Meetings convened by INTRAC on civil society sustainability are opening new doors for joint learning about factors such as “legitimacy… leadership, purpose, values, and structures” within organizations well beyond any project’s end . The OECD’s DAC criteria for evaluating development assistance define sustainability as: “concerned with measuring whether the benefits of an activity are likely to continue after donor funding has been withdrawn. Projects need to be environmentally as well as financially sustainable“ . We need to extend our view beyond typical criterion for sustainability being a focus primarily on continued funding.
- We need funding to explore whether certain sectors lend themselves to sustainability. In addition to the cases in blog 1, a study by CARE/ OXFAM/ PACT on Cambodian Savings groups finds that we have some revisions to make on how we design and implement with communities to foster sustainability in this sector which typically promises greater sustainability because capital can be recycled . Valuing Voices blogs show indications that once we amass a greater range of post-project evaluations (funders unite), the insights gleaned can illuminate cost efficient paths to more sustained programming, possibly leading to revisions in programming or interventions which have greater likelihood for country-ownership
- Extend the program cycle to include post-project sustainability evaluation. Rare are donors such as the Australian government (forthcoming) and USAID’s Food For Peace that commission such studies. Rare is the initiative such as 3ie that has research funds allocated by major donors to explore an aspect of impact. We miss out on key opportunities to learn from the past for improved project design if we do not return to learn how sustained our outcomes and impacts have been. We miss learning how we could better implement so more national partners could take on the task of sustaining the changes we catalyzed.
- We call on donors to fund a research initiative to comprehensively review sustainability evaluations.
- We call on governments to ask for this in their discussion with donors.
- We call on implementers to invest in such learning to improve the quality of implementation today and sustained impact in the years to come.
Development assistance makes many assumptions about what happens after projects end in terms of people’s self-sufficiency, partners’ capacity to continue to support activities, and projects’ financial independence and people’s ability to step into the shoes of donors and carry on. Unless we take a hard look at our assumptions, we will not move from proving what we expect to learning what is actually there.
Among them are these six assumptions:
- All will be well once we exit; we have implemented so well that of course national participants and partners will be ready and able to carry on without us. We may assume the only important outcomes and impacts are within our Logical Frameworks and Theories of Change. Thus there is no need to return to explore unexpected negative ones, or ways in which the people we strengthened may have innovated in unexpectedly wonderful ways. Aysel Vazirova, a fellow international consultant wrote me: “Post-project evaluations provide data for a deeper analysis of sustainability and help to appreciate numerous avenues taken by the beneficiaries in incorporating development projects into their lives. The theory of change narratives presented by a majority of development programs and projects have a rather disturbing resemblance to the structure of magic tales: (from) Lack – (to) change – (to) happy ending. Post project evaluations have a power to change a rigid structure of this narrative.”
- We assume evaluations are often used to inform new designs, yet dozens of colleagues have lamented that too often this does not happen in the race to new project design. But there is hope. World Wildlife Fund/UK M&E expert Clare Crawford says when following its new management standards, WWF “expects to see the recommendations of an evaluation before the next phase of design can happen (hence evaluations happen a little before the end of a strategic period). WWF-UK, when reading new program plans is mandated to verify if – and how – the recommendations of the last evaluation(s) were made use of in the new design phase. Equally we track management responses to evaluations to see how learning has been applied in current or in future work.” Such a link across the program cycle is not common in our experience and none of the post-project sustained impact evaluations we reviewed said how learning would be used.
- We may assume data continues accessible from the projects we have evaluated, yet our team member Siobhan Green has found that until recently, with the move toward open data, often project data remains the province of the donors and implementers and to the best of our knowledge leaves the country when projects close. While some sectoral data such as health and education data remains local, we are finding in fieldwork that household level data has been rolled up or discarded once projects close, which makes interviews difficult.
- We may assume that the participants and partners are not able to evaluate projects, particularly after the fact. Being vulnerable does not mean that people are not able to share insights or assess how projects helped or not. Methods such as empowerment evaluation and evaluative thinking are powerful supports  .
- Some may assume that the situation has changed in the intervening years, that there is no benefit in returning to see what results remain. Change is inevitable and sometimes more rapid or dramatic than others. But does that mean we shouldn’t want to understand what happened? This is the greatest disservice of all, for we are selling “sustainable development” so how well have we designed it to be so?
- We assume that learning for our own benefit is enough. A potential client brought me in to discuss my working on a rare post-project evaluation last year. It was to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and while would occur in several countries. What I discovered was that while the donor really wanted to learn what results remained more than a decade on, I asked ‘how would the countries themselves benefit from this research and findings?’ There was a long silence. Turns out, nothing from the research would benefit or even remain in country. No one had considered the learning needs of the countries themselves. This simply cannot continue if we are to be accountable to those we serve.
This may be the greatest barrier of all to returning to assess sustainability.
- We assume our projects continue. We may be afraid to look for what will this tell us about the sustainability of our efforts to save lives and livelihoods so we only choose to publicly study what is successful. Valuing Voices has found that across most the post project studies there is some ‘selection bias’, as we repeatedly learned in our research from colleagues that organizations choose to evaluate projects that are most likely to be successfully sustained. For instance, USAID Food For Peace’ study notes, “The countries included in this study—Bolivia, Honduras, India, and Kenya—were also chosen because of their attention to sustainability and exit.” Yet as an Appreciative Inquiry practitioner, I would argue that learning what worked best to know what to do more of may be the best way forward.
- All too often the choice of evaluation design, and sensitivity to findings fly in the face of learning—particularly when findings are negative. This raises fears around a discontinuation of funding (an implementer fear; a beneficiary fear; could also be a recipient government’s fear). Yet as Bill Gates says, “your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”>
- Participants asked during the project cycle about interventions may be fearful of truth telling because of perceived vulnerabilities around promised future resources, local power imbalances in control over resources, or even political imperatives to adopt a particular position. Alternatively we may not believe them, thinking they may not tell us the truth were that to stop resources.
Those are ours.
- Peter Kimeu, my wise advisor and 20-year friend and colleague from Kenya tells us some fears of the that we need to listen to – those that haunt our national partners and participants.
They are afraid we do not see their real desires:
- “It is ‘not how many have you (the NGO) fed, but how many of us have the capability to feed ourselves and our community?’
- ‘How can we (country national) support our fellow citizens to take our lives and livelihoods into our own hands and excel, sustainably?’
- ‘What is sustainability if it isn’t expanded opportunities, Isn’t the capability of one to make a choice of value/quality life out of the many choices that the opportunities present?”
Will you help us address these challenges? Will you join us in advocating filling the gap in the program cycle, and looking beyond it to how we design and implement with country nationals? Will you, in your own work foster their ownership throughout and beyond? We need to fund learning from sustained impact to transparently discuss assumptions and face our fears. This is a sustained purpose we need to and can fill.
 Capable Partners Program & FHI 36. (2010). Essential NGO Guide to Managing Your USAID Award: Chapter 6 – Close Out. Retrieved from https://www.ngoconnect.net/sites/default/files/resources/Essential%20NGO%20Guide%20-%20Chapter%206%20-%20Close%20Out.pdf
 Hayman, R. (2014, November 5). Civil society sustainability: Stepping up to the challenge. Retrieved from https://www.intrac.org/civil-society-sustainability-stepping-challenge/
 OECD. (n.d.). DAC Criteria for Evaluating Development Assistance. Retrieved 2015, from https://web.archive.org/web/20151206171605/http://www.oecd.org/dac/evaluation/daccriteriaforevaluatingdevelopmentassistance.htm
 Emerging Markets Consulting. (2013). Sustainability of Savings Group Programs in Cambodia for CARE, Oxfam, and Pact. Retrieved from https://mangotree.org/Resource/Sustainability-of-Savings-Group-Programs-in-Cambodia-for-CARE-Oxfam-and-Pact
 Better Evaluation. (n.d.). Empowerment Evaluation. Retrieved from https://www.betterevaluation.org/plan/approach/empowerment_evaluation
 Griñó, L., Levine, C., Porter, S., & Roberts, G. (Eds.). (2016). Embracing Evaluative Thinking for Better Outcomes: Four NGO Case Studies. Retrieved from https://www.theclearinitiative.org/resources/embracing-evaluative-thinking-for-better-outcomes-four-ngo-case-studies
[*] It does not have to be. We have done these evaluations for under $170,000, all-inclusive.
Altruistic Accountability… for Sustainability
Many of us in international development feel a sense of responsibility for others to be well, and for our work to improve their lives as well as for the work to be done in good stewardship of aid resources and optimizing their impact. As Matthieu Ricard writes, "Altruism is a benevolent state of mind. To be altruistic is to be concerned about the fate of all those around us and to wish them well. This should be done together with the determination to act for their benefit. Valuing others is the main state of mind that leads to altruism." We also feel a responsibility to our international aid donors and taxpayers. We who implement, monitor and evaluate projects work to ensure that the altruism of aid is responsible to both donors and recipients.
Altruism appears most vividly when implementers issue appeals after disasters, with millions donated as a result, but unsung heroes are also development workers. Organizations such as Charity Navigator, ONE and Center for Global Development on how well US organizations spent funds and track donor-country policy accountability. Thoughtful donor studies such as French Development Agency’s OECD study report on the power of AidWatch and Reality of Aid intiatives in Europe for their taxpayers.
But who is pushing for our donor’s accountability to the country’s participants themselves? While USAID funds many program evaluations, some of which “identify promising, effective…strategies and to conduct needs assessments and other research to guide program decisions”, they are always at project end, rather than looking at sustainability of the outcomes and impacts, and focus on Congressional and domestic listeners. This is no funding and no small audience. The US Department of State/ USAID’s FY13 Summary report states that in fiscal year 2013, USAID had $23.8 billion to disburse, over $12 billion for programming. While total beneficiary (participant) numbers were not provided, emergency food assistance alone used $981 million for nearly 21.6 million people in 25 countries.
So who is a watchdog for what results? OXFAM may excellently highlight opportunities for better programming. 3ie does many studies looking at projected impact and does systemic reviews (but only three were post-project). Challenges such as Making All Voices Count may fund channels for country-nationals to hold their own governments responsible, but can in-country project participants ever demand sustainable results from anyone but their own governments? Herein lies the crux of the issue. Unless governments demand it (unlikely in ‘free’ aid), only pressure from donor country nationals (you? we) can push for changes.
At the core of Valuing Voices mission is advocacy for altruistic accountability of the sustainability of projects to country-ownership at all levels. For us, this involves valuing and also giving voice to those supported by, and also tasked with doing ‘sustainable projects’. Unless we know how sustainable our development projects have been, we have only temporarily helped those in greatest need. This means looking beyond whether funding continued to whether the benefits of an activity or even the existence of entire local NGOs tasked with this actually continued after funding was withdrawn. Unless we strive to learn what has continued to work best or failed to be continued after projects left in the views of the participants themselves, we can let down the very people who have entrusted us with hopes of a self-sustainable future of well being. Unless we listen to project staff and local partners to see what program staff felt they did right/wrong, and national partners felt they were supported to do keep doing right, we have minimized success of future projects. While increasing numbers of organizations such as Hewlett Foundation fund work to “increase the responsiveness of governments to their citizens’ needs. We do this by working to make governments more transparent and accountable,” the long-term effectiveness of our donor development assistance is not yet visible.
OECD guidelines on corporate accountability and transparency are illuminating. Adapting it from State-Corporate to Non-profit-State is interesting. For how well have we considered who ‘owns’ these development projects in practical terms from inception onward? Our donors? Implementing agencies? Local partners and communities?
OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance of State-Owned Enterprises
1: The State Acting as an Owner
2: Equitable Treatment and Relations with Shareholders
3: Ensuring an Effective Legal and Regulatory Framework for State-Owned Enterprises
4: Transparency and Disclosure
How well do we design projects along these lines to do this successfully? Not terrifically:
Too often ‘stakeholders’ are not consulted at the very inception of the proposal design, only at design or implementation
Too often our work is aimed at making only our ‘client’- our donors- happy with our results rather than the country nationals who are tasked with self-sustaining them.
Too often handover is done at the 11th hour, not transferring it throughout implementation or building local capacity for those taking over be true projects’ owners.
But it is coming, through changing societal trends. On the data-access front, USAID (and differently, other European donors) have promised to modernize diplomacy and development by 2017 by “increas[ing] the number and effectiveness of communication and collaboration tools that leverage interactive digital platforms to improve direct engagement with both domestic and foreign publics. This will include increasing the number of publicly available data sets and ensuring that USAID-funded evaluations are published online, expanding publicly available foreign assistance data, increasing the number of repeat users of International Information.” Now to generate and add self- sustainability data to inform future projects!
Second, on the they-are-se front, our basic human nature, according to Ricard, lends itself to altruism. “Let's assume that the majority of us are basically good people who are willing to build a better world. In that case, we can do so together thanks to altruism. If we have more consideration for others, we will promote a more caring economy, and we will promote harmony in society and remedy inequalities.” Let’s get going…