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evaluators are to measure “whether the benefits of an activity are likely to continue after donor funding has been withdrawn… [including being] environmentally as well as financially sustainable” .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…