Sustaining “Sustainable Development”?
As a global development industry, we have almost no evidence of how (un)sustained the outcomes or impacts of 99% of our projects because we have never returned to evaluate them. But from early indications based on the ex-posts, we have evaluated 2-20 years after donor departure it is, learning from what was and was not sustained is vital before replication and assuming sustainability. Most results taper off quite quickly, showing 20-80% decreases as early as two years post-closure and donor exit. A few cases of good news also appear, but more trajectories falter and fail than rise or remain. Sustainability, then, is not a yes-no answer, but a how much, yet too few ask… hence if they were, resilient, they are less so, or even not at all, now.
At Valuing Voices we focus on the sustainability of projects after external support ends. Still, those projects are also dependent on the viability of the environment in which they are based. As Andy Rowe, an evaluator on the GEF’s Adaptation Fund board, noted at IDEAS’ Conference in Prague late 2019 , a need for sustainability-ready evaluation to help us know how viable the resources are on which so many of our projects rest . He states, “the evaluation we have today treats human and natural systems as unconnected and rarely considers the natural system”. He goes on to differentiate between biotic natural capital (air, water, plants, and trees) and abiotic natural capital sources (fossil fuels, minerals, and metals, wind, and solar).
How much are projects designed assuming those resources are and will remain plentiful? How often do we evaluate how much our projects drain or rely on these environmental elements? Many projects are required to do environmental compliance and safeguarding against damage at project onset . Others, such as agriculture and natural resource management or water/ sanitation, often focus on improving the environment on which those activities rely, e.g., improving soil or terrain (e.g., terraces, zais), planting seedlings, and improving access to potable water for humans and animals. Still, many projects ‘assume’ inputs like rainfall, tree cover, solar power, or do not consider the sustainability of natural resources for the communities in which they intervene. Examples are both those that rely on natural systems as well as those supposedly beyond them, e.g., enterprise development, education, safety nets, etc. Yet many enterprises, schools, safety nets do rely on a. viable environment in which their participants trade, learn, and live, and all are subject to the growing climate change disruptions.
Why is this urgent? The OECD/DAC reminds us that “Natural assets represent, on average 26% of the wealth of developing countries compared to 2% in OECD economies” . Unless we protect them and address the demand for natural resources, demand will far outstrip supply. “By 2030, an additional 1 billion people are expected to live in severely water-stressed areas, and global terrestrial biodiversity is expected to decline an additional 10%, leading to a loss of essential ecosystem services. By 2050, growing levels of dangerous air emissions from transport and industry will increase the global number of premature deaths linked to airborne particulate matter to 3.6 million people a year, more than doubling today’s levels. Failure to act could also lead to a 50% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and global mean temperature increases of 3-6°C by the end of the century, in turn contributing to more severe and sometimes more frequent natural disasters… [so] reconciling development with environmental protection and sustainable resource management is broadly agreed as a central concern for the post-2015 development agenda.”
When we return to projects that are a mix of behavior change and environment, we find a wide range of results:
- Some projects, such as JICA Vietnam’s water supply and irrigation infrastructure reached 80% of the final results two years later . And while the pilot projects were worse off (as low as 28% of irrigated hectares), longer-standing projects sustained as much as 72% of final results. While such agricultural development assumes continued water supply and access, does it evaluate it? No.
- Some can define what ex-post lessons are more narrowly as functioning mechanisms: New ex-posts of water/ sanitation showed better – but still mixed results, such as USAID Senegal’s . “While a majority (63 percent) of the water points remained functional, the performance varied significantly based on the technology used. Of the different technologies, the Erobon rope pumps performed poorly (27 percent functional), while the India Mark (74 percent functional) and mechanized pumps (70 percent functional) performed the best.”
- Some projects that include environmental considerations illustrate our point by only focusing on behavior change as this sanitation/ hygiene ex-post from Madagascar did, where results fell off precipitously three years ex-post but without considering water supply or quality much .
- There can be useful learning when one combines an evaluation of both types of sustainability (ex-post and environmental). A JICA irrigation project in Cambodia shows that when irrigation canals were mostly sustained over the five-years ex-post, they could serve increasing needs for land coverage and rice production . The area of irrigated fields at the national level in 2010 reached the target, and the irrigated field area has since continued to increase in most areas. Even the largest drop [in area irrigated] post-closure was only 11%. They reported that the unit yield of rice at the end-line survey in 2012 at 11 sites was 3.24t/ha (average) versus 3.11t/ha of unit yield of rice at the ex-post evaluation in 2017, which [almost] maintains the 2012 level. The ex-post showed that “continuous irrigation development in the said site can be considered as the main reason for the increase in land area. Securing an adequate amount of water is an important factor in continuously improving rice productivity.” The research also found that 81% of agricultural incomes as a result of the irrigation had increased, 11% stayed the same, and 8% had decreased. Again, this looks to be among the most resilient projects that, based on ex-post research, included environment which was also found to be as resilient as the livelihoods it was fostering.
- Sometimes more bad than good news is important when tracking environment and ex-post sustainability: Food for the Hungry, ADRA, and CARE Kenya found that unreliable water supply reduced the motivation to pay for water, threatening the resources to maintain the system . What improved prospects of sustainability understand why communities could not sustain water and sanitation results based on willingness-to-pay models, as well as water being unavailable. Further, a lesson the organizations ideally learned was that “gradual exit, with the opportunity for project participants to operate independently prior to project closure, made it more likely that activities would be continued without project support.” So the question remains, what was learned by these organizations to avoid similar bad results and improve good, resilient results in similar circumstances?
Neither sustainability nor environmental quality can be assumed to continue nor to have positive results. Both are extensively under-evaluated, and given climate change disruptions, and this must change. Rowe concludes: “Climate change is a major threat to the long-term sustainability both attacking the natural systems (e.g. lower rainfall or higher floods, worse soil quality, increasing pests attacking crops, disappearing fish stocks, microplastics in our air and water, increasing sea levels from melting glaciers, worsening public health etc.) and destabilizining our Earth’s regenerative capacity. Fortunately, technical barriers do not prevent us from starting to infuse sustainability into evaluation; the barriers are social and associated with the worldview and vision of evaluation.”
 IDEAS 2019 Global Assembly. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://2019.global-assembly.org/
 Rowe, A. (2019). Sustainability‐Ready Evaluation: A Call to Action. New Directions for Evaluation, 162, 29-48. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333616139_Sustainability-Ready_Evaluation_A_Call_to_Action
 USAID. (2013, October 31). Environmental Compliance Procedures. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/our_work/environment/compliance/pdf/216
 OECD. (2015). Element 4, Paper 1: Global and local environmental sustainability, development and growth. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/dac/environment-development/FINAL%20POST-2015%20global%20and%20local%20environmental%20sustainability.pdf
 Haraguchi, T. (2017). Socialist Republic of Viet Nam: FY 2017 Ex-Post Evaluation of Japanese ODA Loan Project “Small-Scale Pro Poor Infrastructure Development Project (III)”. Retrieved from https://www2.jica.go.jp/en/evaluation/pdf/2017_VNXVII-5_4.pdf
 Coates, J., Kegode, E., Galante, T., & Blau, A. (2016, February). Sustaining Development: Results from a Study of Sustainability and Exit Strategies among Development Food Assistance Projects: Kenya Country Study. USAID. Retrieved from https://www.globalwaters.org/resources/assets/ex-post-evaluation-senegal-pepam
 Madagascar Rural Access To New Opportunities For Health And Prosperity (RANO-HP) Ex-Post Evaluation. (2017, June 1). USAID. Retrieved from https://www.globalwaters.org/resources/assets/madagascar-rural-access-new-opportunities-health-and-prosperity-rano-hp-ex-post-0
 Kobayashi, N. (2017). Kingdom of Cambodia: FY2017 Ex-Post Evaluation of Technical Cooperation Project: “Technical Service Center for Irrigation System Project – Phase 2 / The Improvement of Agricultural River Basin Management and Development Project (TSC3)”. Retrieved from https://www2.jica.go.jp/en/evaluation/pdf/2017_0900388_4.pdf
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
Setting a higher bar: Sustained Impacts are about All of us
Global development aid has a problem which may already affect impact investing as well.
It is that we think it’s really all about us (individuals, wealthy donors and INGO implementers) not all of us (you, me, and project participants, their partners and governments). It’s also about us for a short time.
All too often, the measurable results we in global development aid and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funded projects that last 1-5 years track and report data for two reasons:
1) Donors have Compliance for grantees to meet (money spent, not lost, and results met by fixed deadlines of 1-5 years – look at some of the European Commission Contracting rules) and
2) Fund recipients and the participants they serve are accountable to ‘our’ donors and implementers who take what happened through their philanthropic grants as ‘their’ results.
Both can skew how sustainably we get to create impacts. An example of such strictures on sustainability from USAID. As respected CGDev Elliot and Dunning researchers found in 2016 when assessing the ‘US Feed the Future Initiative: A New Approach to Food Security?‘ the $10.15 billion leveraged $20 billion from other funders for disbursement over three years (2013-16). “We are concerned that pressure to demonstrate results in the short term may undermine efforts to ensure any impact is sustainable…. Unfortunately, the pressure to show immediate results can encourage pursuit of agricultural investments unlikely to be sustained. For example, a common response to low productivity is to subsidize or facilitate access to improved inputs… it can deliver a quick payoff… however, if the subsidies become too expensive and are eliminated or reduced, fertilizer use and yields often fall…..
With so much focus on reporting early and often about the progress in implementing the initiative, there is a risk that it increases the pressure to disburse quickly and in ways that may not produce sustainable results. For example, for 2014, Feed the Future reports that nearly 7 million farmers applied “improved technologies or management practices as a result of U.S. Government assistance,” but only 1,300 received “long-term agricultural sector productivity.” Are the millions of others that are using improved inputs or management practices because of subsidies likely to have these practices sustained? And how likely are they to continue using improved practices once the project ends?”
3) Impact investors stick to the same two paths-to-results and add a new objective: market-competitive financial returns. They also need to show short-term results to their investors, albeit with social, environmental and governance results like non-profits (future blog).
4) Altruists create things we want ‘beneficiaries’ (our participants) to have. For instance a plethora of apps for refugees cropped up in recent years, over 5,000 it is estimated, which can be appropriate, nor not so helpful. Much like #2 above, ‘we’re’ helping ‘them’ but again, it seems to be a ‘give a man a fish’… and my fish is cool sort of solution… but do our participants want/ need this?
How often is our work-for-change mostly about us/by us/ for us... when ideally it is mostly about ‘them’ (OK, given human self-interest, shouldn’t changes we want at least be about all of us?).
All too often we want to be the solution but really, our ‘grassroots’ clients who are our true customers need to generate their own solution. Best if we listen and we design for long-term sustainability together?
As the Brilliant Sidekick Manifesto stated in two of its ten steps:
a) “I will step out of the spotlight: Sustainable solutions to poverty come from within are bottom-up, and flow from local leaders who are taking the risks of holding their politicians accountable and challenging the status quo.”
b) “I will read “To Hell with Good Intentions” again and again: Politicians, celebrities and billionaire philanthropists will tell me that I can be a hero. I cannot. The poor are not powerless or waiting to be saved. Illich will check my delusions of grandeur.”
We have examples of where we have stepped away and participants had to fend for themselves. At Valuing Voices, we’ve done post project-exit evaluations 2-15 years afterward. What did participants value so much that they sustained it themselves (all about them, literally)? These Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluations (SEIE) also give us indications of Sustained ROI (Sustained Return on Investment (SusROI) is a key missing metric. As respected evaluator Ricardo Wilson-Grau said in an email, “I think calculating cost-effectiveness of an intervention’s outcomes would be a wonderful challenge for a financial officer searching for new challenges — if not a Nobel prize in economics!”)
Most of these evaluations are pretty bad news mixed with some good news about what folks could sustain after we left, couldn’t and why not. (These are the ones folks expect to have great results, otherwise they wouldn’t share them!) While most clients are understandably interested in what of ‘theirs’ was still standing, and it was interesting disentangling where the results were attributable by implementation or design or partnership flaws or something else, what was mesmerizing was what came from ‘them’.
The key is looking beyond ‘unexpected’ results to look at emerging impacts that are about ‘them’ (aka what we didn’t expect that was a direct result of our project, e.g. spare parts were no longer available to fix the water well pump once we left or a drought rehabilitation water project that decreased violence against women), to what emerging results are attributable not to use but only to our participants and partners who took over after our projects closed. One example is a Nepalese project ended yet the credit groups of empowered women spawned groups of support groups for battered women. Another is a child maternal health project changed how it worked as women reverted to birthing at home after NGOs left; community leaders punished both parents with incarceration in the health clinic for a week if they didn’t given birth there (wow did that work to sustain behavior change of both parents!).
Many of us at Valuing Voices are shocked that funders don’t seem that interested in this, as this is where they not only take over (viz picture, sustaining the project themselves), but they are making it theirs, not ours. Imagine assuming the point of development is to BE SUSTAINABLE.
Source: Community Life Competence
Our participants and national stakeholder partners are our true clients, yet… Feedback Labs tell us Americans alone gave $358 billion to charities (equivalent to the 2014 GDP of 20 countries) – in 2014 but how much of this was determined by what ‘beneficiaries’ want? Josh Woodard, a development expert, suggests a vouchers approach where our true clients, our participants, who would “purchase services from those competing organizations… [such an] approach to development would enable us all to see what services people actually value and want. And when we asked ourselves what our clients want, we would really mean the individuals in the communities we are in the business of working with and serving. Otherwise we’d be out of business pretty quickly.”
This opens the door to client feedback – imagine if participants could use social media to rate the sustained impacts on them of the projects they benefited from? A customer support expert wrote in Forbes, “Today, every customer has, or feels she has, a vote in how companies do business and treat customers. This is part of a new set of expectations among customers today that will only grow ... you can’t control product ratings, product discussions or much else in the way of reviews, except by providing the best customer experience possible and by being proactive in responding to negative trends that come to the surface in your reviews and ratings stronger.”
So how well are we working with our participants for ‘development’ to be about them?
What do you think?
Leading in Challenging Times:
Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation (SEIEs)
Some American organizations are retrenching, focusing more attention on domestic rather than international programming. Some are pulling back from critique of international development to informing legislators of its benefits; the Center for Global Development’s changed ‘Rethinking US Development Policy’ blog to only “US Development Policy“. UN’s Refugee Agency questions whether to challenge Washington’s tough line on refugees from countries such as Syria, or should it stay quiet in the hopes of protecting its funding ?”
Reticence is understandable in this ‘climate’, so to speak, but fear does not change the world, leadership does. Envisioning and creating the world we want gets us there.
There may be no better time to build the evidence base on what works in sustainable development as these are low cost investments if we use national staff and focus research well. We have seen this in the fewer than 1% of all projects that have been evaluated post-closeout for sustainability . At the very least, we can learn what we should do differently in the next design, to fully foster sustainability, once more funding emerges. Many are interested in great results. Hundreds of ‘impact evaluations’ are happening on aid effectiveness; our industry wants to learn what works and what we could do better.
Our SEIE work goes beyond current understanding of ‘impact’ to see what projects our partners and participants can self-sustain ex-post for years to come which is an excellent investment in proving cost-effectiveness. While some governments’ investments can diminish in the short term, national governments, and other funders such as a range of international bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations corporate social responsibility and impact investors do want to invest in provably “sustainable” development .
Why should we invest in SEIEs?
- Hundreds of thousands of projects are still being implemented.
- Millions of participants are still hoping what we are doing together will be sustainable.
- Billions of dollars, euros, kwacha, pesos, rupees are being spent on new projects that need to be designed and implemented for future sustainability.
Implementing organizations could be fearful to see what remains once funding and technical assistance are withdrawn, but such a view not only robs our industry of exciting lessons on what did change and was so valued that it was sustained, but also what to not do again. Not returning post-project also short-changes our participants. In our SEIEs, we have found participants and partners creating new ways to carry on, innovating beyond what we could imagine during our assistance.
We also need to start now to design and implement for sustainability. doing SEIEs, we can start to understand the ‘drivers’ behind the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) results with countries tracking some 120 indicators across 17 goals. Currently countries are tracking up to 230 indicators across the 17 Goals . But while such monitoring shows ‘GDP has increased or ‘under-nourishment has decreased’, there is little or no information on what has caused it. Yet doing and SEIE on a large donor-funded programme, we can explore what elements made projects sustainable and how to do more (or less) there and elsewhere. Such sentinel site support for learning about sustained and emerging impacts is key to understand some of the why, for example, did income or health improve.
Dare to lead, especially in these challenging times. We know of organizations that are doing these evaluations internally, others are publishing them on their sites. Leadership happens at all levels, from internal, technical to managerial and administrative work to external evaluators and consultants as well as public pressure.
How can you foster sustained impact?
- You can advocate for such evaluations
- You can share the SEIE guidance, below, and start to design and implement, monitor and evaluate sustainably in all projects/ proposals you are designing now.
- You can see if your organization has done any post-project sustainability evaluations and we can post them on Valuing Voices’ repository, celebrating your organization.
We can help you learn how to do these. Our partner, Better Evaluation, just published our Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation as a ‘new’ evaluation ‘theme.’
Guidance there shows you :
1. What is SEIE?
2. Why do SEIE?
3. When to do SEIE?
4. Who should be engaged in the evaluation process?
5. What definitions and methods can be used to do an SEIE?
SEIEs will grow as will examples, discussions, and joy as embracing sustainability sprouts, and sends us progressing in yet-unforeseen ways! We are excited to be in the final stages of receiving a research grant to further guide SEIEs. We will share that news in our next blog.
We want to learn from you:
- What do you think needs to be in place for funders to move beyond the funding cycle and do an SEIE?
- What would help to make this type of evaluation more widely undertaken?
- If you have done a post-project evaluation, how did you do it? What were some of the barriers you faced and resources you were able to draw on to overcome them?
How can we lead together to Value the Voices of those we serve!?
(Reposted from https://medium.com/@WhatWeValue/leading-in-challenging-times-sustained-and-emerging-impacts-evaluation-seies-617b33bf4d27#.ec7fcg4ty)
 Foulkes, I. (2017, February 27). Is there a US diplomacy vacuum at the UN in Geneva? Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39080204
 Cekan, J. (2015, March 13). When Funders Move On. Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/when_funders_move_on
 UN DESA. (2011, March 2). Lasting impact of sustainable development. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/sustainable/sustainable-development.html
 UN Statistics Division. SDG Indicators: Global indicator framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Retrieved March, 2017, from https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/indicators/indicators-list/
 Cekan, J., Zivetz, L., & P, R. (2016). Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation (SEIE). Retrieved from https://www.betterevaluation.org/en/themes/SEIE
Making up your mind. Prioritizing and making it happen
* As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness".
* Our President, Barack Obama said in his farewell speech, "change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it".
* OXFAM International demanded changing shocking inequity: "just eight billionaires own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity".
* Caroline Heider of the World Bank's IEG asked we examine how we evaluate long-term impacts: "current considerations of efficiency, cost savings, or cost-benefit analyses are challenged to take long-term impacts into account".
What do you want to prioritize and demand of international development? In these times of shifting priorities in powerful nations, where politicians are questioning the needs of those whom many of us have been serving, what do you want to demand? What issue do you prioritize, and want to move forward?
I choose to prioritize sustained impact driven by country-nationals. Why? I grew up in large cities, and when I first worked in Africa’s Sahel desert 25 years ago, the herders and farmers making a living from the arid pastures and sandy soil, with wells 100 feet deep astonished me.
Without them, I’d last 3 days out there. They were the experts.
I always assumed we measured ‘sustainable’ development in work with such herders and farmers, but in 2013 I founded Valuing Voices after I began to see how rarely we return to evaluate what remained after our foreign aid projects stopped.
Reviewing thousands of “ex-post” or “post-project” documents in 30 organizations’ public databases, Valuing Voices has found the vast majority of documents only suggested a post-project be done, a small proportion were desk studies and fewer than 1% were original fieldwork post-project evaluations of sustainability. In these 370 post-project (ex-post) evaluations, development workers asked partners and participants what was still standing, showed what succeeded or failed and what unexpected successes participants created themselves from what we left behind.
Returning to learn, consulting our participant-experts seems so common sense as they are the ones that can tell us what we should replicate, adapt or abandon. In 2015 research we found only three World Bank IEG evaluations that asked participants their views in a methodologically clear way (out of 33 post-project PPAR evaluations), and only one was perceived as successful. On the other hand, in 2014, IRIN highlighted Rwanda’s very successful community based nutrition solutions, replete with participant voices. We have found 23 ‘catalytic’ (mostly NGO) organizations having done one or more (ex-) post-project evaluation that include participant input and each of them is filled with excellent lessons for doing ‘development’ well now and after closeout. Yet what are any of these organizations doing differently and why are so few doing more? Why do donors seem to care so little about sustained impact that such studies are so rarely funded by them, and NGOs use private funds? That is what drives me.
A seminal book, Time to Listen asked 6,000 such participant-experts in 20 countries what they wanted foreign aid to look like. “Very few people call for more aid; virtually everyone says they want “smarter” aid…. A majority criticize the “waste” of money and other resources through programs they perceive as misguided or through the failure of aid providers to be sufficiently engaged… [it is] a supply-driven approach that squeezes out the views of the recipients, and a focus on spending – both volume and speed, which undermines aid’s ability to listen, learn and adapt to local contexts.”
While Valuing Voices is not profitable (yet?) and growth is slow, I continue to evaluate and advocate, believing that designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating for sustained impact by our true clients is key to successful work life well spent.
We need a sustained impact mindset.
We are getting there. Better Evaluation just featured our Sustained and Emerging Impact Evaluation (SEIE) approach as a new theme in evaluation. OXFAM and Save the Children recently wrote “The Power of Ownership: Transforming US Foreign Assistance” (2016). They ask: “country ownership is at the core of effective development… as the United States transitions to a new President and new leadership for development cooperation, how will the next administration build on current successes and chart a path forward?“ I fear the answer, as it takes trust and interest in countries’ capacity to chart their own way forward. USAID (and maybe other donors?) are ready to help. USAID alone has some done some exciting work recently through USAID Forward’s local partners (e.g. Afghanistan has done this in depth) and it has looked at Local Systems. Food For Peace’s strategy includes sustainability.
What will be a priority in 2017 onward? What each of us creates will remain.
The powerful Sidekick Manifesto beautifully proposes this new core belief which we can each espouse, that “Local leaders with local solutions to local problems” will end poverty. We will not.” We can, however, “always be listening, learning and seeking a deeper understanding…” I am delighted to be a sidekick in projects that prioritize participant and partner views, for that is how they end poverty.
What do you want to prioritize and create? What is so vital for you that you must work on it? What has been neglected? What difference do you want to make? GO!
Learning about Sustainability and Exit Strategies
from USAID’s Food Assistance Projects
USAID overall and Food for Peace (FFP) specifically have become far more progressive in the Obama Administration and under Administrator Rajiv Shah, with a much greater focus on accountability and results. Those of you unfamiliar with USAID’s Food For Peace will learn it has been a large channel of international assistance for over 60 years and is not a small funding instrument. For 2016 alone, they have proposed spending $1.75 billion to feed 47 million people through humanitarian and development programs implemented by non-profits, for-profits and the UN’s World Food Program . Given this scale of resources, it is highly surprising that while many documents in their archive ask for post-project evaluation and there are a handful of desk reviews, they have done only two actual ones with new fieldwork in the last 30 years (these four countries and a recently published one on Uganda, see Catalysts page). This recent and excellent 2015 synthesis report by authors Rogers and Coates is presented below .
Commissioned by USAID, Tufts University and FHI360 have done a remarkably thorough two to three year post-project evaluation of four (Title II) food-assisted programs containing 12 projects in Bolivia, Honduras, India, and Kenya that closed out in 2009. The methodologies used are clearly outlined (itself a boon to our fledgling field) as are limitations and comments on context, findings and recommendations. It was no small feat to compare activities across four countries and so many sectors (some of which were supported by provision of US food aid resources, others with in-kind or cash inputs): maternal and child health and nutrition; water and sanitation; agriculture, livestock, and rural income generation; natural resource management; school feeding; and micro-savings and loans. Also this covered many implementers, from CARE, ADRA and Save the Children to World Vision, CRS and Feed the Hungry.
In this document, Dina Esposito, the Director of FFP states “We commissioned this report with the objective of determining what factors enhanced the likelihood of sustained project benefits, in order to improve our guidance for future food assistance development projects.… FFP development projects are designed to reduce the long-term need for food assistance by strengthening the capacity of developing societies to ensure access to nutritious food for their most vulnerable communities and individuals, especially women and children. The study team looked at 12 FFP development projects across four countries and asked not only what was achieved by each project’s end?, but also, what of those achievements remained one year after project close-out? and two years after? This rigorous, retrospective approach is not widely done, but is essential if we are to understand the true impacts of our investments. To be effective, development projects must result in changes that last beyond the duration of the project themselves.”
Process and findings:
The researchers compared baseline, midline and endline evaluations and exit strategy documents to new mixed-method data collection. There were four main findings:
1) Impact vs. Sustainability trade-offs: Evidence of project success at the time of exit (as assessed by impact indicators) did not necessarily imply sustained benefit over time. Just because projects were deemed successful at exit does not mean that those continued after closeout. “Moreover, the study found that focusing exclusively on demonstrating impact at exit may jeopardize investment in longer-term sustainability.” Valuing Voices found the same in Ethiopia in research done in 2013 .
2) Preconditions to successful sustainability: In addition to an ongoing source of resources, good technical and managerial capacity, and sustained motivation of participants and partners, linkages to governmental organizations and/or other entities were key to continuity and sustainability of outcomes and new impacts. “No project in this study achieved sustainability without [the first] three of them in place before the project ended,” and linkages between community partners and the public/private sector were critical for handover (Figure 1, below). Further, a gradual transition from project-supported activities to independent operation was important for sustainability. “Sustainability was more likely when projects withdrew gradually, allowing community-based organizations to develop the capacity to operate independently.”
3) Free resources can threaten sustainability, unless replaced while there is no one-size fits all for resources:
Using incentives has costs. “Free supplementary food in maternal and child health and nutrition projects or free marketing services in agriculture projects created expectations in many projects that could not be sustained once resources were withdrawn”. Valuing Voices found the same in research in Niger (report imminent). But other financing options, free health care or fee for service are still unsystematically studied regarding fostering sustainability in differing sectors.
4) External factors (climate, economy) can affect sustainability: The operating context and exogenous shocks (e.g., economic, legal and climatic) also affected the sustainability of project benefits, positively or negatively.
Most tellingly, the authors warned that “sustainability plans cannot be based on the hope that activities and benefits will continue in the absence of the key factors identified in this study.” Throughout the report and in pending country-specific studies, they outlined the assumptions that projects made about sustainability in order to exit and closeout, which were variably disproved, such as:
- Community health workers would continue to provide services although without remuneration,
- Households could continue to access nutritious food from their own (increased) production or purchases and have time, and know how to prepare such food,
- Farmers will pay for inputs with profits from increased production and commercialization and can meet the quantity and quality requirements of long-term contracts
- Community members will recognize the tangible benefit of Natural Resource Management activities and will be motivated to continue them without further inputs or remuneration
- Water committees will have sufficient administrative capacity and resources to manage their budgets effectively
- Community-based organizations have strong institutional capacity
- Partner organizations will continue to provide teacher training
- Government will have the resources and commitment to support future needs
The country studies with detailed findings are still forthcoming but these examples may illustrate the range of sustainability. There were some very well-sustained positive results in Food Production (India by area) and Child Health Growth Monitoring (Bolivia by consortium implementers) between baseline or enline and followup 2-3 years later:
As well as some far more mixed or negative results in examples across all the Water and Sanitation projects:
And far less stellar results in Maternal Child Health’s Community Health Workers (Kenya):
The authors recommended not only ensuring resources, capacity, motivation and linkages are present before exiting but also institutionalizing sustainable approaches to project design and evaluation including in solicitations and applications, project assessments, project management and knowledge management. They also recommended not only phasing down exit but also extending more such evaluations beyond the 5 years of implementation and assessing impacts as long as 10 years after. This requires some sizeable revisions to how development is done at Food For Peace.
All of these findings recommendations are near and dear to those of us at Valuing Voices. We strongly commend Food For Peace and ask for many more such studies, for unless we know what worked best and why, how do we know what to design next together with our partners and participants for real sustainability?
 InterAction. (2015). Choose to Invest 2016: Food For Peace Title II. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20150307160559/https://www.interaction.org/choose-to-invest-2016/food-for-peace-title-II
 Rogers, B. L., & Coates, J. (2015, December). Sustaining Development: A Synthesis of Results from a Four-Country Study of Sustainability and Exit Strategies among Development Food Assistance Projects. Retrieved from https://www.fantaproject.org/research/exit-strategies-ffp
 Cekan, J., PhD. (2014, April 7). Evaluation of ERCS/Tigray’s “Building Resilient Community: Integrated Food Security Project to Build the Capacity of Dedba, Dergajen & Shibta Vulnerable People to Food Insecurity”. Retrieved from http://adore.ifrc.org/Download.aspx?FileId=147802&.pdf