Sustainability of what and how do we know? Measuring projects, programs, policies…
On my way to present at the European Evaluation Society’s annual conference, I wanted to close the loop on the Nordic and Netherlands ex-post analysis. The reason is, that we’ll be discussing the intersection of different ways to evaluate ‘sustainability’ over the long- and short-term, and how we’re transforming evaluation systems. The session on Friday morning is called “Long- And Short-Term Dilemmas In Sustainability Evaluations” (Cekan, Bodnar, Hermans, Meyer, and Patterson). We come from academia as professors, consultancies to International organizations, International/ national non-profits, and our European (Dutch, German, Czech), South African, and American governments. We’ll discuss it as a ‘fishbowl’ of ideas.
The session’s abstract adds the confounding factor of program vs project versus portfolio-wide evaluations all-around sustainability.
Details on our session are below and why I’m juxtaposing it to the Nordic and Netherlands ex-posts in detail, comes next. As we note in our EES ’22 session description, “One of the classic complications in sustainability is dealing with short-term – long-term dilemmas. Interventions take place in a local and operational setting, affecting the daily lives of stakeholders. Sustainability is at stake when short-term activities are compromising the long-term interests of these stakeholders and future generations, for instance, due to a focus on the achievement of shorter-term results rather than ensuring durable impacts for participants… Learning about progress towards the SDGs or the daunting task of keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, for instance, requires more than nationally and internationally agreed indicator-systems, country monitoring, and reporting and good intentions.”
But there are wider ambitions for most sustainability activities undertaken by a range of donors, policy actors, project implementers, and others: Sustainability “needs to span both human-social and natural-ecological systems’ time scales. Furthermore, long-term sustainability, in the face of climate change and SDGs, demands a dynamic view, with due attention for complexity, uncertainty, resilience, and systemic transformation pathways…. the need for a transformation of current evaluation systems – seeing them as nested or networked systems… Their focus may range from focused operational projects to the larger strategic programmes of which these projects are part, to again the larger policies that provide the context or drivers for these programmes. Analogue to these nested layers runs a time dimension, from the short-term projects (months to years), to multi-year programmes, to policies with outlooks of a decade or more.”
When Preston did his research in 2020-21 which I oversaw, we focused on the projects precisely because that is where we believe ‘impact’ happens in a measurable way by participants and partners. Yet we found that many defined their parameters differently. Preston writes, “This paper focuses on what such research [on projects evaluated at least 2 years post-closure] yielded, not definitive findings of programs or multi-year country strategies that are funded for 20-30 years continuously, nor projects funded by country-level embassies which did not feature on the Ministry site. We focus on project bilateral project evaluations, not multilateral funding of sectors. We also …received input that Sweden’s EBA has a (non-project [not ex-post] portfolio of ‘country evaluations’ which looked back over 10 or even 20-year time horizons…
So we present these compiled detailed studies on the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark for your consideration. Can we arrive at a unified definition of ‘sustainability’ or imagine a unified ‘sustainability evaluation’ definition and scope? I hope so, will let you know after EES this week! What do you think, is it possible?