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?
Whose responsibility is it to sustain project activities?
Billions of dollars are pumped into development activities in developing countries all over the world. Communities getting involved in these projects have a clear objective, which is to have their lives improved in the sectors that the projects target. As to whether this is the main objective of the development partners is not clear. What is clear is that the development partners focus more on numbers than on getting people to participate.
We note that majority of these projects are designed to last between 2-5 years. Delays occasioned poor planning or other unforeseen factors eat into the implementation time to an extent that in some projects it takes about 1-2 years to get a program running. This means that the planned implementation time is reduced. Baselines, midlines and end lines studies are conducted to inform changes that may have occurred within the program life, and in most cases they happen shortly after the program has started or just before it ends. In fact, some baselines are conducted after programs have started.
Considering the reduced implementation time and the fact that it takes a much longer time to get concrete behavior change related results, questions emerge whether indeed the reported changes are solid enough during implementation to be sustained. There is also a difference between measuring what can be referred to artificial changes (activities that community members adopt as a way of short-term trial in their excitement, but don't find useful afterward) and long lasting changes that community members adopt because they are useful part and parcel of their lives.
Almost all projects have logical frameworks (logframes) that show how project activities will be implemented and to some extent there are also exit strategies for closing out the project. This can be an illusion long-term. In most cases donors and implementers assume that communities will adopt activities that are being implemented within a specified period of time, and so projects close down at the end of the specified period of implementation assuming things will continue, but have no proof. Valuing Voices has done projected sustainability work in Ethiopia which points to possible differences between what donors expect to the sustained versus what communities are able to sustain.
The big questions remain: "whose responsibility is it to ensure that whatever has been adopted is continued? Whose responsibility is it to sustain project activities post project implementation?" It is silently assumed that communities can take up this responsibility and a key question is "what guarantees are there that this is possible and is happening?" Project sustainability should not be seen as a community-alone responsibility but rather a responsibility for all those who are involved in program activities. Sustainability studies should be planned for and executed in the same breath that the baselines, midlines, end-lines and in the rare cases impact assessments in real time should be planned for. We must do sustainability studies as they provide an additional realistic opportunity to inform us on actual community development post project implementation. Communities should not be left alone with it.
Are We Done Yet?
When are we off the hook, so to speak, for the well-being of the participants whom we said we'd make healthier, better fed, more educated, safer, etc?
America’s Agency for International Development (USAID) is the main channel for international development aid. It is also an organization interested in learning from its programming and numerous contracts support such work. One such contract by FHI360/FANTA was Food for Peace tasking them to review the agency’s Title II development food aid from 2003-2009 covering 28 countries. This Second Food Aid and Food Security Assessment (FAFSA-2) Summary found that such programs can “reduce undernutrition in young children, improve health and nutrition outcomes, and increase access to income and food” and also found practices that did not work well.
While USAID has made enormous strides in the intervening six years on monitoring and evaluation (I was a consultant to USAID/PPL/LER from 2013-14), excellent recommendations that would support great, sustainable programs are unfulfilled:
Recommendations #1, 4 “USAID/FFP should develop an applied research agenda and sponsor studies that focus on the implementation of Title II programs in the field to better define what works and what does not…. [and] should select the review panel for new Title II applications… and give reviewers a ‘cheat sheet’ on interventions and approaches that USAID/FFP is and is not interested in funding because they work better or do not work as well, [and] provide this same information in the Request for Assistance” [Request for proposals].
Yes, all across our industry there is little learning from past evaluations for future design and Valuing Voices believes local participants and stakeholders need to be consulted to tell us what (still) works and what they want more of not only during implementation but long after. Their voices must support great design, as it’s their lives we go there to improve; they must be involved in the design of these original requests that non-profits design and fulfill. Further, the study found that only 1/3 of all evaluations were included in USAID’s database, and as Valuing Voices’ partner Sonjara has written in our blog, aid transparency requires data retention and access for learning to happen.
Recommendation #3 “USAID/FFP should include options for extensions of awards or separate follow-on awards to enable USAID/FFP to continue to support high-performing programs beyond five years and up to ten years… [as] longer implementation periods are associated with greater impact.”
This would address the ‘how much impact can we accomplish in 1, 3, 5 years” question that many of us in international non-profits ask ourselves. Finally, the graphic below is self-explanatory – USAID sees its role ending at close-out.
The crux lies in their honest statement: "It was beyond the scope and resources of the FAFSA-2 to explore in any depth the sustainability of Title II development programs after they ended." While they state that there is merit in having impact while you intervene, such as "having a positive impact on the nutritional status of the first cohort of children is of immense benefit in its own right", they go on to say that "ideally, one would like to see mothers continuing positive child feeding practices and workers continuing to deliver services long after programs end… [yet] whether the [maternal child health and nutrition] interventions are sustainable beyond one generation is unknown and would require research." This is because funding is pre-programmed, fixed to end within set 1, 3, 5 year increments, and no one goes back to learn how it all turned out. This is what most needs to change, this illusion that what happens after closeout is no longer our issue, that the ‘positive impact’ we had while there is enough.
They are not alone. I think of NORAD, the Government of Norway's development arm as very progressive. So I went to NORAD's website and searched for 'ex-post' (we do a lot of that at ValuingVoices). So like our World Bank blog on finding real ex-post evaluations, many many things are considered 'ex-post', including one actual evaluation in Palestine with fieldwork which asked participants and a few that looked at institutional sustainability. Many of the 100+ 'finds' were actually documents recommending ex-post. Typical of our other searches of other donors. I emailed NORAD whether there were more with participant voices, yet they assured me they did them. Maybe our problem is in definitions and taxonomy again. Maybe we should call them post-project participant feedback?
Most of my colleagues would agree that the sustainability of activities aimed at making communities food secure in the long-term and independent of aid is a shared goal, one which short-term assistance aimed at huge impacts such as to ‘make communities food secure’ and ‘sustainably decrease malnutrition’ (common proposal goals) is unrealistic. We need participant voices to teach us how well we served them. We need to return, learn “what works and what does not”, and Value Voices in true sustained partnership. We all look forward to being done.
 “Another major obstacle to transparency and learning from the Title II program experience was the fact that only one-third of the final evaluations were publicly available on the Development Experience Clearinghouse (DEC), despite the requirement that Awardees post them to the DEC…. [There was a lack of] cross-cutting studies or in-depth analyses of Title II evaluation results to advance organizational learning [and] much greater use could be made of the evaluation data for systematic reviews, meta-analyses, secondary analyses, and learning.”
A Missing Piece In Local Ownership: Evaluation
(Reblog from http://www.interaction.org/blog/missing-piece-local-ownership-evaluation Grino and Levine)
Ten years ago, ownership was established as a key principle of aid effectiveness. Although understanding of ownership has evolved since then – most significantly, as something that involves not just governments but all parts of society – today the focus is not on whether ownership is important but on how we can move ownership from principle to practice. To date, these conversations have primarily concerned how to make ownership a reality in program design and implementation. InterAction supports these efforts, but believes they need to go one step further. As we argue in our new briefing paper, the local ownership agenda must extend to all parts of the program cycle – from design all the way through evaluation.
Including those meant to benefit from international assistance (we use the term “participants”) in deciding what should be done and how it should be done is critically important for effectiveness and sustainability. Organizations, and some governments, also increasingly recognize the value of hearing directly from participants and citizens about how well something is being done. This can be seen in the growing use of feedback mechanisms and the establishment of initiatives promoting social accountability. Including participants in evaluation decision making is just as important. Particularly when participants have lacked ownership at other stages of an intervention, evaluation serves as a last opportunity for them to weigh in.
Despite the widespread acceptance of the principle of local ownership, evaluations continue to predominantly respond to the demands of donors, focusing on how funds are spent and the degree to which the results donors or implementers value are achieved. By only taking into consideration the values and interests of some stakeholders (primarily donors and external actors) in evaluations, organizations are missing a critical perspective on an intervention’s results: the views of the very people the intervention was intended to assist.
When participants are involved in evaluation, more often than not they serve as data sources, and perhaps as data collectors. Very rarely do we find examples of participants involved in deciding the questions an evaluation will ask, determining the criteria that will be used for judging an intervention’s success, interpreting results, or shaping recommendations based on evaluation findings.
A concern frequently raised about including participants in evaluation decision making is that their clear stakes in evaluation outcomes and potentially their lack of evaluation capacity could lead to biased and unreliable results. Yet it is important to acknowledge that everyone involved in an evaluation has values, interests, and capacities that affect how they approach an evaluation. Including participants’ voices adds a greater diversity of perspectives to an evaluation and the interpretation of findings, thus reducing bias.
We recognize that the road to local ownership in evaluation is just that: a road, not something that can be achieved instantly or that is possible in all cases. For that reason, we recommend that organizations take an incremental approach to pursuing local ownership in evaluation, focusing on the critical steps that can be taken along the way to increase the role of participants in evaluation processes.
As organizations seek to increase participants’ ownership in evaluation, they must consider:
Who to include as co-owners in an evaluation;
In which aspects of an evaluation participants need to be involved (we provide a list of possible evaluation activities related to designing the evaluation, collecting and analyzing data, determining findings and recommendations, and disseminating and using evaluation results); and
The nature of participants’ involvement (with the goal of moving from informing or consulting participants to including participants as partners in evaluation decision making).
Getting to local ownership in evaluation requires making progress on all three fronts.
Ultimately, all actors along the aid chain – from donors to international NGOs to local partners – must believe in the value of including participants as co-owners in evaluation. Once in place, this commitment must be complemented by investing in staff’s capacity to effectively involve participants in evaluation decision making, and in strengthening participants’ own capacity to engage. As in any other participatory process, participants must also trust that their input will indeed influence policies and practice. Including participants in this way is another way to signal that we truly view them as partners, rather than beneficiaries.
By Laia Grino, Senior Manager for Transparency Accountability and Results, and Carlisle Levine, Ph.D., Senior Advisor, Evaluation (Consultant)
Learning from the Past… for Future Sustainability
Heading up Food Security for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was my first international development job in 1995-1999 and I have watched this organization grow in its commitment to program quality and learning/ knowledge management ever since. At the time I oversaw 17 of of CRS' USAID/ Food for Peace (FFP) programs. So I was delighted that not only has CRS done an ex-post evaluation and used the findings for programming (e.g. the effectiveness of investing in a particular sector—for example, the importance of supporting girls’ education within a food security program) and also for advocacy (e.g. evaluation lessons from Rwandan peace-building projects seven years after the genocide informed CRS’ evolving approach to peace and justice strategies), but I get to celebrate FFP learning too. In addition to having consulted to USAID/PPL (Policy, Planning and Learning) and the FANTA project, all featured below, I went to Tufts University’s Fletcher School. Super to see great organizations learning about sustainability!
CRS’ 2007 project package guidance for implementation and guidance (ProPackII), described ex-post evaluation/sustainable impact evaluation’s aim “to determine which project interventions have been continued by project participants on their own [which] may contribute to future program design…. it is fair to say that NGOs rarely evaluate what remains following the withdrawal of project funding [which] is unfortunate [as] important lessons can be generated regarding factors that help to ensure project sustainability.”
A 2004 Catholic Relief Services excellent ex-post evaluation in Ethiopia was featured: “Looking at the past for better programming: dap I Ex-Post Assessment Report”. It assessed sustainability of Agriculture Natural Resource Management, and Food-Assisted Child Survival/Community Based Health Care programming, done as an internal evaluation by CRS staff and partners with document review, partner, government and community interviews. Results were mixed.
Some activities generated enough food and income that households could eat throughout the year and have some savings, making them more resilient against drought
Almost 100% of cropland bunding and irrigation practices for improved crop production were still being applied and buffered them during a subsequent drought
Health practices had also continued (e.g. trained traditional birth attendants had continued to provide services with high levels of enthusiasm and commitment, and increased levels of health care-seeking behaviors existed).
However, many other benefits and services had severely deteriorated:
Nearly all water committees had dissolved, fee collection was irregular or had been discontinued
Many water schemes were not operational
The centrally managed [tree] nurseries had been abandoned (given the existing management capacity of communities and government).
CRS/Ethiopia and its partners came to see that:
“The potable water strategy had over-focused on the technical aspects (“hardware”) while not paying enough attention to the community organizing dimensions and support by existing government services (“software”).
Even limited post-project follow-up by partners and government staff might have gone a long way towards mitigating the deterioration of project benefits and services.
What was terrific was that they “went on to use these findings and lessons learned from this ex-post evaluation to inform the design of similar projects in Ethiopia… while also raising awareness of these issues among partner staff”. The ex-post recommended increased planning for sustainability, setting up village management for post-project and incentive maintenance. Great learning, yet we have found few ex-posts at CRS or elsewhere. Our industry needs to explore issues such as those the evaluators posed: Was the lack of sustainability due to technical, institutional or financial faults in the programming? In other words, was the lack of self-sustainability due to the design/ aim of the activity itself or how it was implemented?
In 2013, USAID’s Food For Peace commissioned fascinating research on Exit Strategies. Tufts University went to Bolivia, Honduras, India and Kenya which were phasing out of Title II food aid to look at how to “ensure that the benefits of interventions are sustained after they end, [as] there is little rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of different types of exit strategies used in USAID Office of Food for Peace Title II development food aid prog
rams.” The research is to “assess the extent to which the programs’ impacts were maintained or improved and to help understand factors of success or failure in the specific exit strategies that were used.” They have made the important discernment that the effectiveness of Title II programs depends on both short-term impact and long-term sustainability.
The FANTA project (contractor) made the following preliminary results available:
Impact assessment at exit does not consistently predict sustained impact two years later…. It can be misleading.
Many activities, practices, and impacts across sectors declined over the two years after exit. These declines are related to inadequate design and implementation of sustainability strategies and exit processes.
There are specific ways to increase the likelihood of sustainability: Sustaining service provision and beneficiary utilization of services and practices depends on three critical factors: Resources, Technical and Management Capacity, Motivation
Withdrawal of free food rations or any other free input (as incentive) jeopardizes sustainability without consideration of substitute incentives. For instance,
Withdrawal of food was a disincentive for participation in and provision of [child] growth monitoring…. Resources and health system linkages are needed to sustain health activities
Motivation, capacity and resources are all needed to maintain water systems
Agriculture and Natural Resource Management suffered greatly when resource incentives disappeared
Their main recommendations are that sustainability should be built into the design from the beginning, program cycles are longer and exit is gradual.
CRS found the same issue of incentives as a barrier, as they did technical and (institutional) capacity/ motivation/ management issues. We have much to learn… at least we’ve started Valuing Voices and asking… and eventually designing for sustainability!
What’s likely to ‘stand’ after we go? A new consideration in project design and evaluation
This spring I had the opportunity to not only evaluate a food security project but also to use the knowledge gleaned for the follow-on project design. This Ethiopian Red Cross (ERCS) project “Building Resilient Community: Integrated Food Security Project to Build the Capacity of Dedba, Dergajen & Shibta Vulnerable People to Food Insecurity” (with Federation and Swedish Red Cross support) was targeted to 2,259 households in Dedba, Dergajen and Shibta through provision of crossbreed cows, ox fattening, sheep/goats, beehives and poultry which were to be repaid in cash over time as well water and agriculture/ seedlings for environmental resilience. ERCS had been working with the Ethiopian government to provide credit for these food security inputs to households in Tigray which were to be repaid in cash over time. During this evaluation, we met with 168 respondents (8% of total project participants).
Not only were we looking for food consumption impacts (which were very good), and income impacts (good), we also probed for self-sustainability of activities. My evaluation team and I asked 52 of these participants more in-depth questions on income and self-sustainability preferences. We used participatory methods to learn what they felt they could most sustain themselves after they repaid the credit and the project moved on to new participants and communities.
We also asked the to rank what input provided the greatest source of income. The largest income (above 30,000 birr or $1,500) was earned from dairy and oxen fattening, while a range of dairy, oxen, shoats and beehives provided over half of our respondents (40 people) smaller amounts between 1,000-10,000 birr ($50 to $500).
And even while 87% of total loans were for ox fattening, dairy cows (and beehives) which brought in farm more income, and only 11% of loans were sheep/goats (shoats) and 2% for poultry, the self-sustainability feedback was clear. In the chart below, poultry and shoats (and to a lesser degree, ox fattening) were what men and women felt they could self-sustain. In descending order, the vast majority of participants prioritized these activities:
To learn more about how we discussed that Ethiopian participants can self-monitor, see blog.
So how can such a listening and learning approach feed program success and sustainability? We need to sit with communities to discuss the project’s objectives during design plus manage our/ our donors’ impact expectations:
1) If raising income in the short-term is the goal, the project could only have offered dairy and ox fattening to the communities as their incomes gained the most. Note, fewer took this risk as the credit for these assets was costly.
2) If they took a longer view, investing in what communities felt they could self-sustain, then poultry and sheep/goats were the activities to promote. This is because more people (especially women, who preferred poultry 15:1 and shoats 2:1 compared to men ) could afford these smaller amounts of credit as well as the feed to sustain them.
3) In order to learn about true impacts we must return post-project close to confirm the extent to which income increases continued, as well as the degree to which communities were truly able to self-sustain the activities the project enabled them to launch. How do our goals fit with the communities’?
What is important is seeing community actors, our participants as the experts. It is their lives and livelihoods, and not one of us in international development is living there except them…
What are your questions and thoughts? Have you seen such tradeoffs? We long to know…
[*NB: There were other inputs (water, health, natural resource conservation) which are separate from this discussion.]