Reblog: Eval Week: Tips for Conducting an Ex-Post Evaluation by Wendi Bevins
Published on the American Evaluation Association AEA365blog series https://aea365.org/blog/ex-post-eval-week-tips-for-conducting-an-ex-post-evaluation-by-wendi-bevins/ January 19, 2021
I am Wendi Bevins, and when my boss told me in 2017 that we were going to conduct an ex-post evaluation, I was thrilled. At the time I was the Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at Lutheran World Relief (LWR).
I was thrilled to go back to a closed project and evaluate it against our original theory of change, test our assumptions, and see if our approaches were sustainable beyond the end of a project. We could really learn some valuable lessons. And all those things were true, but they came alongside some useful lessons about human nature, which I offer here as suggestions to anyone who wants to conduct an ex-post.
Hot Tip: Manage Expectations
Ex-post results, like any evaluation’s results, will not be entirely clear, and some will be disappointing. In my own experience, I pinned my hopes on an assumption and was disappointed when the result was murky. These kinds of realities do not mean that an ex-post is a bad investment, but they do mean that stakeholders should be prepared early in the planning stage to manage their expectations. Then stakeholders are more likely to use the findings effectively where they do point to a clear (if unexpected) path forward and they aren’t tempted to dismiss all the findings out of hand. While that is true for nearly all evaluations, it is especially true for ex-posts because the stakes feel higher.
Lessons Learned: How you apply findings matters almost as much as the findings themselves
Your ex-post will definitely yield findings. You will not know ahead of time what those findings are, and as I learned, you should resist the urge to guess what they will be. However, having a way to apply the findings is important. The value of the ex-post is tied up in an organization’s ability to make use of its findings. In the case of our first ex-post evaluation, we applied what we learned to an organization-wide strategy that was being developed as the ex-post ended. Like other evaluation findings, ex-post findings can also be valuable in the development of new tools or the design of new programming, but even better because they give a longer time frame for reflection.
Rad Resources: Practical Tips and Examples
In partnership with World Vision US, LWR compiled a set of practical tips for planning and carrying out an ex-post evaluation. It reflects our lessons learned over 11 ex-post evaluations across the two organizations, such as selecting the right project; hiring an evaluator; and staying future-oriented. LWR also condensed the most transferrable lessons from our two ex-post evaluations into user-friendly summaries: the Tanzanian Grape Value Chain project and Nicaraguan Gender-Sensitive Food Security project.
I hope if you are fortunate enough to participate in an ex-post evaluation that these tips give you a good head start.
 Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health have since created Corus International, an ensemble of for-profit and non-profit organizations with social impact missions.
Impact Investing – International Development’s New Holy Grail?
There are so many things I love about the private sector such as Forbes 18 Dec Quote of the Day: “You’re going to be wrong a fair amount of times. So the issue is, how do you be wrong well?” asked Ray Dalio, Founder of Bridgewater Associate. This is a key issue for impact investors and international ‘developers’ alike.
International development suffers from the myth that failure must be downplayed. Too often only success is highlighted, whereas project shortcomings are framed as: “less successful” “numerous issues affected a less optimal…” Yet by downplaying the less great (Aka awful) results we miss vital learning that private sector expects, learns from and integrates toward the greater success. Why? Many in foreign aid believe (rightly?) such admissions might endanger winning more funding for more projects. Even as recently as 2014, U.S. foreign aid industry websites such as DevEx are still posting: “One can be forgiven for forming the impression that our development efforts are nearly perfect if typical annual reports, scientific conferences and event social media content are the basis for information. Successes are proudly packaged in glossy formats and heavily disseminated, whereas any objectives not achieved are relegated to the obligatory, and typically short, lessons learned section. This practice does not accurately represent an important reality: development efforts do in fact fail” .
Admitting failure, posting failure reports are awfully rare in international development, but how bad is it? The Asian Development Bank wrote in a large overview of the sustainability of post-project results, “Some early evidence suggests that as many as 40% of all new activities are not sustained beyond the first few years after disbursement of external funding” . A 2017 Cambridge University study found that “using an original database of over 14,000 small development projects in Ghana, I estimate that one-third of projects that start are never completed, consuming nearly one-fifth of all local government investment” . Even when they do start, complete, and even have salutary results at the end of the project, Valuing Voices research shows quick declines toward failures in as little as two years post exit, such as these post-project results at the AEA 2017 conference. The foreign aid industry is so focused on showing results while conditions are (relatively) conducive, that far fewer than 1% of all projects are evaluated for what was still standing in as little as two years after project closeout, and those are mostly those projects expected to be successful. Sustainable, long-term results suffer from what CGDev researchers 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” . Luckily there’s a place to go. DevEx reminds us that “Venture capitalists and corporate investors understand that less than 20 percent of new businesses will succeed,” hence my love of the private sector’s admitting, learning and improving that ‘aid’ needs .
As a former investment banker (Solomon Brothers) and management consultant (Price Waterhouse & Coopers and Lybrand), I know that the corporates care for results, and do not shy away from pulling money from where things don’t work and put it where they do. 30 years in international development showed me that rigid bureaucracies and fixed ‘project cycles’ and an industry focused on ‘getting money out the door’ lead to a focus on accounting for all funds, but not for changing lives over the long term. Virtually no one calculates return on (our) investment compared to the cost of projects, especially including the value of what projects generate and participants can sustain.
I am quite fervently hoping Impact Investors focused on financial ROI to firms and investors as well asSocial Return on Investment will step in, fund gathering and learning from the whole range of ‘returns’. Will they share both financial profits/ losses and feedback from the whole social ‘value chain’ of stakeholders of those involved on what succeeds and fails? Will investors learn from national partners and participants on what should be done better? If yes, all of us will win. I am heartened by cautiously optimistic statements such as Next Billion’s “a core characteristic and challenge of impact investing is the measurement and management of social and environmental impacts alongside financial returns. Development cooperation and impact investing communities can build on their respective experience in results measurement and learn from and with each other” . We can IF we are going to the same place.
From my early look at impact investing, it is a ‘game changer’ with $250 billion in assets looking for a profitable home . UBS Asset Manager Baldinger says “In the past you sold products to your client, now you empower your client to create a desired impact. As an industry, we’ve had to rethink everything we do — impact and sustainability is the Silicon Valley of finance and we want to be the Google” . These are happy words to someone focused on sustained (and emerging) impacts but among impact investors, so far, ‘impact’ seems to be thrown about as specifically as ‘results’, and GIIN ‘sustainability’ metrics are so wide ranging as to illuminate less quality than quantity. So far, much of their metrics look more like outputs relevant to companies (‘clients served’, ‘new investment capital’) that results of SROI. While there is something to be said about measures of ‘organizations trained’, ‘poverty assessments’ done, at least as a start, yet does ‘gross profit’ indicate that corner of the world is better off (and does this measure the investment into the enterprise, or is this of the investment fund itself)? Does ‘communities served’ and ‘social impact objectives’ illuminate the quality of the impact on lives changed? Is anyone asking how long-lasting, and sustained these investments, measuring what I call SUStained Return on Investment (SUSROI), will be after these investors leave (which is what I suspect most investment participants and millennial investors think they’re buying)?
This is the start of a series of blogs exploring how we who care about generating and evaluating sustained impacts can learn from, inform, (gasp) shape impact investing’s gargantuan footprint in international development. Powerhouses such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and Soros are looking, teaching, investing, and all public and private equity as well as a whole range of other investors now invest in this new hybrid . Who else is? What can we learn to make the world better? What do you think: Is impact investing development’s holy grail?
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.
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.
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!
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…
Jindra Cekan, Ph.D. has used participatory methods for 30 years to connect with participants, ranging from villagers in Africa, Central/ Latin America and the Balkans to policy makers and Ministers around the world for her international clients. Their voices have informed the new Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluation, other M&E, stakeholder analysis, strategic planning, knowledge management and organizational learning.
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