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!
Embedding Sustainability Everywhere – All Five Slices Now
It has been a tumultuous year, and next year does not look like we will have much stability as a respite. As domestic concerns grow larger in two huge economies, US and UK, the question of the place foreign aid will play abound in conversations around the world.
However 2017’s transitions transform our work, for now I do have some good news,
1) Sustainability can be cheap. Far cheaper, in fact to design for sustainability, create feedback loops checking on sustainability through the eyes of our partners and participants, monitor for sustainability than to assume it’ll happen and far cheaper than finding out funds could have had far greater impact if we had valued their voices in the first place.
In our work to help our clients and partners fund, design, implement and monitor/ evaluate with sustainability in mind, we created what we hope is a helpful tool (guidance forthcoming).
a) By Designing for Sustainability with those who will sustain them, their financial buy-in and commitment are far higher (see CRS/ Niger ), as is advocacy and community buy-in (see new post-project OXFAM/ DRC ) and there are indicators the costs of start-up later are more cost-effective.
b) By clarifying Sustainability Indicators we check assumptions about who will do so, how much of a priority our activities are before we scale them up (Federation/ Ethiopian Red Cross). Retrospective post-project sustainability evaluations also enable us to learning from past successes and do better.
c) Sustainability Monitoring and Adaptation involve those pesky but pivotal feedback loops which are vital to understanding if we have gone off the rails or not, especially in terms of unexpected shocks derailing logical frameworks of designed projects. USAID’s nice recent CLA (Collaborating, Learning, Adapting) process includes donor funding for adaptation mid-stream which fosters effectiveness and sustainability . Even lovelier are the Doing Development Differently examples that are often very low-cost and high-effect.
d) Informed Exit, Stakeholder Sustainability Consultation should be done throughout the cycle, at least a year earlier than most projects can begin this (note; not the last few months please). Transitioning for success leverages sunk costs for ongoing results. It includes heavy knowledge management on how the implementers managed information and resources, tracked data, sustained outputs and outcomes which now local partners will need to do, etc (FFP Exit Strategies study, a Czech study, and a new UK Results study shows range of items to consider during and post-transition)  .
e) Post-Project Sustainability: Our Valuing Voices/ Better Evaluation/ Tufts joint presentation at AEA on SEIE has more on how learning from post-project evaluation lessons can change sustainability of future projects for the better ! Further, what capacities and systems have been built in-country to sustain the results after our funding and expertise leaves? What can we do differently?
Can it be done? Demand is rising. I recently presented at a conference about embedding sustainability in programming now, and an enterprising NGO took this idea to heart. They proposed joint design with communities, which is the very bedrock of designing for sustained impact. Kudos!
2) Secondly, donors are willing to pay for sustainability. Sustainability is ensconced in USAID/ Food For Peace’s (FFP) 2016 Strategy and CLA (above) . In the section called New learning and Implications for FFP Programming, they present findings such as “actions that drive big results during the life of the project may actually undermine sustainability in the long run. It raises the question as to whether FFP is willing to accept more modest results in the near term if they can be delivered in a way that will yield more sustainable gains over time….”
They also point us in the direction of country-led development: “Sustained capacity, resources, motivation, and linkages all require a focus on catalysts for change beyond FFP. Facilitative approaches that rely on and strengthen local actors help ensure that resource and knowledge transfers, and the incentives and linkages that support them, will be self-perpetuating beyond project end”. Notably, while UK’s DFID focuses on maximizing impact through Value-for-Money, it is a shorter-term economy, efficiency and effectiveness rather than sustained impact for the end-users and DFID’s exit strategies have recently been critiqued .
There is an issue of disincentives for the new administration to heed (if the agricultural lobby for US food exports does not prevail): “In [USAID’s exit] study evaluating how sustainable the results of Title II development programs are 2–3 years after project closure, FFP found that “providing free resources can threaten sustainability, unless replacement of those resources both as project inputs and as incentives has been addressed” . As the Natural Resources section notes, “Whether entirely in the hands of the community or linked to a formal institution, the incentives and resources necessary to maintain a community asset are part of the system that will sustain it. The lack of such systems is visible in rusted irrigation pumps, failed mangrove plantations, abandoned bore wells, eroded dikes, and silted-in fish ponds around the world” . Yet the private and public sectors are important: “Sustainable, broad-based change is more likely to be achieved by supporting and strengthening existing community, private sector, and public sector mechanisms for product and service delivery, and by supporting the capacity, quality, and accountability of government institutions” .
FFP’s new strategy calls for taking a systems approach to change that emphasizes sustainable long-term gains over unsustainable short-term wins. Even more delightful, in a small meeting at MFAN with Dina Esposito, Director of Food For Peace in November, she announced that they were looking to do pilot funding of an additional three years to typical five-year DFAP development projects. One year would involve collaborative participatory design between partners, communities and FFP, the second additional years being evaluation post-project of sustained and emerging impact!
This is a sea shift that can hopefully withstand political winds. After all, US foreign aid accounts for less than 1% of our federal budget, even though many Americans believe it is over 15% (hence easy to cut)…. but fingers crossed the aid effectiveness value of our work is… Valued.
 Cekan, J., PhD, Kagendo, R., & Towns, A. (2016). Participation by All: The Keys to Sustainability of a CRS Food Security Project in Niger. Retrieved from https://www.crs.org/our-work-overseas/research-publications/participation-all
 Lindley-Jones, H. (2016, November 16). ‘If we don’t do it, who will?’ A study into the sustainability of Community Protection Structures supported by Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Retrieved from https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/if-we-dont-do-it-who-will-a-study-into-the-sustainability-of-community-protecti-620149
 USAID Learning Lab. (n.d.). Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA)? Retrieved from https://usaidlearninglab.org/faq/collaborating%2C-learning%2C-and-adapting-cla
 Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance (FANTA). (n.d.). Effective Sustainability and Exit Strategies for USAID FFP Development Food Assistance Projects. Retrieved from https://www.fantaproject.org/research/exit-strategies-ffp
 Del Mese, F. (2016, November 16). When aid relationships change: DFID’s approach to managing exit and transition in its development partnerships. Retrieved from https://icai.independent.gov.uk/report/transition/
 Cekan, J., Rogers, B. L., Rogers, P., & Zivetz, L. (2016, October 26). Barking Up a Better Tree: Lessons about SEIE (Sustained and Emerging Impact Evaluation). Retrieved from https://valuingvoices.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Barking-up-a-Better-Tree-AEA-Oct-26-FINAL.pdf
 USAID. (2016, October 6). 2016–2025 Food Assistance and Food Security Strategy. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/ffpstrategy#:~:text=FFP’s%20new%20strategy%2C%20the%202016,USG)%20food%20assistance%20as%20a
 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
Maximizing what we've got… Time is now!
We had a stirring conversation here in D.C. with someone very knowledgeable about sustainability; this person is a strong proponent of local ownership of all development. They also said vehemently, why evaluate the sustainability of projects after closeout; we all know what that will show! What was implied is that our system of international development and aid is so flawed, so broken, that the inevitable result of not focusing on local ownership as the fundamental basis for our work means Nothing. Will. Be. Left…. All. Is. Lost.
We disagree. Our development industry does some good, some bad, and is ever-changing (albeit slowly). Billions of dollars each year are spent trying to improve people's lives and livelihoods around the world, and we've seen great good be done. While. We. Remain.
We know far, far less about what remains after our projects end because less than 1% of the time we return post-project (ex-post) to evaluate anything.
Our problem with time begins with fixed timelines within projects that say we have 1, 3, 5 years to get to success. They work with participants and partners who need to make substantial changes to how they use their resources and beliefs over a relatively short time of a few months to a few years. We expect immediate results from them, changing how they farm (use new seeds, new methods, new ways of interacting with markets) and save money (learn new concepts of profit and interest, repayment and re-lending), and improve their health and that of their families (get prenatal exams, vaccinate your children, exclusively breastfeed without adding water or tea). Everyone in our projects is 'on the clock' from the donor and implementer to partners and participants. This clock ticks down irrevocably as project closeout looms, promised-successes-to-donors at hand or a mirage in the distance. We assume sustained results.
How many of us have ever gone on a diet? How many have learned a new language? How many of us have transferred jobs and had to learn new skills on the job? How quickly have we managed to do all that successfully, all at once?! Probably many. How many of you have had to do this on a fixed timeline? Were you successful when there was a limited, fixed time and you did not set your own pace?
It takes time to implement projects well enough to ensure that most participants ‘got it’, not just the 'early adopters'. It takes time to hand over projects so well that our partners and participants are ready to take over at least some of what we worked so hard to transfer. It took leadership and staff two years in the very successful participatory USAID/ Food For Peace food security project by CRS Niger that was a continuation of similar programming for 15 years. It also takes time to pass for conditions to be ready for our return, to isolate what people could self-sustain from what the project supplied, to learn what was so well designed and implemented during projects that to 'took root' in people's lives, that they have made it their own. We estimate optimal evaluation time is 2-7 years after closeout. Valuing Voices also believes we should not just evaluate the sustainability of outputs and outcomes of what we put in place that we thought they would continue, and the sustained impact of those cumulative investments, but also the emerging, unintended new activities and impacts we never imagined people would innovate from our projects. We are doing just such evaluations in Zimbabwe and Uganda now and hope to do and catalyze much more fieldwork around the world.
And why does it matter? Why shouldn't we write off our time-limited donor-funded projects? Because:
1) It's all we've got. Our current development system is not going anywhere soon, and there is success to learn from.
2) We need to quickly learn from what worked sustainably best and stop wasting time and resources on what we refuse to admit fails because we are too scared to return to see. Go back with the intention to learn what does and focus on doing more of what works.
3) Such analysis – and design of new projects – must have country ownership as a centerpiece throughout the project cycle assumptions, but to throw out decades of good work simply because we are just learning the value of country ownership is foolish.
Finally, here's a lovely example from Brazil of how local, participation (and yes, as my colleague thought, local ownership) works best. And. It. Takes. Time.
"Our results also show that Participatory Budgeting’s influence strengthens over time… Participatory Budgeting’s increasing impact indicates that governments, citizens, and civil society organizations are building new institutions… cities incorporate citizens at multiple moments of the policy process, allowing community leaders and public officials to exchange better information." How often do we return to do what are called longitudinal reviews of our work abroad, using the same rigorous standards we evaluate our domestic projects? Not often. Shouldn't that change?
Only by working together, honoring the value of our participants, that they deserve the same chance at change that we take for granted will things change. We must value both the voices of our participants and our own expertise for development to improve for true aid effectiveness…. Let us begin anew!
PARTICIPATION BY ALL:
The Key To Sustainability of CRS/ Niger’s Food Security Project
Valuing Voices is delighted to share our sustainability evaluation of Catholic Relief Service Niger’s PROSAN project . This project that ran from 2006-2012 in Niger and was implemented by three NGOs: CRS, Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), and Helen Keller International (HKI) under the direction of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Food for Peace (FFP) as a multi-year assistance program (MYAP) to support food security activities in the Dosso, Tahoua, and Zinder regions. PROSAN focused on increasing agricultural production and agro-enterprise, improving household health and nutrition status, reinforcing the capacities of health agents, and enhancing community resiliency.
Here are the highlights from the report which itself is an excerpt from a longer analysis we did. Also please note one Annex highlights the similarlties/ differences we found to USAID/ FFP’s 4 elements of sustainability:
AIM, METHODS, AND RESEARCH QUESTIONS
The aim of this sustainability evaluation was to explore perceptions of sustainability from Nigeriens involved in PROSAN, former CRS staff and donors. It focused on evaluating participants’ adherence to project outcomes and their creation of new innovations. It also evaluated partners’ involvement in sustaining project outcomes.
This evaluation used qualitative and quantitative methods including community mapping, focus group discussions, beneficiary interviews, and key stakeholder interviews. The evaluation was carried out in six communities in the Dosso region, with more than 500 interviewees, focusing on the following research questions:
- Sustainability of activities and groups: Are the communities sustaining the activities three to five years after the end of the project? What can we learn from the communities and their post-project implementation partners?
- Spread and unexpected outcomes: If the project was considered a success in the eyes of the community, how well did it spread?
- Fostering Sustainability: What are the long-term prospects for continued sustainability?
Three years after PROSAN’s conclusion, the project was considered a success by community members, national partners, the implementer (CRS), and donor (USAID) staff. The main findings include:
1. SUSTAINABILITY OF ACTIVITIES AND GROUPS
Eighty percent (80%)[*] of all activities were reported to have become self-sustained and community innovations have emerged:
- On average, households reported moving from being food secure for 3-6 months per year during PROSAN to 8-12 months at the time of this evaluation, which is a remarkable impact .
- Women reported greater income through the increase in sales of food that was produced and processed due to the grain mills .
- Respondents also reported improved household health, hygiene, and nutrition, with 91% of survey respondents indicating that their health and sense of well being had improved, especially through the efforts of the health posts and clinics that CRS helped build and the government of Niger’s efforts in sustaining them with resources and staff .
Community groups/committees have continued and are well-supported by NGO partners:
- 81% of the committees set up by PROSAN were functioning at the time of this evaluation, with many participants discussing ways to sustain best practices within their communities, and members still receiving regular trainings or updates .
- Several new and refresher trainings come through national partners, NGOs, and new channels such as radio programs .
- Some new NGOs and international organizations have built upon PROSAN’s success, for instance, by using land previously managed by PROSAN for a new vegetable gardening training program, building hygiene programs on past health awareness efforts, or extending agricultural credit for further inputs .
Twenty percent (20%) of implemented activities were not sustained or have stagnated:
- While hygiene practices were sustained by households and there was widespread latrine construction, sanitation was poor in the villages, and most latrines had fallen into disrepair .
- Fewer than 50% of women reported practicing exclusive breastfeeding for children less than six months of age .
- While almost half of all health committees no longer exist, new health clinics staff have replaced some of the work of the committees with health and agricultural promotion messages now being sent via radio, television, and cell phones .
- Literacy training and theater groups have completely ceased .
- With the exception of the Système Communautaire d’Alerte Précoce-Réponses aux Urgences’ (SCAP-RU) SCAP-RU early warning system which has expanded, other resilience activities such as roadwork and caring for the environment are a lesser priority due in part to the lack of food and cash-incentives to continue doing them .
2. SPREAD AND UNEXPECTED OUTCOMES
New innovations and ceased activities reflected the project’s legacy:
- Community innovations have emerged such as collective funds paying for cleaners of the new health center, community-imposed sanctions for births occurring outside of the health centers, and the monitoring of savings from well water sales.
- National partners have praised the project, with many lamenting its withdrawal. One non-PROSAN village told an Agriculture Ministry staff and potential NGO partner that “No one should bring a program here unless it is like PROSAN.”
- PROSAN-trained masons, well repair technicians, and village youth have learned land recuperation techniques (zai holes, bunds and demi-lunes) that helped generate income beyond project communities.
- Project activities that received free inputs have largely stopped being implemented once the incentives were withdrawn such as Food for Training (FFT), Food for Work (FFW), or Cash for Work (CFW) (e.g. literacy, seedlings, latrines, theater etc.); nonetheless the inputs were highly valued and have continued to support agriculture and health (carts, bicycles).
3. FOSTERING SUSTAINABILITY
The following areas were identified as potential barriers to sustainability that could be systematically explored in other projects:
- Although most committees are still functioning, there are no processes in place to engage and train youth and new inhabitants of the villages.
- While village communities have been maintained, there is an increasing lack of ministry resources (e.g., staff, transportation, and communications) to take the place of NGOs like CRS after a program ends.
- There is little management of knowledge around project data, which is further exacerbated by staff changes in NGOs, government ministries, and donors. Project data (proposal content, monitoring data, evaluation results, participant lists, partner names, and exit agreements) must be managed ethically, locally and be held online, accessible for future projects to use and for villages to conduct self-evaluations.
The full report is available here:
 Cekan, J., PhD, Kagendo, R., & Towns, A. (2016). Participation by All: The Keys to Sustainability of a CRS Food Security Project in Niger. Retrieved from https://www.crs.org/our-work-overseas/research-publications/participation-all
[*] Percentages were calculated as a combination of the number of activities that had been continued and the percentage of participants which continued them.
What happens after the project ends?
Lessons about Funding, Assumptions and Fears (Part 3)
In part 1 and part 2 of this blog, we showcased 11 of the 18 organizations that have done post-project evaluations. While this was scratching the surface of all that is to be learned, we shared a few insights on How we do it Matters, Expect Unexpected Results and Country-national Ownership. We gained some champions in this process of sharing our findings, including Professor Zenda Ofir of South Africa, who said “we cannot claim to have had success in development interventions if the outcomes and/or impacts are not durable, or at least have a chance to sustain or endure.”
In this third blog of Lessons Learned from What Happens After the Project Ends, we turn to some of the curious factors that hold us back from undertaking more post project evaluations: Funding, Assumptions, and Fears.
- Why haven’t we gone back? For the last 2+years Valuing Voices has been researching the issue, we have heard from colleagues: ‘we would love to evaluate post-project but we don’t have any money, ‘donors don’t fund this’, ‘it is too expensive’[*]. Funding currently from bilateral donors such as USAID is given in 1-5 year tranches with fixed terms for completion of results and learning from them and one-year close-out processes . Much of the canon of evaluations conducted after close out that we amassed was from international NGOs that had used their private funds to evaluate large donor-funded projects for their own learning. Many aimed also to show leadership in sustainability and admittedly dazzle their funders – join them!.
- We fund capacity building during projects but if we do not return to evaluate how well we have supported our partners and communities to translate this to sustainability, then we fall short. Meetings convened by INTRAC on civil society sustainability are opening new doors for joint learning about factors such as “legitimacy… leadership, purpose, values, and structures” within organizations well beyond any project’s end . The OECD’s DAC criteria for evaluating development assistance define sustainability as: “concerned with measuring whether the benefits of an activity are likely to continue after donor funding has been withdrawn. Projects need to be environmentally as well as financially sustainable“ . We need to extend our view beyond typical criterion for sustainability being a focus primarily on continued funding.
- We need funding to explore whether certain sectors lend themselves to sustainability. In addition to the cases in blog 1, a study by CARE/ OXFAM/ PACT on Cambodian Savings groups finds that we have some revisions to make on how we design and implement with communities to foster sustainability in this sector which typically promises greater sustainability because capital can be recycled . Valuing Voices blogs show indications that once we amass a greater range of post-project evaluations (funders unite), the insights gleaned can illuminate cost efficient paths to more sustained programming, possibly leading to revisions in programming or interventions which have greater likelihood for country-ownership
- Extend the program cycle to include post-project sustainability evaluation. Rare are donors such as the Australian government (forthcoming) and USAID’s Food For Peace that commission such studies. Rare is the initiative such as 3ie that has research funds allocated by major donors to explore an aspect of impact. We miss out on key opportunities to learn from the past for improved project design if we do not return to learn how sustained our outcomes and impacts have been. We miss learning how we could better implement so more national partners could take on the task of sustaining the changes we catalyzed.
- We call on donors to fund a research initiative to comprehensively review sustainability evaluations.
- We call on governments to ask for this in their discussion with donors.
- We call on implementers to invest in such learning to improve the quality of implementation today and sustained impact in the years to come.
Development assistance makes many assumptions about what happens after projects end in terms of people’s self-sufficiency, partners’ capacity to continue to support activities, and projects’ financial independence and people’s ability to step into the shoes of donors and carry on. Unless we take a hard look at our assumptions, we will not move from proving what we expect to learning what is actually there.
Among them are these six assumptions:
- All will be well once we exit; we have implemented so well that of course national participants and partners will be ready and able to carry on without us. We may assume the only important outcomes and impacts are within our Logical Frameworks and Theories of Change. Thus there is no need to return to explore unexpected negative ones, or ways in which the people we strengthened may have innovated in unexpectedly wonderful ways. Aysel Vazirova, a fellow international consultant wrote me: “Post-project evaluations provide data for a deeper analysis of sustainability and help to appreciate numerous avenues taken by the beneficiaries in incorporating development projects into their lives. The theory of change narratives presented by a majority of development programs and projects have a rather disturbing resemblance to the structure of magic tales: (from) Lack – (to) change – (to) happy ending. Post project evaluations have a power to change a rigid structure of this narrative.”
- We assume evaluations are often used to inform new designs, yet dozens of colleagues have lamented that too often this does not happen in the race to new project design. But there is hope. World Wildlife Fund/UK M&E expert Clare Crawford says when following its new management standards, WWF “expects to see the recommendations of an evaluation before the next phase of design can happen (hence evaluations happen a little before the end of a strategic period). WWF-UK, when reading new program plans is mandated to verify if – and how – the recommendations of the last evaluation(s) were made use of in the new design phase. Equally we track management responses to evaluations to see how learning has been applied in current or in future work.” Such a link across the program cycle is not common in our experience and none of the post-project sustained impact evaluations we reviewed said how learning would be used.
- We may assume data continues accessible from the projects we have evaluated, yet our team member Siobhan Green has found that until recently, with the move toward open data, often project data remains the province of the donors and implementers and to the best of our knowledge leaves the country when projects close. While some sectoral data such as health and education data remains local, we are finding in fieldwork that household level data has been rolled up or discarded once projects close, which makes interviews difficult.
- We may assume that the participants and partners are not able to evaluate projects, particularly after the fact. Being vulnerable does not mean that people are not able to share insights or assess how projects helped or not. Methods such as empowerment evaluation and evaluative thinking are powerful supports  .
- Some may assume that the situation has changed in the intervening years, that there is no benefit in returning to see what results remain. Change is inevitable and sometimes more rapid or dramatic than others. But does that mean we shouldn’t want to understand what happened? This is the greatest disservice of all, for we are selling “sustainable development” so how well have we designed it to be so?
- We assume that learning for our own benefit is enough. A potential client brought me in to discuss my working on a rare post-project evaluation last year. It was to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and while would occur in several countries. What I discovered was that while the donor really wanted to learn what results remained more than a decade on, I asked ‘how would the countries themselves benefit from this research and findings?’ There was a long silence. Turns out, nothing from the research would benefit or even remain in country. No one had considered the learning needs of the countries themselves. This simply cannot continue if we are to be accountable to those we serve.
This may be the greatest barrier of all to returning to assess sustainability.
- We assume our projects continue. We may be afraid to look for what will this tell us about the sustainability of our efforts to save lives and livelihoods so we only choose to publicly study what is successful. Valuing Voices has found that across most the post project studies there is some ‘selection bias’, as we repeatedly learned in our research from colleagues that organizations choose to evaluate projects that are most likely to be successfully sustained. For instance, USAID Food For Peace’ study notes, “The countries included in this study—Bolivia, Honduras, India, and Kenya—were also chosen because of their attention to sustainability and exit.” Yet as an Appreciative Inquiry practitioner, I would argue that learning what worked best to know what to do more of may be the best way forward.
- All too often the choice of evaluation design, and sensitivity to findings fly in the face of learning—particularly when findings are negative. This raises fears around a discontinuation of funding (an implementer fear; a beneficiary fear; could also be a recipient government’s fear). Yet as Bill Gates says, “your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”>
- Participants asked during the project cycle about interventions may be fearful of truth telling because of perceived vulnerabilities around promised future resources, local power imbalances in control over resources, or even political imperatives to adopt a particular position. Alternatively we may not believe them, thinking they may not tell us the truth were that to stop resources.
Those are ours.
- Peter Kimeu, my wise advisor and 20-year friend and colleague from Kenya tells us some fears of the that we need to listen to – those that haunt our national partners and participants.
They are afraid we do not see their real desires:
- “It is ‘not how many have you (the NGO) fed, but how many of us have the capability to feed ourselves and our community?’
- ‘How can we (country national) support our fellow citizens to take our lives and livelihoods into our own hands and excel, sustainably?’
- ‘What is sustainability if it isn’t expanded opportunities, Isn’t the capability of one to make a choice of value/quality life out of the many choices that the opportunities present?”
Will you help us address these challenges? Will you join us in advocating filling the gap in the program cycle, and looking beyond it to how we design and implement with country nationals? Will you, in your own work foster their ownership throughout and beyond? We need to fund learning from sustained impact to transparently discuss assumptions and face our fears. This is a sustained purpose we need to and can fill.
 Capable Partners Program & FHI 36. (2010). Essential NGO Guide to Managing Your USAID Award: Chapter 6 – Close Out. Retrieved from https://www.ngoconnect.net/sites/default/files/resources/Essential%20NGO%20Guide%20-%20Chapter%206%20-%20Close%20Out.pdf
 Hayman, R. (2014, November 5). Civil society sustainability: Stepping up to the challenge. Retrieved from https://www.intrac.org/civil-society-sustainability-stepping-challenge/
 OECD. (n.d.). DAC Criteria for Evaluating Development Assistance. Retrieved 2015, from https://web.archive.org/web/20151206171605/http://www.oecd.org/dac/evaluation/daccriteriaforevaluatingdevelopmentassistance.htm
 Emerging Markets Consulting. (2013). Sustainability of Savings Group Programs in Cambodia for CARE, Oxfam, and Pact. Retrieved from https://mangotree.org/Resource/Sustainability-of-Savings-Group-Programs-in-Cambodia-for-CARE-Oxfam-and-Pact
 Better Evaluation. (n.d.). Empowerment Evaluation. Retrieved from https://www.betterevaluation.org/plan/approach/empowerment_evaluation
 Griñó, L., Levine, C., Porter, S., & Roberts, G. (Eds.). (2016). Embracing Evaluative Thinking for Better Outcomes: Four NGO Case Studies. Retrieved from https://www.theclearinitiative.org/resources/embracing-evaluative-thinking-for-better-outcomes-four-ngo-case-studies
[*] It does not have to be. We have done these evaluations for under $170,000, all-inclusive.
What happens after the project ends? Country-national ownership lessons from post-project sustained impacts evaluations (Part 2)
In Part 1 of our blog on lessons learned from post-project evaluations, we explored:
- How we do it matters for great results
- Expect unexpected results
This time we turn to who continues after closeout, and what conditions foster both successful handover and ownership from the onset in order to foster sustained impact.
Who Takes Over? Country nationals
When project handover is integral to the design, development projects needn’t be long-term or expensive. What they need to be is increasingly community-driven. Unless exit strategies are explicit and thorough, sustained impacts are less likely.
1. USAID/ Food for Peace (FANTA/ Tufts)
An ‘exit strategies’ evaluation of 12 projects in four USAID Food for Peace (FFP) countries of Bolivia, Honduras, India, and Kenya carried out in 2009, three to four years after close out detailed mixed results, described here . These were complex food security projects across multiple sectors of: 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.
FANTA/Tufts found “providing free resources, such as supplementary food as an incentive for growth monitoring participation or free agricultural marketing services to promote sales, created expectations that could not be sustained once the free resources were no longer offered.” Valuing Voices found similar issues in Niger’s PROSAN (see part 1), with the lack of continued incentives (food and in-kind inputs) led to activities not being continued by community members.
On the other hand, in India, the government took over FFP food ration distribution after closeout. “This phase-over of responsibility to national government programs was effective in the case of supplementary feeding but not in the case of school-feeding (the latter through the midday meals program), due to varying levels of government commitment. India’s government had the resources, capacity (an already existing supply chain), and motivation (commitment) to provide this benefit.” Again, CRS/Niger showed us that decades-long investments in partnerships and 2+ years for phase-over pays off; 80% of outcomes were self-sustained three years on. CIDA Peru also found that “Shared responsibilities and participatory process were instrumental in ensuring sustainability….a shared understanding of project objectives and counterpart interventions was established with Peruvian sector authorities, between donors and local communities” .
The lesson learned about close coordination with the partners such as the national government during design and implementation in order for transition to country-ownership and responsibility to be smooth also appeared among multilaterals that Valuing Voices has examined. Three multilateral agencies stand out as having conducted multiple post project evaluation (OECD, JICA and the Asian Development Bank).
We posit that too often in international development, the accountability focus is on fulfilling funder (donor) requirements, rather than accountability to project participants and what is needed to achieve sustained impact for them (Figure 1, below). The optimal case has project funders, implementers and national governments aligning to support those we ostensibly serve: women, men, youth, elders in need of assistance.
Are there certain kinds of projects or implementers that manifest optimal accountability? Far more examination is needed, but a promising path is microenterprise.
2. Pact’s WORTH project in Nepal
PACT’s project illuminates that local ownership and structures sustain results and even multiply impact. Implemented from 1999-2001, Pact worked with many local NGOs to reach 125,000 women in 6,000 economic groups across Nepal; of those, one quarter chose to implement village banks. Village Banks cultivated women as agents of change and development in their communities—promoting grassroots sustainability The post project evaluation in 2006 found that:
- Almost two thirds of the original 1,536 village banks were still active eight years after the program began and assets of an average village bank has tripled in the last three years post-project (from $1000 to over $3000 at the time of the evaluation) 
- 83% reported that because of WORTH they are able to send more of their children to school 
- Women’s economic groups helped start an estimated 425 new groups involving another 11,000 women with neither external assistance nor prompting from the project .
Why? The post-project report tells that the banks were not an end in and of themselves, women’s empowerment was: “WORTH groups and banks were explicitly envisaged as more than just microfinance providers; they were seen as organizations that would build up women as agents of change and development in their communities” . Thus local Nepalese sustained and grew their own development.
3. CARE Zanzibar’s Village Savings and Loan Associations were evaluated four years post-project. Similar to PACT, they found the model was sustained and grew:
- Total membership rose from 1,272 in 2002’s closeout to an estimated membership of 4,552 in July 2006, an increase of 258% 
- During the most recent payout for all 25 groups, the mean rate of return was 53%, with individual groups’ rates ranging from 10% to 92% 
- Participants said that the main changes in the lives as a result of the program were an improved standard of living (22%), improved housing (21%) and increased incomes (20%) .
While wonderful, can it only be the responsibility of communities to sustain their gains? How well are we designing for country-ownership and handover to the state?
4. The UN’s OECD has dozens of post project evaluations on its website, funded by member governments.
One study illuminates that while communities may manage to sustain some of the outcomes, structural investment in national capacity to takeover is key. This example evaluated four 10-15 year-long projects funded largely by Germany that were carried out in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Zambia with a cumulative value of Euro 145.1 million ($180 million). The study was done in 2004, evaluating activities an astonishing 30 years after inception. Results?
- The good news: “living conditions of the target groups have improved in all four project regions,” with specific sustainable project outcomes observed in the “health and education sector, food security, increase in income and employment and the ensuing rise in the standard of living”. Links were made to project-supported improvements in infrastructure, enhanced private sector economy, and the project’s innovations in agriculture.
- The bad news: “there was low institutional sustainability at the level of state executing organizations for all four projects due to inadequate funds, inefficient organizational structures and a lack of coordination”. Thus, viable exit and handover was limited. Structures advanced as part of a development project ran a high risk of not being sustainable.”
5. Three years ago, the Asian Development Bank reviewed 491 project completion reports (desk studies) and undertook a handful of field visits to projects financed between 2001-09. Similar 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” 
- “National government ownership, commitment to and financing of the projects were vital to sustainability“ 
- “Neither governments nor other international agencies benefit from systematic information on whether projects reached their intended economic or social objectives over the full life of the intervention or in the decade afterwards” .
This is a clarion call to all funders to invest in future excellence by returning to the past, learning what worked best and what failed to do so, examine why and begin anew with accountability to our participants!
What can be done?
A) Foster ownership of the process of development through empowerment to begin with, as PACT’s WORTH project did in Nepal and elsewhere. InterAction’s lovely “A Missing Piece in Local Ownership: Evaluation” reminds us “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” .
Ask yourselves how well we involve governments in collaborative design of what they feel they can sustain of our programming after we leave, how and for how long with what resources, linkages, capacity-built and motivation (see FFP study #1).
B) Design and implement in the present while considering sustaining outcomes and impacts in the long-term, as we learned in Part 1 of this blog as well as taking lessons from some emerging guides such as the systematic guidance of PCI’s Resource Guide for Enhancing Potential for Sustainable Impact .
C) Dare to return to learn. As Dina Esposito, the Director of USAID/Food For Peace stated, “this rigorous, retrospective [ex-post] 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” .
Imagine the sustained cost-efficiencies of learning certain sectoral programs lent itself best to sustainability by communities, others needed Ministries to take over, others still needed different support such as private sector – or all of the above. If we look at sustained impact as our true goal, how differently could we work together? How much more efficiently would we use our global resources?
What can we say about the sustained impact post-project evaluations we have featured?
We have covered lessons about how matters in design and implementation; expect unexpected results and who takes over? Country nationals. Much more research and analysis is needed, many more case studies need to be created for us to understand how to foster the best handover as well as national ownership at the beginning, middle and end. Maybe you drew some of the same conclusions we have:
- Post project evaluations provide valuable insights about sustainability.
- Lessons from such evaluations can lead to better programming in current and future projects.
- The voice of national stakeholders—participants and partners, including governments is essential.
- Donors lose amazing opportunities to learn what works now and continues to work unless they fund more sustainable impact evaluations and support investing resources in fostering sustainability during design and implementation.
In Part 3, we will look at what is keeping us from looking to the past for the future (hint: funding, assumptions and fears) and how we can move ahead together…
Please join us in advocating for and funding this vital approach!
 Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance (FANTA). (n.d.). Effective Sustainability and Exit Strategies for USAID FFP Development Food Assistance Projects. Retrieved from https://www.fantaproject.org/research/exit-strategies-ffp
 Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). (2012). Evaluation of CIDA’s Peru Program. Retrieved 2014, from https://web.archive.org/web/20140807174641/http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/INET/IMAGES.NSF/vLUImages/Evaluations2/$file/peru-eng.pdf
 Mayoux, L. (2008, June). Women Ending Poverty: The WORTH Program in Nepal – Empowerment through Literacy, Banking and Business 1999-2007. Retrieved from https://www.findevgateway.org/case-study/2008/06/women-ending-poverty-worth-program-nepal-empowerment-through-literacy-banking
 Anyango, E., Esipisu, E., Opoku, L., Johnson, S., Malkamaki, M., & Musoke, C. (2006, January). Village Savings and Loan Associations: Experiences from Zanzibar. Retrieved from https://www.findevgateway.org/case-study/2006/01/village-savings-and-loan-associations-experiences-zanzibar
 Asian Development Bank. (2010, October 31). Post-Completion Sustainability of Asian Development Bank-Assisted Projects. Retrieved from https://www.adb.org/documents/post-completion-sustainability-asian-development-bank-assisted-projects
 Grino, L. (2015, February 19). A Missing Piece in Local Ownership: Evaluation. Retrieved 2015, from https://web.archive.org/web/20150502162547/https://www.interaction.org/blog/missing-piece-local-ownership-evaluation
 Choi-Fitzpatrick, J., Schooley, J., Eder, C., & Lomeli, B. (2014). A Resource Guide for Enhancing Potential for Sustainable Impact: Food and Nutrition Security. Retrieved from https://www.fsnnetwork.org/resource-guide-enhancing-potential-sustainable-impact
 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.fsnnetwork.org/ffp-sustainability-and-exit-strategies-study-synthesis-report