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!