Sustainability SPRINGing out all over the place… and Disrupting
So what is sustainability? You may think it's the climate's long-term wellbeing and how to gauge changes to that. You may think it's linked to sustainable development regarding consumption, trade, education and environment and how to assess it. You may think it's data-driven organizational success as Chelsea Clinton describes, or is it Michael Porter's business' view of Creating Shared Value on social and environmental concerns or is it about people, as hallowed University of Cambridge trains experts in its Institute for Sustainability Leadership (I revel that I was a Fellow there in the '90s). Finally, is it WCED’s lovely definition "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"? Yes, when applied to communities' abilities to self-sustainably and resiliently chart their own development!
So how are we to get there? A Sustainable Brands Conference this year gets us there through being clear about their own consumption, and USAID is no different. USAID Forward is putting their money where their keyboards are (so to speak), toward more sustainable local delivery by directing a huge 30 percent of its funding to “local solutions” through procurement in coming years. This framework is to “support the ‘new model of development’ that USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah has touted, which entails a shift away from hiring U.S.-based development contractors and NGOs to implement projects, and toward channeling money through host-country governments and local organizations to build their capacity to do the work themselves and sustain programs after funding dries up. I, and others celebrate the investments this will enable local firms to make in their own capacity, in leading development!
Of course all sorts of safeguards are needed, and ideally US firms would be providing capacity development, but shouldn’t we have been doing this all along, to move toward transferring ‘development’ to the countries themselves?
Source: GAO report
Also vital to sustainable development is learning from what works and doing more of it. USAID is finally planning to incorporate more ex-post evaluations into its toolkit of evaluating sustainability! Two weeks ago, PPL/LER shared their great new policy document- “Local systems: A framework for supporting sustained development” on how they can better incorporate local systems thinking into policy as well as DIME (Design, Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation). Industry insider DevEx tells us "even though the agency plans to use ex-post evaluations to measure whether development projects are successful or not, these evaluations will not focus on “specific contractor performance” but instead consider the “types of approaches that contribute to more sustainable outcomes…to inform USAID’s country strategies and project design." While PVO implementing partners will not [yet?] be required to do ex-post evaluations as part of their projects, having this door cracked open is excitingly opening. Notably, it is a ‘back to the future’ moment, as 30 years ago USAID led the development world in post-project evaluations, yet in the last 24 years has done none (or at least not published any) except for the Food for Peace retrospective below, as I found in our Valuing Voices research of USAID's Development Experience Clearinghouse.
There is far more to watch. In our view, the whole development industry needs to grapple with the perceived barrier that funding ends with projects (note: a trust could be set up to document post-project impact 1, 3, 5 years later and results retained, much as 3ie does now for impact evaluations) and the view that one cannot discern attributable project impact with a time-lag of several years. Yet even the General Accounting Office is asking for longitudinal data; they reviewed USAID’s document and wants to see clear measures of success at Mission and HQ level by different indicators of local institutional sustainability and impact four years on.
Why should we care? As Chelsea Clinton of the Clinton Global Initiative puts it, "you can't measure everything, but you can measure almost everything through quantitative or qualitative means, so that we know what we're disproportionately good at. And, candidly, what we're not so good at, so we can stop doing that.
Yes! Development should be about doing more of what works, sustainably, and less of what doesn’t. USAID’s Local Systems Framework found the best could also be free, as in this one Food For Peace evaluation shows:
Returning to Chelsea Clinton, I’ll conclude by stating something obvious. She "wants to see some evidence of why we're making decisions, as opposed to the anecdotes” which is what getting post-project evaluation data from our true clients, our participants, is all about. Clinton says this will transform CGI into a smart, accountable, and sustainable support system for philanthropic disrupters around the world. USAID is radical for me, today, with their Local Systems investments… my neighborhood disrupter.
Are you such a disrupter too? Who else is one whom we can celebrate together?