Sustainable Development… are we done yet?

» Posted by on Nov 19, 2013 in Africa, Bilateral organizations, Governance, Sustainability, United Nations | 5 comments

Sustainable Development… are we done yet?






The UN's Commission on Sustainable Development has just disbanded after 20 years. They have given their convening power and work to a High‐level Political Forum, saying "we must effectively use the new High‐Level Political Forum to ensure that sustainable development continues to be implemented and is integrated into the heart of the post‐2015 development agenda." 

Yes, while a few organizations have actually funded some post-project (ex-post) evaluations here and there, this idea that anyone in our industry could say "sustainable development continues to be implemented and integrated" strikes me as absurd. How many communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere feel that they are sustainably developed, that they can finally hand out gilded keys to their stunning cities and villages and never have to invite anyone in for help again?  Scant few, I'd wager (Botswana and Asian tigers notwithstanding). 

One of the fascinating findings of my preliminary research is that extremely few ex-post evaluations of sustained impact of projects are done at all, and the lions share is by some banks and multilateral organizations. While 30 years ago USAID used to fund such work, today it is UN agencies such as the OECD, the World Bank1 and World Bank2/ IMF, bilateral banks such as the European Investment Bank, IADB, a German Bank, and a few bilateral development organizations such as Japan's JICA.  Kudos to them for doing it at all, anytime. 

Why do some do it? An Australian government publication notes that:
* "Good ex post evaluation is a potentially powerful tool that can attest to the value of a reform and provide lessons for future reforms. 
* Evaluations can improve the understanding of the impacts of regulation on risk — 
both the probability of an adverse event and the impact if it arises."

This publication also states that "to be more effective, ex post evaluations need to: be resourced in advance; embed data collection where it is not otherwise available; share the findings; and include governance arrangements which support transparent process to test the findings and to encourage their use."  The bit about use is especially compelling, especially if such results are shared with all stakeholders, especially national ones- from communities involved, up to policy decision-makers. Better yet,  start discussions about sustainability with local communities to begin with, where rubber hits the road.

Unfortunately, reading some of these reports is a bit surreal; it shows how far from that end-user perspective we currently are.  While evaluators ask questions about long-term impact, questions of sustainability often remain 'within the box' of expected outcomes. Reports I have read use an external evaluator who alone assesses OECD's measures of: program relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, development impact and sustainability of the project as it was planned.  So far nothing has appeared that implies that participants themselves were asked about sustained impact, rarely are traces of anything 'outside the box' of what was planned (such as the appearance of unintended impacts), or that anything could have happened outside of the project objectives in the elapsed years post-project. This is in spite of our understanding that our world is complex and our lives and livelihoods adaptively evolve all the time in response to external economic, climatic, social opportunities and shocks.  "Sustainability" results seem to be reported as if time stopped after the end of project (often many years after the project was planned, the results framework crafted), and little evolved in these countries to affect project sustainability.

Finally, the rose-colored glasses aspect includes (the possible fiction) that those involved in the project shared the Goals and Objectives aspirations held by the donors and implementers. In my fieldwork experience, communities sometimes cannot tell one project from another unless one helps them differentiate specific resources such as wells, seeds, literacy training transferred. Nor do participants necessarily share expectations of outcomes such as they would be more drought-resilient or food-secure in the future.  In research I hope to do, I will look for how many shared expectations of impact there are, how communities evaluate long-term impact of the tangible and intangible resources that were transferred and what their perceptions of the real value of projects is, long after implementers and donors have left.


What do you think? Have you seen cases where we are doing Sustainable Development well?















  1. Such important messages here, Jindra. I especially appreciate your point that the targeted communities don’t necessarily share the same goals and objectives as the donors. The need to communicate (including LISTEN) more seems so obvious, but the donor community has never managed to clear the wax out of its ears! Or maybe it’s simply blind arrogance that’s the problem. So glad you’re shining a light on this critical issue. Keep up the good work!

    • Martha, many thanks! I think it’s the rigidity of the funding cycles that aids and abets our inability to take time to listen… or your other alternative too :)… sadly. But we’re getting there! Talking about this is helping redirect change, I hope!

  2. Great article Jindra. I especially like the whole idea of thinking outside the box even during the set evaluations and looking at what has come as a by the way but could be key to the sustainability of the initiatives

    • Wamuyu, ABSOLUTELY we need to start bringing in participants voice during set program evaluations for buy-in DURING the project and creating feedback loops of how we implemented their feedback! Absolutely unintended impacts is my next blog based on work I did in Niger w/LWR :). Thanks for your feedback!

  3. Peter Kimeu an expert development practitioner asked me to post this on his behalf:
    “The UN Commission of Sustainable Development states that they have documented success and challenges. This is great. I would like them and you to know that it will never be “sustainable development” unless they are developing “people as they developing things”. What is the use of developing the roads to highways if you are not working on the ‘drivers of the vehicles’, people continue to die.

    It will be sustainable development if the people at community level are involved in designing and delivering their own dreams of development, and it can only be development if the current state of affairs involves the local people to identify where they are at with development, and when fully developed what the situation will be like, and finally identify priorities to get to that ‘developed status’ with the people. You cannot set your own examination, take the examination and mark it. Then you cry out success or failure. The community will just ‘look at you’ and wonder what is the issue.

    Market yourself appropriately to do evaluation of CSD and other UN PVOs who will use the results to inform their political call.

    Finally they ‘know and we know ” peoples development ” has never been their agenda. It MUST be what you will want to evaluate, I wonder how if not designed in their programs.”

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