Sustainable Development Goals and Foreign Aid–
How Sustainable and Accountable to Whom?
Jindra Cekan, PhD of ValuingVoices
World leaders will paint New York City red next week at the UN Summit adopting the new post-2015 development agenda. The agreed plans set 17 new ‘Sustainable’ Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. These are successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
While many of us have heard of them, how many of us know whether we met them and what prospects are there for the Sustainable Development Goals to do well or better? According to Bill Gates the MDGs were “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I have ever seen.” The Brookings Institute goes on to praise the eight MDG targets for aiming high by setting targets such as halving world poverty and reducing child mortality, improving universal primary education and gender equality and empower women etc. . Donor countries pledged three times more than they had until that time (raising the percentage of gross national income for international development assistance from 0.2% to 0.7%, not huge amounts but laudable). From 2000 to 2015 extreme poverty did fall by half (although some argue China and Asia were well on their way before this aid came) and in some countries (Senegal, Cambodia) child deaths fell by half. Global health improved via huge coalitions on immunization and HIV/AIDS. Yet while poverty dropped and health increased, hunger, environment and sanitation targets were not met, for instance, and there are 850 million people still hungry worldwide (11% of all people) . Yet gains far outweigh losses. The new Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved in 15 years, by 2030. The UN and member nations will track a remarkable 169 indicators, “monitoring progress towards the SDGs at the local, national, regional, and global levels… 
Overall, one would feel rather tickled by these results — not 100% but still amazing given global disparities. Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development thinks measurement is not the goal: “Growing global interconnectedness means that the problems the world faces, that hold back development, are increasingly shared… we’re making a promise to ourselves that we are one world, one planet, one society, one people, who look out for each other…” 
But I’m a fan of measurable results, I must admit. One would logically think that our international development projects funded by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDS), the Millennium Challenge Corporation and others could outline how the caused the good results that some MDGs showed. USAID’s website links its work to the MDGs clearly: “in September 2010, President Obama called for the elevation of development as a key pillar of America’s national security and foreign policy. This set forth a vision of an empowered and robust U.S. Agency for International Development that could lead the world in solving the greatest development challenges of our time and, ultimately, meet the goal of ending extreme poverty in the next generation” . It goes on to talk about work to “Promote sustainable development through high-impact partnerships and local solutions“ . USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service states their “non-emergency food aid programs help meet recipients’ nutritional needs and also support agricultural development and education. These food assistance programs, combined with trade capacity building efforts, support long-term economic development” . Finally, MCC states they are “committed to delivering results throughout the entire lifecycle of its investments. From before investments begin to their completion and beyond… MCC’s continuum of results is designed to foster learning and accountability” .
Maybe. We don’t actually know because 99% of the time we never return to projects after they end to learn how sustainable they actually were. We could be fostering super-sustainability. Or not.
For international development programming works on 1-5 year programming cycles. Multi-million dollar project requests for proposals are designed and sent out by these funders to non-profit or for-profit implementers. These are awarded to one or more organization, quite rigorously monitored, and most have very good results. Then they end. Since 2000, the US Agency for International Development has spent $280 billion on country-to-country development and humanitarian aid projects as well as funding multilateral aid and in spite of much work evaluating the final impact of projects at the end, they never go back . The EU has spent a staggering $1.4 trillion. USAID has funded one evaluation that has gone back to see what communities and partners could sustain… in the last 30 years, and that is about to be published. A handful of international non-profits have taken matters in their own hands and funded such studies privately. The EU’s track record is even more dismal, with policies being proposed but not done . The World Bank, which has funded over 12,000 projects has an independent evaluation arm, the Independent Evaluation Group. They returned after projects closed out to evaluate results only 33 times and we found only three of them systematically talked to project participants about what was sustained.
The bottom line is, how do we know anything we’ve done in international development or SDGs is sustainable unless we go back to see? What amazing or awful results must we know for future design? If we do not return, are we really accountable to our taxpayers and our real clients: the participants and the national countries foreign aid recipients themselves?
The UN has pledged to have an SGD report card to “measure progress towards sustainable development and help ensure the accountability of all stakeholders for achieving the SDGs….[and a] Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, to help drive the Data Revolution….by using data we can ensure accountability for the policies that are implemented to reduce global and local inequities” . I completely agree that having citizen generated data at the local, national, regional, and global levels is so very important “to fill gaps in our knowledge, establish global norms and standards and…help countries develop robust national strategies for data development.” And as the World Bank IEG’s Caroline Heider states, measuring them is complex (e.g. agriculture affected by climate change and measuring changes across sectors is hard) but worthwhile .
While SDG data tells us what donor-funded activities and policies work, very few in international development know how sustainably our programming works for our ultimate clients, our participants and partners. And the price needn’t be high—a recent post-project evaluation we did cost under $120,000 which is a pittance given the project cost over $30 million and reached 500,000 folks. We found clear (mostly successful) lessons. USAID has, after 30 years, funded one post-project evaluation that also has clear cost-effective lessons (forthcoming). Really, in this era of cost-effectiveness, don’t we want data on what worked best (Note to self: do that more) and what worked least (Note to self: stop doing that)?
Learning what participants and partners could self-sustain after we left is actually all we should care about. They want to get beyond aid. Shouldn’t we know if we are getting them there? Self-sustainability of outcomes is a clear indicator of good Return on Investment of our resources and expertise and their time, effort and expertise. It shows us we want to put ourselves out of a job, having built country-led development that really has a future in-country with their own resources.
Two steps are:
1) Donors to add a funding equivalent to 1% of program value for five years after closeout for all projects over $10 million to support local capacity-building of NGOs and national partners to take over implementation plus to evaluate lessons across different sector’s sustainability outcomes.
2) A cross-donor fund for country-led analysis of such learning plus lessons for what capacity needs to be built in-country to take over programming. This needs support from regionally-based knowledge repositories and learning centers in Africa, Asia, etc. Online and tangible centers could house both implementer reports/ evaluations and analyze/ share lessons learned across sectors and countries from post-project evaluations for projects that closed out 2-7 years ago for future design.
Now that is accountability. Let’s advocate for sustainability funding, data and learning now.
What are your suggestions? How can we improve sustainability?
 McArthur, J. (2013, February 21). Own the Goals: What the Millennium Development Goals Have Accomplished. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/articles/own-the-goals-what-the-millennium-development-goals-have-accomplished/
 End Poverty 2015 Millennium Campaign. (n.d.). MDG 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger. Retrieved from https://www.endpoverty2015.org/mdg-success-stories/mdg-1-end-hunger/
 Sharma, S. (2015, August 20). From Aspirations to Reality: How to Effectively Measure the Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/measuring-the-peoples-age_b_7999640
 Mirchandani, R. (2015, September 22). Does It Matter If We Don’t Achieve the SDGs? A New Podcast with Nancy Birdsall and Michael Elliott. Retrieved from https://www.cgdev.org/blog/does-it-matter-if-we-dont-achieve-sdgs-podcast-nancy-birdsall-and-michael-elliott
 USAID. (n.d.). USAID Forward. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/usaidforward/usaid-forward-2014-archive
 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (n.d.). Food Assistance. Retrieved from https://www.fas.usda.gov/topics/food-assistance
 Millennium Challenge Corporation. (n.d.). Our Impact. Retrieved 2016, from https://web.archive.org/web/20160325135258/https://www.mcc.gov/our-impact
 Cekan, J. (2015, March 13). When Funders Move On. Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/when_funders_move_on
 Global Issues. (n.d.). Foreign Aid for Development Assistance: Foreign Aid Numbers in Charts and Graphs. Retrieved from https://www.globalissues.org/print/article/35#globalissues-org
 Florio, M. (2009, November/December). Sixth European Conference on Evaluation of Cohesion Policy: Getting Incentives Right — Do We Need Ex Post CBA? Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/archive/conferences/evaluation2009/abstracts/florio.doc
 Heider, C. (2015, September 15). Evaluation Beyond 2015: Implications of the SDGs for Evaluation. Retrieved from https://ieg.worldbankgroup.org/blog/evaluation-beyond-2015-implications-sdgs-evaluation