Follow our path on Ex-Post Sustainability and Resilience Seasonal Joy
Rarely do we get to teach, innovate, learn, and expand a hidden corner of one’s field. This is what is I am experiencing, and the Fund is sharing. Here is the Adaptation Fund’s ex-post project evaluation of sustainability and resilience path and progress in 2021.
I am quoting liberally and highlighting our work from the Adaptation Fund’s website where their commitment to learning from what lasts is clear. “Ex post evaluations are a key element of the AF-TERG FY21-FY23 strategy and work programme, originating from the request of the Adaptation Fund Board to develop post-implementation learning for Fund projects and programmes and provide accountability of results financed by the Fund. They intend to evaluate aspects of both sustainability of outcomes and climate resilience, and over time feed into ex-post-evaluation-informed adjustments within the Fund’s Monitoring Evaluation and Learning (MEL) processes.”
How are we defining sustainability’s path to evaluate it? Here is a flowchart from our training:
There are four phases from 0 to 3:
Phase 0 Foundational Review: Not only was this work preceded by months of background research on both evaluability of their young portfolio (e.g., under 20 of the 100 projects funded were closed at least three years, a selection criteria we had) and secondary research on evidence of ex-post sustainability evaluation in climate change/ resilience across the Adaptation Fund’s sectors.
Phase 1 Framework and Pilots Shortlist: Our Phase 1 report from mid-2021 provided an overview of the first stage of ex-post evaluations, outlining methods and identifying a list of potential projects for ex-post evaluation pilots from the Fund’s 17 completed, evaluated projects. The framework presented in the report introduced possible methods to evaluate the sustainability of project outcomes, considering the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of the Fund portfolio. It also presents an analysis tool to assess climate resilience, bearing in mind that this area is pivotal to climate change adaptation yet has rarely been measured.
The Phase one report on ex post project sustainability evaluation
Vetting and pilot selection, revised design for evaluating sustained outcomes related to resilience to climate change. Key aspects are: 1) Timing (3-5 years since closure or projects at least 4 years long within the last 5 years and seasonality matches the final evaluation) and 2) Good quality of implementation and M&E with measurable outputs and outcomes traceable to impact(s) and 3) Safety to do fieldwork re: Covid, civil peace, etc.
We (my so-clever colleagues Meg Spearman and Dennis Bours) introduced a new resilience analysis tool that includes consideration of the climate disturbances, the human and natural systems (and their nexus) affected by and affecting project outcomes. This includes five characteristics of resilience in the outcomes (presence of feedback loops, at scale, plus being diverse, dynamic, and redundant) and means/actions to support outcomes. Resilience can be identified via a clear summary of the structures (S) and functions (F) that typify Resistance, Resilience and Transformation showing where a project is and is moving towards. It is a typology of resistance-resilience-transformation (RRT) onto which the overall project can be mapped based on how actions are designed to maintain or change existing structures and functions. That was integrated into the Adaptation Fund resilience evaluation approach.
Phase 2 Methods Testing and Ex-post Field-testing: Training of national evaluators and piloting two ex-post evaluations per year includes selecting among these methods to evaluate sustainability ex-post plus the RRT and resilience measures above. In the first ex-post in Samoa’s “Enhancing Resilience of Samoa’s Coastal Communities to Climate Change” (UNDP) happening December 21, it is through qualitative evaluation of wall-infrastructure. The second, Ecuador’s “Enhancing resilience of communities to the adverse effects of climate change on food security, in Pichincha Province and the Jubones River basin “(WFP) has training completed and fieldwork should be from January 22, likely be of food security assets and methods TBD.
Phase 3 Evaluations continue, with MEL Capacity Building: Two more years of ex-post pilot evaluations (2 per year) with lesson informing integration into the MEL of the Adaptation Fund. We are already finding out lessons of rigor, of knowledge management, of unexpected benefits of returning years after closure, including indications of sustainability and resilience of the assets, with much more learning to come.
Innovations include “the relative novelty of climate change adaptation portfolios and the limited body of work on ex post evaluation for adaptation, it presents possible methods that will be piloted in field-tested ex post evaluations in fiscal year 2022 (FY22).” This includes piloting shockingly rare evaluation of oft-promised resilience. In the update to AF’s Board three months ago, it transparently outlined shortlisting of five completed projects as potential candidates for the pilots, of which two projects were selected for ex post evaluations. It outlined our process of co-creating the evaluation with national partners to prioritize their learning needs while building national capacity to assess sustainability and resilience of project outcomes in the field onward.
Also, training materials for ex post pilots are being shared to foster country and industry learning, focusing on evaluating projects at ex-post and emerging sustainability and resilience, as well as presenting and adapting methods to country and project realities.
The training material for ex-post pilots
The training had three sessions (which could not have happened without colleague Caroline’s expertise):
- Part A: Understanding ex-post & resilience evaluations. Introduce and understand ex-post evaluations of sustainability and resilience, especially in the field of climate change adaptation
- Part B: Discussing country-specific outcome priorities and co-creating learning with stakeholders. Discuss the project and its data more in-depth to understand and select what outcome(s) will be evaluated at ex-post
- Part C: Developing country-specific methods and approaches. Discuss range of methods with the national evaluator and M&E experts to best evaluate the selected outcome(s) and impact(s)
Overall progress can be seen in the document updating the AF’s board: A progress update on ex post evaluations (AFB/EFC.28/Inf.4)
So in 2018 I Wished for Sustained Outcomes to be explored and in 2019 I Wished again for more Ex-post Evaluation than Needles in Haystacks. In 2021 some of these wishes are becoming fulfilled! Seasonal Happiness for me is learning about resilience to climate change, diminished vulnerability and searching for proof of sustainability and emerging outcomes and impact(s) and I am grateful to the Adaptation Fund for its commitment to sustainability.
Accompany us on this path, cheer us on, and do your own ex-post sustainability and resilience evaluations! Happy holidays from the Czech Republic!
5 Ways to Foster Sustainability and Resilience to Climate Change
by Omar Abdou, M.A. and Jindra Cekan/ova, Ph.D
In the global climate change graphic, the blue are countries that contribute very few emissions to #climatechange. They are also those who suffer the most from climate change effects and who have most #globalaid projects which are most at risk of no longer being #sustained:
Omar Abdou, a food security and M&E expert from Niger, lives a vulnerability to climate change there is indisputable. Sahelien production systems suffer the full brunt of the negative effects. Indeed, the essential rural activities, namely agriculture, and livestock which occupy at least 80% of the population, are becoming more and more uncertain as they rely on two pillars: rainfall and the exploitation of natural resources (soil, vegetation, other water sources). But, in recent decades, we have witnessed a drastic reduction in rainfall. In pastoral zones, this decrease is reflected in the degradation of the vegetation cover and the deficits in livestock-vital fodder. For instance, the fodder assessment from 2000 to 2020 for the Tahoua Region has been in deficit for 15 years. More and more recurrent and frequent crises seriously affect the main productive capital of households, which is the herd.
Emergency sales of increasingly emaciated animals at a low price are growing to pay for consumer goods and to buy fodder to feed a few animals. These are kept for breeding after the crisis, but what used to be seasonal crisis (dry-season) has become chronic.
In agro-pastoral zones, agricultural production in the rainy season, which has changed its duration and strength, becomes uncertain to feed the household members. The harvest is often exhausted at most by the 6th month of the year for many households. Thus, there is no more food surplus to supply the area’s food needs where cereals are not grown. Suddenly, cereals become expensive and inaccessible for many families. Their coping strategies are diverse but not always effective. In pastoral settings, parents are forced to take their children out of school to go further south in search of food and pasture. Sometimes more sedentary agro-pastoralist farmers pledge or sell their land to pay for food. Those left behind who have nothing to sell, are forced to cut trees and sell the wood for charcoal, further degrading the environment. Unfortunately, Niger’s neighbors are now mostly at war, so these young men run the risk of being recruited by armed groups or are killed. In these conditions, there is serious instability where the means of production (natural and human) are sold for survival and overexploited natural resources decrease. Increasingly, it is practically impossible to talk about sustainability. It is, therefore, necessary to think of consistent and innovative projects to enable households to produce sustainably while preserving the ecosystem for future generations. Outlets such as migration of the able-bodied workers to neighboring countries to provide labor in the lean season work now but are unsustainable.
Jindra notes that 31 Oct the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) begins. Climate science documents life-threatening effects such as Omar and billions of others are already experiencing around the ‘developing’ world. The IPCC Working Group report shows that “the world will probably reach or exceed 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming within just the next two decades. Whether we limit warming to this level and prevent the most severe climate impacts depends on actions taken this decade. Only with ambitious emissions cuts can the world keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, the limit scientists say is necessary for preventing the worst climate impacts. Under a high-emissions scenario, the IPCC finds the world may warm by 4.4 degrees C by 2100 — with catastrophic results.” Erratic rainfall, greater heatwaves will affect 70% of all farmers and herders who rely on rain for their production and a new report on Adaptation to climate across West African shows aridity increasing, which must inform global development.
What can we do:
1- LISTEN AND ACT GLOBALLY: There are excellent resources to track demands that the Global North divest and stop subsidizing fossil fuels. For instance, “In 2017/18, the G7 collectively spent more on fossil fuel finance than on climate finance, according to analysis by Oil Change International. They allocated nearly $40bn that year.” Hypocrisy abounds as this Climate Change News article goes on to note that “Since the Paris Agreement was signed, G20 countries’ export credit agencies have provided 14 times as much support for fossil fuels as clean energy “to $64 billion a year, and investors still prioritize profit over planet & people.
2- LISTEN AND PRIORITIZE GLOBAL SOUTH VOICES: While funding demands for over $100billion to LDCs is a demand of COP26, the need to support local research and activist organizations who show measured results is mostly missing (more from Sweden here). Other resources include WRI’s Allied for Climate Transformation by 2025 podcast series among the most Climate Change vulnerable nations. “ACT2025 consortium to ensure voices from countries most exposed to climate change are heard, empowered, mobilized, and adequately supported in international climate negotiations.“ The series includes how countries such as Niger adapt to climate change. If nothing else, consider the tragedy of the loss of $1.5 billion in aid invested in Niger, not to mention the ensuing suffering global Northern consumption is unleashing on the global South.
3- DESIGN CLIMATE SMARTLY: Global Development needs to do much more climate-smart programming as 50 years of investments in foreign aid to ‘developing’ countries has already started to be threatened. What can be done? From sequestering the carbon content of soil via farming to fostering climate-smart agriculture, which, according to the UN’s FAO means “agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, enhances resilience (adaptation), reduces/removes GHGs (mitigation) where possible, and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals”. Importantly this involves productivity plus adaptation and mitigation against changes wrought by climate change.
4- MEASURE SUSTAINABILITY: Exciting measurements are beginning! Scotland is valuing its nature, and there are calls for The Rights Of Nature In Evaluation Of Environmental Sustainability. Jindra is consulting to a wonderful team at the Adaptation Fund. We are evaluating what could be sustained, and what withstood climatic changes is ex-post project sustainability and resilience evaluation. The Adaptation Fund on evaluating projects’ longer-term (3-5 year ex-post project closure) sustainability and, importantly their resilience to climate change. We are piloting these rare kinds of evaluations in six countries, starting with Samoa and Ecuador in 2021. As the Fund has funded over 100 projects in 100 countries, with almost 30 million participants, we have a rich array to choose from. Such a learning opportunity about what lasts and has withstood disturbances is vital. As the Fund notes: “Climate change is predicted to greatly affect the poorest people in the world, who are often hardest hit by weather catastrophes, desertification, and rising sea levels, but who have contributed the least to the problem of global warming. In some parts of the world, climate change has already contributed to worsening food security, reduced the predictable availability of freshwater, and exacerbated the spread of disease and other threats to human health. Helping the most vulnerable countries and communities is an increasing challenge and imperative for the international community, especially because climate adaptation requires significant resources beyond what is already needed to achieve international development objectives.”
5- TAKE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY: For 8 years, Valuing Voices has pushed back to evaluate the ‘Sustainable Development” we have promised for 50 years. We must be accountable primarily to our participants and partners, rather than donors, and only by listening to these country nationals, we can learn what was sustained not, why or why not, and what emerged from their efforts. In 2019, we wrote all of us are accountable to improve the SDGs. It is wonderful to have climate change leading organizations invest in ex-post evaluation that adds resilience, prioritizing organizational learning and accountability. We all must increase our awareness that curb our consumption, for the sake of Niger, small island states, and many other parts of our planet can no longer stand our business-as-usual. Limiting climate change begins with us, from changing our food consumption to consumer choices to political advocacy to seeing the Earth as indivisible from us and us from the Earth. Let us start to invest in global sustainability today.
Do you see any bright spots on the horizon? Do share!
Aid providers: More puzzle pieces, including unexpected outcomes; ours is not the whole picture
When we did our first ex-post evaluation/ delayed final evaluation in 2006 in Niger for Lutheran World Relief (LWR) funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (pg75 on), we found all sorts of unexpected/ unintended outcomes and impacts that far outweighed the original aid’s expectations. The project measured success by the livelihoods rebuilding post-drought ravaged sheep herds and water points for them. Instead, while the LWR aid was beautifully based on ‘habbanaye,’ a pastoralist practice of lending or giving small-stock offspring to poorer family members (and was expanded to passing on animals to poorer community members), and results showed a majority of the poor benefitted, our respondents showed it was far more nuanced. We aid providers (and our expectations) are only a part of any ‘impact’, which needs to be defined by the communities themselves:
- While many families benefitted from the sheep, enabling some young boys to shepherd several at a time, it turns out the poorest chosen by the communities were not necessarily ones who lost small livestock during the drought but were, in fact, the ultra-poor who had never had them. Therefore, proof of successful ‘restocking’ post-drought left these poor who were helped the most, out, as they were… unexpected;
- Holding onto the donated sheep was not as important an indicator for some: one woman told us that selling her aid-received sheep to buy her daughter dowry to marry a wealthier husband was a far better investment for their financial future than the sheep would have been. Our main measure of success was not nuanced enough;
- The provision of water through well-rehabilitation and building in the five villages was a vital resource. Women reported they saved 8 hours every two days by having potable water in their villages. Before then, they spent three hours walking each way to the far-off well and waited two hours to fetch 50l water, which they head-carried back. With the well in place, they generated household income through weaving mats, cooking food for sale, etc., which amounted to as much as 20% of increased household income – a boon! Also, having both time and water access enabled them to bathe themselves and their children, make their husbands lunch, and make their mothers-in-law tea, which led to far more household harmony. No ‘impact’ measures outside of livestock and water were included or could be added;
- Finally, the resulting show-stopper: in the last village where we interviewed women participants, they said that the groups of fellow recipients were a boon for community solidarity across ethnic groups. In their meetings, thanks to the sheep, water, and collective moral support, they said the conversations turned from conflict to collaboration, and best of all, women reported, “our husbands don’t beat us anymore.” Peace among ethnic groups, within and between households was completely unexpected.
Such a highly unexpected outcome would fall under #2 and #4 of the Netherlands study below. Unfortunately, the Foundation seemed less interested in these unexpected but stellar results. Yet at the same time I have empathy for their position, as so many of us in global development want to help solve problems, and demand proof we have.…. so we can leave and help others, equally deserving. Taking complexity into account, seeing lives in a wider context where our aid can be helping differently or even harming makes garnering more aid hard.
As the brilliant Time to Listen series by CDA showed, aid intervenes in people’s lives in complex ways and we need to listen to our participants and partners who always share more complex views than our reports can honor..A few of hundreds of quotes of 6000 interviews, this from the Solomon Islands:
Some appreciate the aid as it is given:
“People in my village are very grateful for the road because now with trucks coming into our village, the women can now take their vegetables to the market. Before, the tomatoes just rotted in the gardens. Tomatoes go bad quickly and despite our attempts in the past to take them to the market to sell, we always lost.” Woman from East Malaita
But for others there are great caveats:
“Donors should send their officers to Solomon Islands to implement activities in urban and rural areas. This will help them understand the difficulties we often face with people, environment, culture, geography, etc. ‘no expectem evri ting bae stret’ [Don’t expect everything to go right].” Man, Honiara
“They have their own charters, sometimes we might want to go another way but they don’t want to touch that. So sometimes there is some conflict there; some projects are not really what we would like to address – because the donors only want to do one component, and not another, because it is sensitive, or because they want quick results and to get out.” Government official, Honiara
“What changes have I noticed since independence? Whatever development you see here is due to individual struggles. No single aid program is sustainable. NGOs are created by donors and are comfortable with who they know. NGOs eat up the bulk of help intended for the communities. NGOs become international employers. They do their own thing in our province. Most projects have no impact. I want to say stop all aid except for education and health. If international assistance concentrates on quality education and health, the educated and healthy people will take care of themselves.” Government official, Auki, Malaita
“The most important impacts of aid people do not think about – they are not listed, not planned, they are remote, but these are the longest lasting. Often they are the opposite of the stated objectives. So remote, unintended, unexpected impacts are very often more important and more lasting and more dramatic than the short term intended, measured ones.” Aid consultant, Honiara
How widespread is our myopic focus on our intended results? A recent Netherlands Foreign Aid IOB study found unintended effects were an evaluator’s blindspot as across 664 evaluations over 20 years, “The ‘text miners’ found that only 1 in 6 IOB evaluation documents pay attention to unintended effects.” This dearth of attention to all the other things happening in projects led to 10 micro, macro, meso, and multiple level effects, from negative price effects such as food aid on local food producers or nationalist backlash to Afghan projects to positive effects (they found 40% of projects had this) such as a harbor built happening to expand beach tourism as well.
But if we don’t look for such effects, we don’t know the true impact of our aid programming. We also don’t honor the breadth of people’s lives rather than just as narrow ‘aid beneficiaries’ (ugh), not even honoring them with the terms’ participants’ much less ‘partners’ in their own development).
In our ex-post work, we find a wide array of ways ownership and implementation of activities is done after donors leave and without additional or with different resources, capacities, and partnerships. Taking emerging outcomes and impacts examples from a different Niger project, and one from Nepal:
1. Partnerships & Ownership: Half of the members of the all-women Village Banks reported helping one another deal with domestic disputes and violence. (Pact/Nepal)
2. Capacities: Trained local women charged rates to sell course materials onward (PACT/Nepal)
3. Ownership: Participants valued clinic-based birthing and sustained it by introducing locally-created social punishments and incentives (CRS/Niger)
4. Resources: New Ministry funding reallocated to sustain [health] investments, and private traders generated large crop purchases and contracts (CRS/Niger)
The assets and capacities we bring to help people and their country systems help only a sliver of their lives, and often in unexpected ways that sadly we aid donors and implementers don’t seem interested in. There are other puzzle pieces to add…
Let us not forget, as a Sustainable Development Goals Evaluation colleague said in 2017 on a call:
I am sure you, my dear colleagues, have reams of similar findings from your fieldwork. Please share yours!
Donors often talk about #SustainableDevelopment, and we know they try. But do they return #expost to #evaluate it? Here are lessons from #Nordic (#Norway, #Finland, #Sweden & #Denmark) and the #Netherlands in our #ValuingVoices #WhitePapers. Let us know what you think… Thanks, Jindra & Preston Stewart..
The document(s) cover:
1) the search process,
2) how ex-post evaluations are defined and categorized,
3) what was done well by each country’s ex-posts,
4) sustainability-related findings and lessons, and
5) what M&E experts in each country can improve on ex-post evaluation practices.
6) Case studies of the Netherlands, Norway, and Finland
One big finding is that there were only 32 evaluations that seemed to be ex-post project, and only 16 of them actually were at least 2 years after project closure.
Executive Summary/ Abstract of the set of White Papers
Ex-post completion or ex-post project evaluations are surprisingly rare given widespread commitments to ‘sustainable development’. Given the well-known commitment of the Nordic countries of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark as well as the Netherlands, Valuing Voices, a consulting firm specializing in ex-post project evaluation, chose these countries as case studies. We hired an intern from Harvard College, who searched the national databases (in English only) and presented these results. The findings were surprising. There were far fewer ex-posts in total than expected. Those that were included a surprising number that was co-evaluated alongside final evaluations, although final evaluation illuminates relevance, effectiveness, efficiency (and the new OECD criteria of coherence), while ex-post project evaluation illuminates sustainability and impact two or more years after closure. There were lessons for Ministries about the searchability as well as the quality (and in the case of Denmark and in part, Sweden), the dearth of ex-posts at all. Overall, the recommendations for the five countries researched for this paper include better and more standardized definitions of ex-post project, greater absolute numbers done, transparent sharing of those done in publicly searchable manners, methodologically clear comparisons (baseline and midterm), and clarity in differentiating different evaluations.
There are caveats to these papers. This research was privately by Valuing Voices so the samples featured from the five countries were limited to public sources about ex-post and ex-post evaluations. While we reached out to Ministry evaluative staff in all countries, only two made themselves available for consultation (the Netherlands and Finland) and provided a handful of additional ex-post evaluations. This paper focuses on what such research yielded, not definitive findings of programs or multi-year country strategies that are funded for 20-30 years continuously, nor projects funded by country-level embassies which did not feature on the Ministry site. We focus on project bilateral project evaluations, not multilateral funding of sectors. We also presented these findings in a 2021 webinar, during which we received input that Sweden’s EBA has a (non-project) portfolio of ‘country evaluations’ which looked back over 10 or even 20-year time horizons.. Still, we found very few ex-post evaluations at EBA (see cite in Search, below). No input was received by Norway or Denmark.
There are four papers in this series combined in this White Paper. First, the search across databases of all five Nordics (Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark) and the Netherlands (pages 1-21). This is followed by country-specific, detailed, papers for those with ex-posts: The Netherlands (pages 22-37), Norway (pages 38-47), and Finland (pages 48-59). We look forward to your feedback. Jindra@ValuingVoices.com for the Valuing Voices team.
Let us know what you think… Thanks, Jindra & Preston Stewart
“What IS Sustainability?” It depends on whom you ask: OECD, the UN, or Harvard Business School
Recently I’ve had conversations where I had to define which sustainability we were talking about. Was it:
- ex-post-project sustainability of outcomes and impacts,
- environmental sustainability, or
- business sustainability?
Since I spend most of my time evaluating the ex-post sustained and emerging impacts of foreign aid projects years after projects close, or at least advocate for it, let’s start there.
- The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a “forum and knowledge hub for data and analysis, exchange of experiences, best-practice sharing, and advice on public policies and international standard-setting.” Regarding evaluation specifically, the OECD has “established common definitions for six evaluation criteria – relevance, coherence, effectiveness, efficiency, impact, and sustainability – to support consistent, high-quality evaluation”. Focusing on long-term sustainability, their evaluation guidance is:
Source: OECD, Better Criteria for Better Evaluation, 2019
The good news is that in this recent publication on Applying Evaluation Criteria Thoughtfully (2021), OECD keeps the updated definition but inches towards recommending actual ex-post project sustainability evaluation, rather than just projected (and assumed “likely to continue” sustainability). For this, “likely” is the most significant reason evaluators for donors and implementers have assumed, rather than evaluated, sustainability for decades. Further, positive, ‘sustained’ trajectories are also assumed at close-out/ exit, but rarely tested ex-post.
The OECD criteria give not evaluating it as an option. I far prefer “net benefits of the intervention continue” as it is a marching order: Prove that results were sustained. In this evolution, this 2021 report states, “After the completion of the intervention, and evaluation of sustainability would look at whether or not the benefits did continue, this time drawing on data and evidence from the intervention’s actual achieved benefits.”
OECD even goes on to recommend implementing and monitoring for sustainability. The new piece de resistance is: “Sustainability should be considered at each point of the results chain and the project cycle of an intervention”:
- “The sustainability of inputs (financial or otherwise) after the end of the intervention and the sustainability of impacts in the broader context of the intervention…. as well as whether there was willingness and capacity to sustain financing (resources) at the end of the intervention
- For example, an evaluation could assess whether an intervention considered partner capacities
- Built ownership at the beginning of the implementation period…. And
- In general, evaluators can examine the conditions for sustainability that were or were not created in the design of the intervention and by the intervention activities and whether there was adaptation where required.”
Yes, Valuing Voices highlighted this at the American Evaluation Association presentation “Barking up a Better Tree: Lessons about SEIE Sustained and Emerging Impact Evaluation” in 2016, and we have developed this into 2020’s Exiting for Sustainability trainings and checklists. Wonderful to see implementing for sustainability in guidance by the OECD!
Moreover, while the 2019 OECD report mentioned resilience in passing, related to sustainability, “encourages analysis of potential trade-offs, and of the resilience of capacities/ systems underlying the continuation of benefits”. Such resilience and continuation of benefits evaluation involve examining huge systems (the financial, economic, social, environmental, and institutional capacities) that projects and programs are implemented within, whose stability is needed to sustain net benefits over time. Yes, for ex-post sustainability questions for evaluators to consider should include: “To what extent did the intervention contribute to strengthening the resilience of particularly disadvantaged or vulnerable groups” on which the sustained impacts of so much of our “Leave No One Behind” myth of Sustainable Development rely.
However, OECD makes suggestions to evaluate even broader, overwhelming what is feasible: “…this involves analyses of resilience, risks, and potential trade-offs.” Whose? All stakeholders, from participants to local partners and national and international implementers, and international donors? How far back and how far forward? What a huge undertaking. Further, the OECD points evaluators to define resilience, but as I learned in my Famine Early Warning System research and a current ex-post evaluation process for the Adaptation Fund, that involves creating evaluable boundaries by determining resilient to what kinds of shocks? Vital questions current industry monitoring and evaluation budgets for all evaluations, much less (too-rare) ex-post project evaluations, are insufficient for as they hover around 3-5% of total costs.
- Slight progress at OECD is being made by acknowledging environmental sustainability first brought up by the Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future” back in 1987. This linchpin report highlighted that “critical global environmental problems were primarily the result of the enormous poverty of the South and the non-sustainable patterns of consumption and production in the North. It called for a strategy that united development and the environment – described by the now-common term “sustainable development”… that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
While an OECD brief in 2008 considers the environmental aspects of our thinking about sustainability, it argues that sustainability primarily about “using economic development to foster a fairer society while respecting ecosystems and natural resources.” The 2021 Applying Evaluation Criteria Thoughtfully rather unhelpfully mostly ignores the environment’s role in sustainability: “Confusion can arise between sustainability in the sense of the continuation of results, and environmental sustainability or the use of resources for future generations. While environmental sustainability is a concern (and maybe examined under several criteria, including relevance, coherence, impact, and sustainability), the primary meaning of the criteria is not about environmental sustainability as such; when describing sustainability, evaluators should be clear on how they are interpreting the criterion.” Given rapid climate change, I would argue that any sustained and emerging outcomes and impacts of projects that does not include an evaluation of the environmental context will fail to foster sustained resilience. Yet donors’ fixed funding timeframes that set completion to disbursement without evaluating sustainability or resilience continue to be huge barriers.
- Finally, business sustainability brings together these impacts on communities and society along with impacts on the environment. These are called ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria. A Harvard Business School brief defines sustainability as “doing business without negatively impacting the environment, community, or society as a whole. “Where applied well, the aspiration is that “beyond helping curb global challenges, sustainability can drive business success.” While Harvard Business Review highlights “What Works’ in Calculating the Value of Impact Investing, they are, like almost all of global development ‘while- we-are-there’-measures. There is one mention of ‘terminal value’, 5 years after close of ownership, and they estimate social return on investments. This is a good, step, but as insufficient as foreign aid – for these are projected, not actual results.
At Valuing Voices, we have found hopeful examples such as IKEA as well as where ‘impact investing’ hype does not match the claims. Nonetheless, increasingly businesses are trying to consider circular economy systemic principles of “economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment.” This is regenerative, aims to decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources, not generate excess waste that cannot be reused and actuals seem to be measured at least during investments. As Harvard notes, “this leads investors to look at factors such as a company’s carbon footprint, water usage (both Environment), community development efforts (Social), and board diversity (Governance).” We encourage them to measure long-term/ longitudinally. A current Harvard Business Review sobering article on the ineffectiveness so far of measuring environmental sustainability and ESG. “…reporting is not a proxy for progress. Measurement is often nonstandard, incomplete, imprecise, and misleading. And headlines touting new milestones in disclosure and socially responsible investment are often just fanciful ‘greenwishing’”.
Australia’s RMIT defines business sustainability as comprising 4 pillars: Human, Social, Economic, and Environmental which combines a) “Human sustainability focuses on the importance of anyone directly or indirectly involved in the making of products, or provision of services or broader stakeholders;… b) Social sustainability focuses on maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people;… c) Economic sustainability aims to improve the standard of living [and] the efficient use of assets to maintain company profitability over time;… d) Environmental sustainability places emphasis on how business can achieve positive economic outcomes without doing any harm, in the short- or long-term, to the environment.” But how well measured?!
Would ESG success be sustained over the long-term rather than short-term shareholder profit cycles? Will the OECD start to recommend extensive ex-post evaluation? Will they develop guidance to incorporate environmental concerns in evaluation for our common good? I do not yet know, but I implore these silos to start talking. No time to waste!
As my colleague and collaborator Susan Legro commented, we need to:
1) Continue to seek clarity and specificity in the terminology that we use, ensuring that it is clear to all stakeholders and beneficiaries; and
2) Find ways to study projects and initiatives over the longer term, which is the only way to study the designation of “sustainable” for any initiatives seeking that label.
What are your thoughts?