Valuing Voices Better Ex-Post Evaluation White Paper: Nordics & the Netherlands

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

“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:

  1. ex-post-project sustainability of outcomes and impacts,
  2. environmental sustainability, or
  3. 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.

  1. 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”:

  1. “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
  2. For example, an evaluation could assess whether an intervention considered partner capacities
  3. Built ownership at the beginning of the implementation period…. And
  4. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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?

 

Reblog USAID’s Unpacking the Drivers of WASH Sustainability

Reblog Unpacking the Drivers of WASH Sustainability

In Nov 2019 I highlighted several water/ sanitation/ hygiene ex-posts happening at USAID’s E3 Water Bureau. They’ve just come up with a synthesis, which is important, both in learning and transparency for accountability. Kudos! My only quibble is that we don’t know the full scale after only 6 very different ex-posts.

The authors Jones & Jordan’s overview: In its evaluation series, USAID looked back at the results of six water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) activities to inform future USAID investments in the sector and to better understand the long-term impact and sustainability of its interventions several years after projects close. Here: https://www.globalwaters.org/resources/blogs/unpacking-drivers-wash-sustainability

The water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) Ex-Post Evaluation Series represents a key milestone in the Agency’s ongoing quest to unpack the drivers of sustainability within our WASH programs. The commitment, made in the first USAID Water & Development Strategy (2013–2018), came in the wake of headlines about high rates of nonfunctional water systems in partner countries where USAID has long invested. At that time, many governments and development partners were grasping for similar answers, and a number of sustainability assessment tools emerged. For its part, the Agency pursued a multi-pronged approach that focused on: 1) measuring progress towards sustainable outcomes (such as through the development and application of the Sustainability Index Tool with Rotary International); 2) gaining a better understanding of the drivers of long-term outcomes through this WASH Ex-Post Evaluation Series; and 3) testing new ideas, approaches, and tools to strengthen the local systems that can deliver WASH service sustainability through the Sustainable WASH Systems (SWS) Learning Partnership.

The Agency, together with its development partners, has achieved staggering results in terms of delivering first-time water and sanitation access to people the world over. Since 2013, USAID has helped roughly 25 million people gain access to at least basic drinking water services and 18 million people gain access to at least basic sanitation. Together with partners, USAID has mobilized almost $100 million in new funding for the sector and supported nearly 17,000 communities become open defecation free.

Yet the results of this ex-post series are sobering. Despite tremendous achievements within the life of our programs, they have largely not endured. This is especially the case in countries and communities with the highest levels of poverty at baseline, where the Agency’s resources are needed the most. Rural water systems that, at activity close, delivered safe water to households have fallen into disrepair. Basic latrine ownership and use have dwindled. Communities certified as open-defecation free are backsliding, and gains in handwashing have not been sustained.

The series did reveal some programming bright spots. Where USAID invested in providing technical assistance to committed government partners and utilities, gains in service provision and local capacity were sustained, with local actors taking up and expanding upon best practices introduced during activity implementation. Often these successes endured in countries and communities that had higher levels of capacity at the outset. However, the successes in these contexts demonstrate important lessons about investing time and resources into partnering with local institutions and focusing on plans for management of services, not just first time access.

In the course of the roughly 15 intervening years since most of the activities evaluated in this series were designed, the sector has evolved. For instance, in resource-constrained environments, the sector is now coalescing around facilitating the development of professionalized support to community-managed rural water schemes in various forms, rather than expecting voluntary committees to manage essential services alone. Additional approaches beyond community-led total sanitation, including smart subsidies and market-based sanitation, are seen as necessary to move households up the sanitation ladder, and are being applied through USAID programming. And the Agency is shifting its WASH social and behavior change programming to more holistic approaches that address emotional drivers, convenience, and social norms to modify intractable behaviors rather than communication or health promotion alone. The WASH Ex-Post Evaluation Series validates why those shifts were essential.

All those with a stake in promoting lasting development gains in the sector need to internalize these findings and take a long look in the mirror. USAID has and is seeking to do better. First, under the USAID Water and Development Plan (2018–2022) in support of the Global Water Strategy, USAID codified its commitment to sustainability with the goal of increasing the availability and sustainable management of safe water and sanitation, and an emphasis on improving the underlying governance, finance, and management of water resources that underpin sustainability. Second, the Agency has issued a set of technical briefs that provide new guidance on important topics for developing and implementing WASH activities, as well as recommendations for activity design, implementation, and monitoring. Third, USAID has launched the Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene Implementation Research Agenda that identifies and prioritizes sector-specific research questions to close lingering evidence gaps directly related to accomplishing USAID’s goal of increasing access to sustainable water and sanitation services. Finally, the Agency is rethinking its approach to sector targets and key performance indicators in its solicitations, recognizing that targets can cause perverse incentives to undermine sustainability from the outset. Doing so underscores the Agency’s commitment to sustainability and its willingness to be held accountable to deliver against those results.

For more information, take a look at the full evaluation or access other ex-post evaluations on Globalwaters.org.

By Abigail Jones and Elizabeth Jordan, Water and Sanitation Specialists, USAID Center for Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene

 

Reblog Ex-post Eval Week: Measuring sustainability post-program –go in and stay for the learning! By Holta Trandafili

Ex-post Eval Week: Measuring sustainability post-program –go in and stay for the learning! By Holta Trandafili

 Holta Trandafili
Holta Trandafili

Greetings, I am Holta Trandafili, a researcher and evaluator captivated by sustainability theories and the sustainment of results. I believe that a thoughtful, systematic inquiry of what happens after an intervention ends adds value to what we know about sustainability. Since 2015 I have co-led ten post-program evaluations (also known as ex-posts) in Uganda, Kenya, Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar, and Bolivia. Their findings point to questions and issues of theory, measurement, and sustainability expectations relevant to any program:

  • To what do we compare results to judge success? Is it that 60% of community groups or water points being operational three years after closeout a good result? Should it be 87% or 90%? Why? Should we use the end-line as the measuring yardstick, especially as contexts change? Whose view of success counts?
  • How long should we expect results, or community groups left behind, or activities to continue post-program? Two or ten years or Forever? Why?
  • Is going back once enough to make a judgment on sustainability? What would we find if we went back in 2020 where we evaluated ex-post in 2015 or even 2019?

Lessons Learned: Here are my reflections and resources on sustainability:

To the enthusiastic evaluators ready to start ex-posts

  • Lesson learned: Organizations often carry out ex-posts for accountability. However, greater wealth lays in learning. Make learning part of your evaluation objectives. It took my organization 5 years from the first ex-post to have more open conversations and share our sustainability learning on what to improve: how we design, transition, and measure programs’ impact. Now we are genuinely more accountable.
  • Get involved: Don’t lose heart if your first ex-posts prove difficult to conduct or have mixed results or unearth new questions and insights on sustainability. You are not alone. Find another evaluator that has gone through an ex-post experience and ask them to write a blog, present at a conference, write guidelines, attend a course, or merely meet to vent and dream.

To those already fighting to mainstream ex-post measurement in their organizations or their clients

Hot Tips:

  • Mainstreaming ex-post evaluations is commendable for any institution. In this process we should start making the case to pilot longitudinal ex-post measurements (i.e., going back not once but several points in time). We can truly unpack the issues of temporality and longevity for sustainment of results. See JICA’s example on ex-post monitoring.
  • Invest in theory-driven evaluations like Realist Evaluation to unpack the hidden mechanisms behind which different types of outcomes are sustained, asking: among whom, in what contexts, how, why?

Rad Resources:

ReBlog Ex-post Eval Week: Evaluating Peace for Sustainability by Peter Kimeu Ngui

Reblog Ex-post Eval Week: Evaluating Peace for Sustainability by Peter Kimeu Ngui

Peter Kimeu Ngui
Peter Kimeu Ngui

Peace is with you. My name is Peter Kimeu Ngui, the Founder and CEO of Decent Living Institute of Organic Farming with extensive experience on reflective peace and partnership building in Africa.

Is there anything like a ‘just world’? Can peace be ‘sustainable’? These two closely related questions must be in mind of evaluators of peace for sustainability in a community long after the funding expires. According to Catholic Relief Services’ Justice Lens, three key conditions that must exist in the vision of a just world and used by all sustainable peace evaluators.:

(1) sustainable right relationship for all humanity and nature

(2) the transformation of injustices in society, structures and policies with

(3) fairness of rights and responsibilities for sustained peace to all creation

The process of reflective peace building evaluation, including participatory creation of sustainability indicators demands a collaborative effort by all the stakeholders. This includes victims, perpetrators, peace builders/ advocacy agents who are necessary to establish and maintain a just environment.

Step one of the process involves reflecting on eight keys principles drawn from Pope Francis’ letter that awaken the conscience and human rights standards which fit into an acronym (CORDSSSS) for easy remembrance; Common Good, Option for the Poor, Rights and Responsibilities, Dignity and Equality, Social nature, Subsidiarity, Stewardship and Solidarity. Each team reflects on:

  • the definition of each principle
  • discussing what their world would be like if the principle was fully lived
  • what would be sustainable peace indicators (e.g. Increased peaceful resolutions administered by the community; peaceful co-existence by people in violent conflicts; reduced rape)
  • what needs to be different in the world (location) they live in?

Step two of the process is scenario building using the Appreciative Inquiry method that engages the participants in the evaluation. This involves finding out what:

  • sustainable values, customs, and traditions
  • policies and structures/ institutions exist in the community that promote/ advocate, promote, establish and maintain, monitor, and evaluate for sustainable peace building
  • the participants are led to dreaming of a just environment in their community and what needs be improved and put in place for this scenario to be realized.

Lessons Learned:

The evaluation teams are always and immediately energized to pursue the best scenario for peacebuilding, using the resources locally available.  The reflective peacebuilding process engages participants on real issues that directly affects the community, that the community is fears, worries, concerned with and they are immediately empowered with knowledge, using familiar traditional approach to resolve the violent conflict, and they self-discover that power to transform is with those engaged in the conflict.

The possibility of a just world becomes a reality amassing greater numbers of individuals to work for peace and work through these processes.

Lessons learned are self-created from local case study evaluation processes and appeal greatly to most of the community members

Rad Resources: