Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Funding and Accountability for sustainable projects?
What are Sustainable Development Goals? ” the United Nations adopted the new post-2015 development agenda. The new proposals – to be achieved by 2030- set 17 new ‘sustainable’ development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. Some, like Oxfam, see the SDGs as a country budgeting and prioritization as well as an international fundraising tool. They cite that “government revenue currently funds 77% of spending…aligned with government priorities, balanced between investment and recurrent and easy to implement than donor-funded spending…” National investments are vital, but how much has the world used the SDGs to target investments and foster sustainable results?
Using results data such as that of the sectoral SDGs, countries can also ensure accountability for the policies implemented to reduce global and local inequities, but we must learn from the data. Over halfway to the goal, data is being collected, and while there is robust monitoring by countries who have built their M&E systems, other countries are faltering. “A recent report by Paris21 found even highly developed countries are still not able to report more than 40-50% of the SDG indicators” and “only 44% of SDG indicators have sufficient data for proper global and regional monitoring”. Further, there is very little evaluation or transparent accountability. Some of the data illuminate vitally need-to-know-for-better-programming. SDG data shows good news that Western and Asian countries have done better than most of the world 2015-19… but there is a lot of missing data while other data shows staggering inequities such as these:
- In Vietnam, a child born into the majority Kinh, or Viet, ethnic group is three and a half times less likely to die in his or her first five years than a child from other Vietnamese ethnic groups.
- In the United States, a black woman is four times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman.
So are we using the SDG data to better target funding and improve design? This is the kind of evaluative learning (or at least sharing by those that are doing it :)) that is missing. As my colleague and friend Sanjeev Sridharan writes on Rethinking Evaluation, “As a field we need to more clearly understand evaluation’s role in addressing inequities and promoting inclusion” including “Promoting a Culture of Learning for Evaluation – these include focus on utilization and integration of evaluation into policy and programs.” How well learning is integrating is unknown.
As a big picture update on the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2021, with only nine years left to the goal: It’s not looking good. The scorecards show COVID-19 has slowed down or wiped out many achievements, with 100 million people pushed into extreme poverty, according to the IMF. Pre-Covid, our blog on sectoral SDG statistics on health, poverty, hunger, and climate, was already showing very mixed results and a lack of mutual accountability.
The private sector is ever-being pushed to fund more of such development costs, only marginally successfully, as public sector expenditures are squeezed. Yet the G20 estimates that $2.5 TRILLION is needed every year to meet the SDG goals. As we have seen at Impact Guild, the push to incentivize private commitments is faltering. “To ensure its sustainability, the private sector has specific interests in securing long-term production along commodity supply chains, while reducing their environmental and social impacts and mitigating risks… The long-term economic impacts of funding projects that support the sustainability agenda are, thus, clearly understood. However, additional capital needs to flow into areas that address the risks appropriately. For example, much remains to be done to factor climate change as a risk variable into emerging markets that face the largest financing gap in achieving the SDGs.” Further, if decreased funding trends continue, by 2030, at minimum 400 million people will still live on less than $1.25 a day; around 650 million people will be undernourished, and nearly 1 billion people will be without energy access. So we’re not meeting the SDGs, they’re being derailed by COVID in places, and we aren’t beginning to cost out the need to address climate change and its effects on global development…. so now what?
To ensure that giving everyone a fair chance in life is more than just a slogan; accountability is crucial. This should include a commitment from world leaders to report on progress on “leaving no one behind” in the SDG follow-up and review framework established for the post-2015 agenda and for the private sector to loudly track their investments across the SDGs. For as The Center for American Progress wrote, money and results are key: We must “measure success in terms of outcomes for people, rather than in inputs—such as the amount of money spent on a project—as well as in terms of national or global outcomes” and that “policymakers at the global level and in each country should task a support team of researchers with undertaking an analysis of each commitment.”
A further concern. While we seem to measure the statistics periodically and see funding allocated to SDG priorities, but there are few causal links drawn between intensity in investment in any SDG goal and sustained results. To what degree are the donations/ investments into the SDGs linked to improvements? Without measuring causality or attribution, it could be a case of “A rising tide lifts all boats” as economies improve or, as Covid-related economic decline wiped out 20 years of development gains as Bill Gates noted last year. We need proof that trillions of dollars of international “Sustainable development” programs have any sustained impact beyond the years of intervention.
We must do more evaluation and learn from SDG data for better targeting of investments and do ex-post sustainability evaluations to see what was most sustained, impactful, and relevant. Donors should raise more funds to meet needs and consider only funding what could be sustained locally. Given the still uncounted demands on global development funding, we can no longer hope or wait for global mobilization of trillions given multiple crises pushing more of the world into crisis. Let’s focus now.
Sustaining “Sustainable Development”?
As a global development industry, we have almost no evidence of how (un)sustained the outcomes or impacts of 99% of our projects because we have never returned to evaluate them. But from early indications based on the ex-posts, we have evaluated 2-20 years after donor departure it is, learning from what was and was not sustained is vital before replication and assuming sustainability. Most results taper off quite quickly, showing 20-80% decreases as early as two years post-closure and donor exit. A few cases of good news also appear, but more trajectories falter and fail than rise or remain. Sustainability, then, is not a yes-no answer, but a how much, yet too few ask… hence if they were, resilient, they are less so, or even not at all, now.
At Valuing Voices we focus on the sustainability of projects after external support ends. Still, those projects are also dependent on the viability of the environment in which they are based. As Andy Rowe, an evaluator on the GEF’s Adaptation Fund board, noted at IDEAS’ Conference in Prague late 2019 , a need for sustainability-ready evaluation to help us know how viable the resources are on which so many of our projects rest . He states, “the evaluation we have today treats human and natural systems as unconnected and rarely considers the natural system”. He goes on to differentiate between biotic natural capital (air, water, plants, and trees) and abiotic natural capital sources (fossil fuels, minerals, and metals, wind, and solar).
How much are projects designed assuming those resources are and will remain plentiful? How often do we evaluate how much our projects drain or rely on these environmental elements? Many projects are required to do environmental compliance and safeguarding against damage at project onset . Others, such as agriculture and natural resource management or water/ sanitation, often focus on improving the environment on which those activities rely, e.g., improving soil or terrain (e.g., terraces, zais), planting seedlings, and improving access to potable water for humans and animals. Still, many projects ‘assume’ inputs like rainfall, tree cover, solar power, or do not consider the sustainability of natural resources for the communities in which they intervene. Examples are both those that rely on natural systems as well as those supposedly beyond them, e.g., enterprise development, education, safety nets, etc. Yet many enterprises, schools, safety nets do rely on a. viable environment in which their participants trade, learn, and live, and all are subject to the growing climate change disruptions.
Why is this urgent? The OECD/DAC reminds us that “Natural assets represent, on average 26% of the wealth of developing countries compared to 2% in OECD economies” . Unless we protect them and address the demand for natural resources, demand will far outstrip supply. “By 2030, an additional 1 billion people are expected to live in severely water-stressed areas, and global terrestrial biodiversity is expected to decline an additional 10%, leading to a loss of essential ecosystem services. By 2050, growing levels of dangerous air emissions from transport and industry will increase the global number of premature deaths linked to airborne particulate matter to 3.6 million people a year, more than doubling today’s levels. Failure to act could also lead to a 50% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and global mean temperature increases of 3-6°C by the end of the century, in turn contributing to more severe and sometimes more frequent natural disasters… [so] reconciling development with environmental protection and sustainable resource management is broadly agreed as a central concern for the post-2015 development agenda.”
When we return to projects that are a mix of behavior change and environment, we find a wide range of results:
- Some projects, such as JICA Vietnam’s water supply and irrigation infrastructure reached 80% of the final results two years later . And while the pilot projects were worse off (as low as 28% of irrigated hectares), longer-standing projects sustained as much as 72% of final results. While such agricultural development assumes continued water supply and access, does it evaluate it? No.
- Some can define what ex-post lessons are more narrowly as functioning mechanisms: New ex-posts of water/ sanitation showed better – but still mixed results, such as USAID Senegal’s . “While a majority (63 percent) of the water points remained functional, the performance varied significantly based on the technology used. Of the different technologies, the Erobon rope pumps performed poorly (27 percent functional), while the India Mark (74 percent functional) and mechanized pumps (70 percent functional) performed the best.”
- Some projects that include environmental considerations illustrate our point by only focusing on behavior change as this sanitation/ hygiene ex-post from Madagascar did, where results fell off precipitously three years ex-post but without considering water supply or quality much .
- There can be useful learning when one combines an evaluation of both types of sustainability (ex-post and environmental). A JICA irrigation project in Cambodia shows that when irrigation canals were mostly sustained over the five-years ex-post, they could serve increasing needs for land coverage and rice production . The area of irrigated fields at the national level in 2010 reached the target, and the irrigated field area has since continued to increase in most areas. Even the largest drop [in area irrigated] post-closure was only 11%. They reported that the unit yield of rice at the end-line survey in 2012 at 11 sites was 3.24t/ha (average) versus 3.11t/ha of unit yield of rice at the ex-post evaluation in 2017, which [almost] maintains the 2012 level. The ex-post showed that “continuous irrigation development in the said site can be considered as the main reason for the increase in land area. Securing an adequate amount of water is an important factor in continuously improving rice productivity.” The research also found that 81% of agricultural incomes as a result of the irrigation had increased, 11% stayed the same, and 8% had decreased. Again, this looks to be among the most resilient projects that, based on ex-post research, included environment which was also found to be as resilient as the livelihoods it was fostering.
- Sometimes more bad than good news is important when tracking environment and ex-post sustainability: Food for the Hungry, ADRA, and CARE Kenya found that unreliable water supply reduced the motivation to pay for water, threatening the resources to maintain the system . What improved prospects of sustainability understand why communities could not sustain water and sanitation results based on willingness-to-pay models, as well as water being unavailable. Further, a lesson the organizations ideally learned was that “gradual exit, with the opportunity for project participants to operate independently prior to project closure, made it more likely that activities would be continued without project support.” So the question remains, what was learned by these organizations to avoid similar bad results and improve good, resilient results in similar circumstances?
Neither sustainability nor environmental quality can be assumed to continue nor to have positive results. Both are extensively under-evaluated, and given climate change disruptions, and this must change. Rowe concludes: “Climate change is a major threat to the long-term sustainability both attacking the natural systems (e.g. lower rainfall or higher floods, worse soil quality, increasing pests attacking crops, disappearing fish stocks, microplastics in our air and water, increasing sea levels from melting glaciers, worsening public health etc.) and destabilizining our Earth’s regenerative capacity. Fortunately, technical barriers do not prevent us from starting to infuse sustainability into evaluation; the barriers are social and associated with the worldview and vision of evaluation.”
 IDEAS 2019 Global Assembly. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://2019.global-assembly.org/
 Rowe, A. (2019). Sustainability‐Ready Evaluation: A Call to Action. New Directions for Evaluation, 162, 29-48. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333616139_Sustainability-Ready_Evaluation_A_Call_to_Action
 USAID. (2013, October 31). Environmental Compliance Procedures. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/our_work/environment/compliance/pdf/216
 OECD. (2015). Element 4, Paper 1: Global and local environmental sustainability, development and growth. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/dac/environment-development/FINAL%20POST-2015%20global%20and%20local%20environmental%20sustainability.pdf
 Haraguchi, T. (2017). Socialist Republic of Viet Nam: FY 2017 Ex-Post Evaluation of Japanese ODA Loan Project “Small-Scale Pro Poor Infrastructure Development Project (III)”. Retrieved from https://www2.jica.go.jp/en/evaluation/pdf/2017_VNXVII-5_4.pdf
 Coates, J., Kegode, E., Galante, T., & Blau, A. (2016, February). Sustaining Development: Results from a Study of Sustainability and Exit Strategies among Development Food Assistance Projects: Kenya Country Study. USAID. Retrieved from https://www.globalwaters.org/resources/assets/ex-post-evaluation-senegal-pepam
 Madagascar Rural Access To New Opportunities For Health And Prosperity (RANO-HP) Ex-Post Evaluation. (2017, June 1). USAID. Retrieved from https://www.globalwaters.org/resources/assets/madagascar-rural-access-new-opportunities-health-and-prosperity-rano-hp-ex-post-0
 Kobayashi, N. (2017). Kingdom of Cambodia: FY2017 Ex-Post Evaluation of Technical Cooperation Project: “Technical Service Center for Irrigation System Project – Phase 2 / The Improvement of Agricultural River Basin Management and Development Project (TSC3)”. Retrieved from https://www2.jica.go.jp/en/evaluation/pdf/2017_0900388_4.pdf
There are six bright Hallelujahs on the sustained impact journey this Holiday. I’ve paired each of them by a wish, so appropriate this Holiday Season.
1. Netherlands Greatness! The government of theNetherlands has recently started talking with their implementing agencies about how to track and prove sustainability six years after exit, as one Dutch colleague told me at the European Evaluation Society Conference this Oct.
As we know, demanding evaluation of sustainability after project closure is rarer than vegan turkey on Thanksgiving, and the Dutch Ministry of ForeignAffairs is tacking the issues of a) how will they pay for it after project funding has ended (hint: see 3ie), b) how will the data disseminated and influence which decision-makers? Note: Japan’s development agency JICA is the only other bilateral to have this as a mandated aspect of their ongoing evaluations. We congratulate the Dutch for joining Japan in sustained impact evaluation leadership!
My Wish: For the other bilaterals and multilaterals for whom such evaluations are exotically occasional learnings to see the value from learning about the successes and failures of how(un)sustained your results are. Also to fund such evaluations for at least 10% of all programming per year, and do better programming focused on helping locals sustain the results they want. See, that wasn’t such a huge wish was it?
2. USAID Transformation to Self-Resilience is a promising analysis USAID is doing under the leadership of AdministratorMark Green. This Transformation “Journey to Self-Reliance” is “reorienting the way it does business to focus on supporting our partner countries… to solve their own development challenges.” It consists of a variety of policies, from using more private sector money for development to two exit-related initiatives including Financing Self-Reliance “to strengthen support for our host country partners in their efforts to finance their own development journey”and includes continuing to build local capacity and Partnering and Procurement such as using adaptive approaches and “principles of supporting locally-led development and long-term sustainability.”
Will USAID really follow the SDG aim to Leave No one Behind in terms of focusing on the poor? Metrics of USAID’s Country Roadmaps, range from national economic growth and democracy/governance to sectoral measures in health, food security etc. Maybe this is not just a way to use national data to justify exit of aid programs due to shrinking funding, but instead is a way for USAID to determine who is actually self-reliant among their recipient countries and focus more resources on those who aren’t on more needs-based criteria than politically strategic bases than in the past.Maybe it will look hard at assumptions rather than Uganda’s CDCS which projects sustainability in 30 years but will program on until then. OXFAM’sAid Localization may be a better, faster route.
My Wish: that bilateral donors like USAID test how well their current aid projects support self-reliance and how well they’re furthering sustainability. This includes learning what has been self-sustained and not renewing what hasn’t. We offer our database of 25 catalytic organizations’ ex-post project evaluations at Valuing Voices which were informed by local voices of our participants and partners. These fascinating evaluations need to inform new programming as sustainability is only high occasionally, unlike what we assume. We ask commissioners of such evaluations to tell us what they have learned and how they have done things differently (e.g. have they funding differently, chosen what projects are selected as implementers differently, and while adaptive monitoring is a terrific addition, how has evaluation changed -other than pending OECD DAC Criteria and Ofir’s blog commentary plus the WorldBank’s sustainability blog) and how has exit, sustainability planning and handover to national government using data about sustainability and impact changed and people really can sustain themselves? NOTE: this may lead to less money being spent over a longer time, more flexibly and locally-directed. We donor nations may benefit less as locals take their own ‘development’ in hand. Hallelujah.
3. Recently I did a webinar for InterAction webinar with dear sustained impact aficionados from Catholic Relief Services and World Vision on “How Sustained and Resilient are our Impacts?” Lessons about accountability for locally sustainable development was front and center. We all shared that ex-posts project evaluations have, shall we say, mixed results of success and failure. This can be difficult for agencies to absorb as the projects selected are not only typically selected to showcase success, but normally these are selected to be showcased as the best projects. Also, unsustained results can question the quality of funder’s design the agency’s and implementation, risking reputation and funding for both. But hiding failure is worse. A recent Evidence Action statement admitting failure of a promising intervention, promising to evaluate why and learn from it only gained kudos. Conversely, great results can show where future focus could be, or much can be (rightly?) attributed to unexpected new conditions which led it in very different directions.
My Wish: My CRS colleague was challenged by a younger American colleague who asked him “are we liable if we don’t deliver sustainable development?” Astonished, he answered “yes.”. Let’s get over our infallibility and inclination to promise something only the countries themselves can deliver. Yes, we are liable for wasting money and locals time and hopes. Yes, we can claim success when partnerships go well. May we all learn from failures, celebrate successes –especially those locals consider successes, and replicate only those.
4. Impact Investment is slowing inching forward in helping move more of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) toward fruition. The pressure on many global funders and countries alike to meet the 17 SDG targets set in 2015 is rising. Funding needs to accomplish the goals is $4 trillion a year, yes, trillion, compared to $150 billion available now in foreign aid. Accessing private capital is a wise investment if such development could unleash up to $12 trillion in growth. Repeatedly people like myself and Impact Guild read that “demand for SDG-aligned investment products outstrips supply“ which is true not in terms of the actual business and civil society non-profits trying to generate Social, Environmental, Governmental and financial Return on Investment (SROI and ESG), but in terms of profitable and stable investments. Investors tend to be risk-averse yet there are a range instruments that cover the range of development to humanitarian needs. It is not a mechanism to ignore as for-profit funding will sharply increase in coming years with up to $8 trillion of impact investments moving into global disasters recovery alone and vital “climate finance” investments only going to grow, as $100 billion are year is being raised for poor countries to stem the rising effects of climate change. Combined with a $10.3 billion private Green Climate Fund that privately funds climate resilience projects all over the world to meet SDG13, we can no longer rely on diminishing foreign aid alone.
While patient pessimism is needed to overcome the hype that now private capital can replace philanthropy, INGOs are – cautiously innovating. As this month’s Amplify report from 40 international NGOs dipping their toes into impact investment collaborations notes, there are a wide array of collaborations. Some are investing their own private donors funds – or those leveraging other donors’ and investors’ funds in Development Impact Bonds (DIBs) or Social Impact Bonds (SIBs), and other instruments to the tune of $545.1million in assets. These are mainly in profit-low-hanging fruit development sectors of agriculture, livelihoods, and financial inclusion. Yet some of the INGO’s greatest strengths are least appreciated and what the relatively risk-averse and ‘due-diligence-focused’ impact investors do not yet know they need: ”their deep knowledge of local environments, programs, and technical solutions; their long-standing networks and sophistication in partnering with multiple actors; their financial sophistication from their wide-ranging donor relationships; and their experience in complex, multi-year measurement of impact.“
My Wish: that these two industries listen to one another. Non-profits can be mired in a can’t spend-can’t-risk mindset while being queasy about generating revenue, while impact investors can be torn between profits being king and claims of ‘impact’ from just investing in a sector without monitoring actual effects on the ground. There is simply too much good to be done.
5. Brazil/ France’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – The French renewable energy company Voltalia has created their first CSR-funded Social Projects for Social Responsibility. It is using some excellent sustainability principles as well as leveraging Brazilian Bank BNDES social sub-credit seed financing. I met Voltalia’s small CSR team at the EES conference. They started working in impoverished northeast Brazil, using great non-profit processes of communities identifying needed projects and processes that overlapped with what CSR could offer, over half of which were in education, health and ‘social responsibility’ (aka livelihoods linked to water access and use such as fisheries etc). They invested substantial funds into these grassroots projects, alongside interesting Social Management Tools that included cost management tracking of local co-investment, great collaborative communications plans, sustainability reporting, including Social Return on Investment (SROI). Like many non-profits before them, it has been hard, but also enormously rewarding and their work has led to greater employee engagement and was recognized by global headquarters – kudos! – interested? Contact them.
My Wish: Walking in the shoes of our partners and participants teaches us about their capacities and needs, and how to adapt what we can offer to be of greatest use. We need more companies with ‘dust on their shoes’, as my PhD advisor called my fieldwork. This epitomizes the Sidekick Manifesto approach where we offer local leaders help, rather than ‘solving’ poverty, hunger, ill-health, un-representation for them (which our efforts only accomplish for a short-term anyway, see #1, 2).
6. Climate Conference COP24 corralled nearly 200 nations to create technical targets and measurements to try to keep us below IPCC’s dire projections that we are not on target to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C degrees, and that it will cost billions to the economies of the world, not to mention jeopardize past development gains. You may wonder why this is a Hallelujah. It is because for those I most care about – my children and future generations-especially those in the ‘less developed countries’ who have least-caused yet are least able to mitigate climate change effects- are finally starting to be seen and heard. Conferences such as COP24, as well as a huge range of ‘non-state actors’, including corporations, non-profits, philanthropies, tribes, even individuals like you and me. Whether it is our self-interest or expenditure-avoidance which propels us to decrease our emissions and increase our use of clean technologies, or our altruism toward the millions of species on earth, we have globally begun turning to sustainability of the ecological kind. Scientists are proposing remarkable inventiveness to capture already present CO2, studies are showing how we can be more energy efficient, buy more sustainable fashion, to eat more kindly, etc.
My Wish: We have begun changing our consumption and carbon emission and our youth are pushing us to conserve our planet. I am hopeful that we will come together to address this threat to all species. Is it far enough? Is it fast enough? Santa – help! So since it’s my holiday hallelujah, read Hans Rosling on how it’s all getting better anyway.
Happy Holidays and New Year everyone!
Impact Investing – International Development’s New Holy Grail?
There are so many things I love about the private sector such as Forbes 18 Dec Quote of the Day: “You’re going to be wrong a fair amount of times. So the issue is, how do you be wrong well?” asked Ray Dalio, Founder of Bridgewater Associate. This is a key issue for impact investors and international ‘developers’ alike.
International development suffers from the myth that failure must be downplayed. Too often only success is highlighted, whereas project shortcomings are framed as: “less successful” “numerous issues affected a less optimal…” Yet by downplaying the less great (Aka awful) results we miss vital learning that private sector expects, learns from and integrates toward the greater success. Why? Many in foreign aid believe (rightly?) such admissions might endanger winning more funding for more projects. Even as recently as 2014, U.S. foreign aid industry websites such as DevEx are still posting: “One can be forgiven for forming the impression that our development efforts are nearly perfect if typical annual reports, scientific conferences and event social media content are the basis for information. Successes are proudly packaged in glossy formats and heavily disseminated, whereas any objectives not achieved are relegated to the obligatory, and typically short, lessons learned section. This practice does not accurately represent an important reality: development efforts do in fact fail” .
Admitting failure, posting failure reports are awfully rare in international development, but how bad is it? The Asian Development Bank wrote in a large overview of the sustainability of post-project results, “Some early evidence suggests that as many as 40% of all new activities are not sustained beyond the first few years after disbursement of external funding” . A 2017 Cambridge University study found that “using an original database of over 14,000 small development projects in Ghana, I estimate that one-third of projects that start are never completed, consuming nearly one-fifth of all local government investment” . Even when they do start, complete, and even have salutary results at the end of the project, Valuing Voices research shows quick declines toward failures in as little as two years post exit, such as these post-project results at the AEA 2017 conference. The foreign aid industry is so focused on showing results while conditions are (relatively) conducive, that far fewer than 1% of all projects are evaluated for what was still standing in as little as two years after project closeout, and those are mostly those projects expected to be successful. Sustainable, long-term results suffer from what CGDev researchers are concerned “that pressure to demonstrate results in the short term may undermine efforts to ensure any impact is sustainable….Unfortunately, the pressure to show immediate results can encourage pursuit of agricultural investments unlikely to be sustained” . Luckily there’s a place to go. DevEx reminds us that “Venture capitalists and corporate investors understand that less than 20 percent of new businesses will succeed,” hence my love of the private sector’s admitting, learning and improving that ‘aid’ needs .
As a former investment banker (Solomon Brothers) and management consultant (Price Waterhouse & Coopers and Lybrand), I know that the corporates care for results, and do not shy away from pulling money from where things don’t work and put it where they do. 30 years in international development showed me that rigid bureaucracies and fixed ‘project cycles’ and an industry focused on ‘getting money out the door’ lead to a focus on accounting for all funds, but not for changing lives over the long term. Virtually no one calculates return on (our) investment compared to the cost of projects, especially including the value of what projects generate and participants can sustain.
I am quite fervently hoping Impact Investors focused on financial ROI to firms and investors as well as Social Return on Investment will step in, fund gathering and learning from the whole range of ‘returns’. Will they share both financial profits/ losses and feedback from the whole social ‘value chain’ of stakeholders of those involved on what succeeds and fails? Will investors learn from national partners and participants on what should be done better? If yes, all of us will win. I am heartened by cautiously optimistic statements such as Next Billion’s “a core characteristic and challenge of impact investing is the measurement and management of social and environmental impacts alongside financial returns. Development cooperation and impact investing communities can build on their respective experience in results measurement and learn from and with each other” . We can IF we are going to the same place.
From my early look at impact investing, it is a ‘game changer’ with $250 billion in assets looking for a profitable home . UBS Asset Manager Baldinger says “In the past you sold products to your client, now you empower your client to create a desired impact. As an industry, we’ve had to rethink everything we do — impact and sustainability is the Silicon Valley of finance and we want to be the Google” . These are happy words to someone focused on sustained (and emerging) impacts but among impact investors, so far, ‘impact’ seems to be thrown about as specifically as ‘results’, and GIIN ‘sustainability’ metrics are so wide ranging as to illuminate less quality than quantity. So far, much of their metrics look more like outputs relevant to companies (‘clients served’, ‘new investment capital’) that results of SROI. While there is something to be said about measures of ‘organizations trained’, ‘poverty assessments’ done, at least as a start, yet does ‘gross profit’ indicate that corner of the world is better off (and does this measure the investment into the enterprise, or is this of the investment fund itself)? Does ‘communities served’ and ‘social impact objectives’ illuminate the quality of the impact on lives changed? Is anyone asking how long-lasting, and sustained these investments, measuring what I call SUStained Return on Investment (SUSROI), will be after these investors leave (which is what I suspect most investment participants and millennial investors think they’re buying)?
This is the start of a series of blogs exploring how we who care about generating and evaluating sustained impacts can learn from, inform, (gasp) shape impact investing’s gargantuan footprint in international development. Powerhouses such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and Soros are looking, teaching, investing, and all public and private equity as well as a whole range of other investors now invest in this new hybrid . Who else is? What can we learn to make the world better? What do you think: Is impact investing development’s holy grail?
 Petruney, T. (2014, December 12). Facing global development’s fear of failure. Retrieved from https://www.devex.com/news/facing-global-development-s-fear-of-failure-85078
 Asian Development Bank. (2010, October 31). Post-Completion Sustainability of Asian Development Bank-Assisted Projects. Retrieved from https://www.adb.org/documents/post-completion-sustainability-asian-development-bank-assisted-projects
 Williams, M. J. (2017). The Political Economy of Unfinished Development Projects: Corruption, Clientelism, or Collective Choice? American Political Science Review, 111(4). Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-political-science-review/article/political-economy-of-unfinished-development-projects-corruption-clientelism-or-collective-choice/1351C9A6EB64B39B0D3A2B0A2D748412
 Elliott, K. A., & Dunning, C. (2016, March 1). Assessing the US Feed the Future Initiative: A New Approach to Food Security? Retrieved from https://www.cgdev.org/publication/assessing-us-feed-future-initiative-new-approach-food-security
 Next Billion. (2017, November). Financing Global Development – Leveraging Impact Investing for the SDGs. Retrieved from https://nextbillion.net/calendar/financing-global-development-leveraging-impact-investing-sdgs/
 Kennedy, E. (2017, December 18). Impact investing: A $250 billion game-changer for finance. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/27/investing/impact-investing-wall-street-banks-asset-managers/index.html
 Ford Foundation. (2017, April 5). Ford Foundation commits $1 billion from endowment to mission-related investments. Retrieved from https://www.fordfoundation.org/the-latest/news/ford-foundation-commits-1-billion-from-endowment-to-mission-related-investments/
 Karabell, S. (2013, August 14). Impact Investing, Soros-Style. Retrieved from https://knowledge.insead.edu/responsibility/impact-investing-soros-style-2576
Pineapple, Apple- what differentiates Impact from self-Sustainability Evaluation?
There is great news. Impact Evaluation is getting attention and being funded to do excellent research, such as by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie), by donors such as the World Bank, USAID, UKAid, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in countries around the world. Better Evaluation tell us that "USAID, for example, uses the following definition: “Impact evaluations measure the change in a development outcome that is attributable to a defined intervention; impact evaluations are based on models of cause and effect and require a credible and rigorously defined counterfactual to control for factors other that the intervention that might account for the observed change.”
William Savedoff of CGD reports in Evaluation Gap reports that whole countries are setting up such evaluation institutes: "Germany's new independent evaluation institute for the country's development policies, based in Bonn, is a year old. DEval has a mandate that looks similar to Britain's Independent Commission for Aid Impact (discussed in a previous newsletter ) because it will not only conduct its own evaluations but also help the Federal Parliament monitor the effectiveness of international assistance programs and policies. DEval's 2013-2015 work program is ambitious and wide – ranging from specific studies of health programs in Rwanda to overviews of microfinance and studies regarding mitigation of climate change and aid for trade." There is even a huge compendium of impact evaluation databases.
There is definitely a key place for impact evaluations in analyzing which activities are likely to have the most statistically significant (which means definitive change) impact. One such study in Papua New Guinea found SMS (mobile text) inclusion in teaching made a significant difference in student test scores compared to the non-participating 'control group' who did not get the SMS (texts). Another study, the Tuungane I evaluation by a group of Columbia University scholars showed clearly that an International Rescue Committee program on community-level reconstruction did not change participant behaviors. The study was as well designed as an RCT can be, and its conclusions are very convincing. But as the authors note, we don't actually know why the intervention failed. To find that out, we need the kind of thick descriptive qualitative data that only a mixed methods study can provide.
Economist Kremer from Harvard says "“The vast majority of development projects are not subject to any evaluation of this type, but I’d argue the number should at least be greater than it is now.” Impact evaluations use 'randomized control trials', comparing the group that got project assistance to a similar group that didn't to gauge the change. A recent article that talks about treating poverty as a science experiment says "nongovernmental organizations and governments have been slow to adopt the idea of testing programs to help the poor in this way. But proponents of randomization—“randomistas,” as they’re sometimes called—argue that many programs meant to help the poor are being implemented without sufficient evidence that they’re helping, or even not hurting." However we get there, we want to know – the real (or at least likely)- impact of our programming, helping us focus funds wisely.
Data gleaned from impact evaluations is excellent information to have before design and during implementation. While impact evaluations are a thorough addition to the evaluation field, experts recommend they be done from the beginning of implementation. While they ask “Are impacts likely to be sustainable?”, and “to what extent did the impacts match the needs of the intended beneficiaries?” and importantly “did participants/key informants believe the intervention had made a difference?” they focus only on possible sustainability, using indicators we expect to see at project end rather than tangible proof of sustainability of the activities and impacts that communities define themselves that we actually return to measure 2-10 years later.
That is the role for something that has rarely been used in 30 years – for post-project (ex-post) evaluations looking at:
The resilience of expected impacts of the project 2, 5, 10 years after close-out
The communities’ and NGOs’ ability to self-sustain which activities themselves
Positive and negative unintended impacts of the project, especially 2 years after, while still in clear living memory
Kinds of activities the community and NGOs felt were successes which could not be maintained without further funding
Lessons for other projects across projects on what was most resilient that communities valued enough to do themselves or NGOs valued enough to get other funding for, as well as what was not resilient.
Where is this systematically happening already? There are our catalysts ex-post evaluation organizations, drawing on communities' wisdom. Here and there there are other glimpses of ValuingVoices, mainly to inform current programming, such as these two interesting approaches:
Vijayendra Rao describes how a social observatory approach to monitoring and evaluation in India’s self-help groups leads to “Learning by Doing”– drawing on material from the book Localizing Development: Does Participation Work? The examples show how groups are creating faster feedback loops with more useful information by incorporating approaches commonly used in impact evaluations. Rao writes: “The aim is to balance long-term learning with quick turnaround studies that can inform everyday decision-making.”
Ned Breslin, CEO of Water For People talks about “Rethinking Social Entrepreneurism: Moving from Bland Rhetoric to Impact (Assessment)”. His new water and sanitation program, Everyone Forever, does not focus on the inputs and outputs, including water provided or girls returning to school. Instead it centers instead on attaining the ideal vision of what a community would look like with improved water and sanitation, and working to achieve that goal. Instead of working on fundraising only, Breslin wants to redefine the meaning of success as a world in which everyone has access to clean water.
We need a combination. We need to know how good our programming is now through rigorous randomized control trials, and we need to ask communities and NGOs how sustainable the impacts are. Remember, 99% of all development projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year are not currently evaluated for long-term self-sustainability by their ultimate consumers, the communities they were designed to help.
We need an Institute of Self-Sustainable Evaluation and a Ministry of Sustainable Development in every emerging nation, funded by donors who support national learning to shape international assistance. We need a self-sustainability global database, mandatory to be referred to in all future project planning. We need to care enough about the well-being of our true client to listen, learn and act.