Sustaining “Sustainable Development”


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 [1], a need for sustainability-ready evaluation to help us know how viable the resources are on which so many of our projects rest [2]. 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 [3]. 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” [4]. 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 [5]. 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 [6]. “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 [7]. 


  • 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 [7]. 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 [8]. 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.”



[1] IDEAS 2019 Global Assembly. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[2] Rowe, A. (2019). Sustainability‐Ready Evaluation: A Call to Action. New Directions for Evaluation, 162, 29-48. Retrieved from

[3] USAID. (2013, October 31). Environmental Compliance Procedures. Retrieved from

[4] OECD. (2015). Element 4, Paper 1: Global and local environmental sustainability, development and growth. Retrieved from

[5] 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

[6] 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

[7] Madagascar Rural Access To New Opportunities For Health And Prosperity (RANO-HP) Ex-Post Evaluation. (2017, June 1). USAID. Retrieved from

[8] 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