“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! Many of the elements his research cites overlap with our Exiting for Sustainability checklislts which includes ownership, resources, capacities, partnerships, and implementation/ M&E process.
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.
In 2022 a new resource on Sustainability from the media perspective questions the OECD. Sustainability: Going Beyond the Buzzword groups sustainability described in various media as: 1) Economic viability, 2) Social Sustainability, 3) Institutional Sustainability and 4) technical sustainability. But we’ve learned in 2022 from consulting work that the technology piece mentioned in this Buzzwords study regarding ‘baking in’ sustainability via the infrastructure/ assets created (The Adaptation Fund’s ex-post and resilience evaluations) and incorporating INGOs’ considerations of buying-local, seeing what local spare parts and technicians will be available in the future is a great added consideration. So too is promoting locally-led development through the very participatory way projects are implemented, with locals leading. Among the best resources is CDA/ Peace Direct/ Search for Common Ground’s Stopping as Success studies for USAID.
- 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.
3) I’ll add spread the word, as I just found out Harvard’s Extension School course on Sustainability features this blog in its curriculum 🙂
What are your thoughts?
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
Assuming Sustainability and Impact is Dangerous to Development
(+ OECD/ DAC evaluation criteria)
We all do it; well, I used to do it too. I used to assume that if I helped my field staff and partners target and design funded projects well enough, and try to ensure a high quality of implementation and M&E, then it would result in sustainable programming. I assumed we would have moved our participants and partners toward projected long-term, top-of-logical-framework’s aspirational impact such as “vibrant agriculture leading to no hunger”, “locally sustained maternal child health and nutrition”, “self-sustained ecosystems”.
INTRAC nicely differentiates between what is typically measured (“outputs can only ever be the deliverables of a project or programme…that are largely within the control of an agency”) and what is not: “impact as the lasting or significant changes in people’s lives brought about by an intervention or interventions” . They continue: “as few organisations are really judged on their impact, the OECD DAC impact definition (“positive and negative, primary and secondary long-term effects produced by a development intervention, directly or indirectly, intended or unintended“) allows for long-term changes in institutional capacity or policy change to be classed as impact” . Do we do this? Virtually never. 99% of the time we only evaluate what happened while the project and its results is under the control of the aid implementer. Yet the five OECD/DAC evaluation criteria asks us to evaluate relevance, effectiveness, efficiency (fair enough, this is important to know if a project was good) and also impact and sustainability. So in addition to the prescription to evaluate ‘long-term effects’ (impact), evaluators are to measure “whether the benefits of an activity are likely to continue after donor funding has been withdrawn… [including being] environmentally as well as financially sustainable” .
How do we know we are getting to sustained outcomes and impacts? We ask people on the receiving end ideally after projects end. It is dangerous to assume sustainability and impact, and assume positive development trajectories (Sridharan) unless we consistently do “ex-post” project evaluations such as these from our research or catalytic organizations that have done at least one ex-post. At very minimum we should evaluate projected sustainability at end of project with those tasked to sustain it before the same project is repeated. Unfortunately we rarely do so and the assumed sustainability is so often not borne out, as I presented at the European Evaluation Society conference Sustainability panel two weeks ago along with AusAid’s DFAT, the World Bank, University College London and UNFEM.
Will we ever know if we have gotten to sustained impacts? Not unless the OECD/DAC criteria are drastically updated and organizations evaluate most projects ex-post (not just good ones :)), learn from the results and fund and implement for country-led sustainability with the country nationals. We must, as Sanjeev Sridharan tells us in a forthcoming paper embed sustainability into our Theories of Change from the onset (“Till time (and poor planning) do us part: Programs as dynamic systems — Incorporating planning of sustainability into theories of change” (Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 2018).*
There are remarkable assumptions routinely made. Many projects put sustainability into the proposal, yet most close out projects in the last 6 months. Rarely do projects take the time to properly phase down or phase over (unlike CRS Niger); many exit ceremonially ‘handing over’ projects to country-nationals, disposing project assets, and leaving only a final report behind. Alternatively, this USAID Uganda CDCS Country Transition Plan which looks over 20 years in the future by when it assumes to have accomplished sustained impact for exit . Maybe they will measure progress towards that goal and orient programs toward handover, as in the new USAID “Journey to Self-Reliance” – we hope! Truly, we can plan to exit, but only when data bears out our sustained impact, not when the money or political will runs out.
As OXFAM’s blog today on the evaluation criteria says, “Sustainability is often treated as an assessment of whether an output is likely to be sustained after the end of the project. No one, well, hardly anyone, ever measures sustainability in terms of understanding whether we are meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need” and “too often in development we evaluate a project or programme and claim impact in a very narrow sense rather than the broader ecology beyond project or programme parameters” . In fact, most ‘impact evaluations’ actually test effectiveness rather than long-term impact. Too rarely do we test impact assumptions by returning 2-10 years later and gather proof of what impacted locals’ lives sustainably, much less – importantly – what emerged from their own efforts once we left (SEIEs)! Oh, our hubris.
if you’re interested in the European Evaluation Society’s DAC criteria update discussion, see flagship discussion and Zenda Offir’s blog which stresses the need for better design that include ownership, inclusivity, empowerment . These new evaluation criteria need to be updated, including Florence Etta’s and AGDEN‘s additional criteria participation, non-discrimination and accountability!
We can no longer afford to spend resources without listening to our true clients – those tasked with sustaining the impacts after we pack up – our partners and participants. We can no longer fund what cannot be proven to be sustained that is impactful. We talk about effectiveness and country ownership (which is paramount for sustainability and long-term impact), with an OECD report (2018) found “increases [in[ aid effectiveness by reducing transaction costs and improving recipient countries ownership” . Yet donor governments who ‘tie’ aid to their own country national’s contracts benefit a staggering amount from ‘aid’ given. “Australia and the United Kingdom both reported … 93 percent and 90 percent of the value of their contracts respectively went to their own firms” . It is not so different in the USA where aid is becoming bureaucratically centralized in the hands of a few for-profit contractors and centralized hundreds of millions in a handful of contracts. We must Do Development Differently. We can’t be the prime beneficiaries of our own aid; accountability must be to our participants; is it their countries, not our projects, and we cannot keep dangerously assuming sustained impact. Please let us know what you think…
[*] This paper is now available at https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/cjpe/article/view/53055
 Simister, N. (2015). Monitoring and Evaluation Series: Outcomes Outputs and Impact. Retrieved from https://www.intrac.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Monitoring-and-Evaluation-Series-Outcomes-Outputs-and-Impact-7.pdf
 OECD. (n.d.). DAC Criteria for Evaluating Development Assistance. Retrieved September, 2018, from https://web.archive.org/web/20180919035910/http://www.oecd.org/dac/evaluation/daccriteriaforevaluatingdevelopmentassistance.htm
 USAID. (2016, December 6). USAID Uganda Country Development Cooperation Strategy 2016-2021. Retrieved October, 2018, from https://www.usaid.gov/uganda/cdcs
 Porter, S. (2018, October 18). DAC Criteria: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Retrieved from https://views-voices.oxfam.org.uk/2018/10/dac-criteria-the-hand-that-rocks-the-cradle/
 European Evaluation Society Biennial Conference: Flagship Symposia. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.ees2018.eu/1539782596-flagship-symposia.htm
 Ofir, Z. (2018, October 13). Updating the DAC Criteria, Part 11 (FINAL). From Evaluation Criteria to Design Principles. Retrieved from https://zendaofir.com/dac-criteria-part-11/
 OECD. (2018, June 11). 2018 Report On The DAC Untying Recommendation. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/dac/financing-sustainable-development/development-finance-standards/DCD-DAC(2018)12-REV2.en.pdf