Hard-wiring and Soft-wiring in Sustainability via health program examples: by Laurence Desvignes and Jindra Cekan/ova
We all want things to last. Most of us joined the ‘sustainable development’ industry hoping our foreign aid projects not only do good while we are there but long afterward. Following on last month’s blog on better learning about project design, implementation, and M&E, here are some things to do better.
Long-term sustainability rests on four pillars: the first rests on how the project is designed and implemented before exit and the second is to what degree conditions are needed for the continuation of results the project generated are put into place. While the first one embeds sustainability into its very results, the second invests in processes to foster the continuation of results. The other two of the four pillars, returning to see what lasts by evaluating the sustainability of results two or more years later and bringing those lessons back to funding, design, implementation, and building in shock-resilience, e.g., such as to climate change, are in other Valuing Voices blogs.
We focus on 1 and 2 in this blog, and use an analogy of hard-wiring and soft-wiring sustainability into the fabric of the project:
- Hardwiring, ‘baking-in’ sustainability involves the design/ implementation which predisposes results lasting. This includes investing in Maternal Child Health and Nutrition’s first 1000 days from conception to age two that are vital for child development. The baby’s physical development and nutrition are so important as is maternal well-being. Investing in these early days leads to better health and nutrition throughout their lives. So too are buying local. Too often our projects rely on imported technology and inputs that are hard to replace if broken. A project on hand pumps used by UNICEF suggested local purchase of those “designed to optimize the chances of obtaining good quality hand pumps and an assured provision of spare parts” involves both the hardware of the pump and also the “capacity building plan and a communication strategy.” Also using local capacity/specialists when available vs external consultants can also be key to building the sustainability of a project.
Another example of baking-in sustainability is using participatory approaches to ensure that those implementing- such as the communities/ local authorities. In this example, it’s grassroots where participants are heard during design in terms of their priorities and how the project should be implemented. This includes targeting discussions and monitoring and evaluation being done with and by communities. The seminal research of 6,000 interviews with aid recipients, Time to Listen, found that they want to participate and when they do, things are more likely to be sustained, rather than being passive recipients…. there is ex-post proof such programming is more ‘owned’ and more sustained.
Conducting in-depth needs assessments at design is usually the way to collect information about what is needed and how projects should be implemented to last. Unfortunately, very often, the time is very limited for the proposal development and (I)NGOs are under pressure of short deadlines to submit the proposal, and needs assessments are either done quickly, collecting very basic information or not done at all. Yet time spent valuing the voices of participants can bring great richness. In 2022, the UN’s FAO did a monitoring and evaluation study in Malawi validating indicators for poverty by asking communities how they identify it from the start. “Researchers were impressed at how accurately the people they interviewed were able to gauge the relative wealth of their neighbors.” We were not surprised as the locals often know best. Another example with Mines Advisory Group in Cambodia, we developed a community-based participatory approach for design whereby project staff would work with the mine-affected communities to draw local maps of their villages, highlighting the location of the dangerous places and the key areas/places used by the communities. Staff and communities discussed the constraints, risks, needs, etc. to make their community safer, which the project would follow up with risk education, clearance, victim assistance, and/or alternative economic /development solutions to make the community safer. Other mine action agencies, e.g. Danish Refugee Council (Danish Demining Group) are also now using safer community approaches, involving local residents to decide on how to make their village safer depending on the community priorities.
Hardwiring in participatory feedback-loop learning from locals during implementation is also key. Implementation of a community feedback strategy once the programme is running is also essential. The community feedback mechanism (CFM) is a formal system established to enable affected populations to communicate information on their views, concerns, and experiences of a humanitarian agency or of the wider humanitarian system. It systematically captures, records, tracks, and follows up on the feedback it receives to improve elements of a response. CFM is key to ensuring that people affected by crisis have access to avenues to hold humanitarian actors to account; to offer affected people a formalized structure for raising concerns if they feel their needs are not being met, or if the assistance provided is having any unintended and harmful consequences; to understand and solicit information on their experience of a humanitarian agency or response; as part of a broader commitment to quality and accountability that enables organizations to recognize and respond to any failures in response; to promote the voices and influence of people affected so their perspectives, rights, and priorities remain at the forefront of humanitarian/development work.
Promoting and implementing community engagement, such as a community feedback strategy, provides a basis for dialogue with people affected on what is needed and on how what is needed might best be provided, especially as needs change during implementation. This will help identify priority needs and is a means to gauge beneficiaries’ understanding of activities being carried out, to assist in the identification of local partners and establishment and follow-up of partnerships, and in the organizational development and capacity building of local institutions and authorities. It can strengthen the quality of assistance by facilitating dialogue and meaningful exchange between aid agencies and affected people at all stages of humanitarian response and result in the empowerment of those involved. Targeted people are viewed as social actors that can play an active role in decisions affecting their lives.
OXFAM’s project in Haiti starting in 2012 came as a result of a cholera epidemic that began in 2010 (“Preventing the Cholera Epidemic by Improving WASH Services and Promoting Hygiene in the North and Northeast”), whose goal was to contribute to the cholera elimination, experimented with the community feedback strategy as a means of gauging the recipients’ understanding of the activities carried out and of further strengthening the links between OXFAM and the communities during implementation. The initial process of community feedback was intended to both receive recommendations from project participants for better management of the action and also to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Oxfam interventions. Based on the information and recommendations applied, OXFAM served as a bridge between the community and the actors involved (e.g. private firm contracted to carry out some health centers/ water systems renovation work or other) in the implementation of the project. This is also part of Oxfam’s logic of placing more emphasis on the issue of accountability and community engagement.
The feedback-loop benefits of such a community process are manyfold, especially on Protection, human rights, risk management, and further below, adapting Implementation, M&E, and fostering organizational learning:
- CFMs assist in promoting the well-being, rights, and protection of people by offering them a platform to have a voice and be heard
- it fosters participation, transparency, and trust
- It uses Do No Harm and conflict-sensitive programming
- It helps identify staff misconduct
- It functions as a risk management and early warning system
Adapting Implementation and Improving M&E:
- This process makes it possible to adapt to the priorities of the beneficiaries, to better meet their needs hence ensuring the agency’s accountability to the affected population
- It facilitates and guarantees a better quality of the project.
- It represents a means of monitoring our approaches and our achievements.
- It makes it possible to construct a common vision shared between the various actors and the project participants/targeted communities.
- Ensuring the programme quality and accountability through the establishment of an appropriate accountability strategy (including Transparency, Feedback, Participation, Monitoring, and Effectiveness) and relevant methodologies and tools (since the planning stage of the project) is a key exercise which allow to think and plan for the sustainability of the programme at an early stage.
- It allows us to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the interventions while offering us the opportunity to learn from our experiences, hence allowing for programmatic learning and adaptative programming.
- It conveys the impact of the project and the change brought about in the lives of the beneficiaries.
- It is part of the logic of capitalizing on experiences to improve the quality of future projects.
2. Soft-wiring is creating conditions to make sustainability more likely for local communities and partners by thinking about how to replace what has been brought by the projects’ donors and implementers. This involves an analysis as well as actions that put conditions for sustainability into place before and during the time that foreign aid projects close. Valuing Voices’ checklists for exiting sustainably involves local ownership, sufficient capacities, and resources, viable partnerships, how well risks such as climate and economic shocks were identified and managed, and benchmarking for success 1-2 years before closure. Later it is important to return to check findings at ex-post project, comparing completion results to what was sustained 2-30 years later.
There are four categories of sustainability-fostering actions to do pre-exit which were identified by Rogers and Coates of Tufts for USAID for sustained exit:
Several blogs on Valuing Voices deal with resources, including assumptions donors make. Donor resource investments cannot be assumed to be sustained. The checklists outline a wide array of questions to ask during design and latest a year pre-exit, including what assumptions do aid projects make? USAID water/ sanitation/ hygiene investments have mostly not been sustained, due to a combination of lack of resources to maintain them and low ownership of the resources invested. Some key questions are:
- Did the project consider how those taking over the project would get sufficient resources, e.g., grant funding or other income generation available or renting out their facility or infrastructure that they own or shift some of their activities to for-profit production, sold to cover part of project costs?
- Does the project or partner have a facility or infrastructure that they own and is rentable to increase resources outside donor funding or can the project shift to for-profit, including institutional and individual in-kind products or technical knowledge skills that can be sold to cover part of project costs?
- What new equipment is needed, e.g. computers, vehicles, technical (e.g. weighing scales) for activities to continue, and which stakeholder will retain them?
- Or even no resources are needed because some project activities will scale down, move elsewhere, focus on a smaller number of activities that are locally sustainable, or the whole project will naturally phase-out)
The objective of that Oxfam project was to reduce the risks of communities placed in a situation of acute vulnerability to the cholera epidemic in two departments in Haiti (where about 1.5 million inhabitants reside). It focused on sustainability by effectively supporting and accompanying governmental WASH and health structures in the rapid response to alerts and outbreaks recorded in the targeted communities. How? Through awareness-raising activities among the populations concerned, by strengthening the epidemiological surveillance system and coordination between concerned stakeholders. The project also aimed to improve drinking water structures such as drinking water distribution points, drinking water networks or systems, catchments, and boreholes. As part of this intervention, Oxfam worked in close collaboration and in support of the Departmental Directorates of Health (DH), DINEPA (government services responsible for water and sanitation), and local authorities at the level of cities, towns and neighborhoods, and community structures including civil protection teams. Oxfam and DINEPA staff intervened through mixed mobile response teams that included technical and managerial staff from the health department to whom Oxfam provided ongoing technical support in terms of WASH analysis and actions, WASH training, finance training, and monitoring, as well as logistical support for the deployment of teams in the field (provision of vehicles and drivers). Oxfam was therefore working to ensure that cholera surveillance and mitigation actions were led by state and community actors, and by supporting state structures to build their capacities and allow ownership of the various aspects of the fight against cholera. Concretely, this was done as follows:
- Preliminary meetings and discussions were held with concerned governmental authorities to agree on a plan of action based on needs, implementation means, priorities, and budget for the health and wash governmental services/teams to be able to function. This was followed by the signature of an MoU between Oxfam and the Departmental Directorates of Health (DH).
- An action plan was set up with the DH and DINEPA (governmental water and sanitation agency) at the very beginning of the project.
- Outbreak response teams were managed directly by the DH and the staff was recruited, managed, and paid by the DH. The DH and DINEPA implemented the activities, managed the staff of the mobile teams, and provide technical monitoring in coordination with Oxfam.
- The epidemiological monitoring activities carried out by the DH were also monitored by the Oxfam epidemiologist who, in close coordination with the DH, built the capacities of epidemiologists and staff at the departmental level and at the level of the treatment centers to ensure adequate monitoring and communication.
- An Oxfam social engineering officer worked with DINEPA to ensure that the various water committees at the sources/infrastructure rehabilitated by Oxfam were functional. Sources/infrastructures were rehabilitated in concert with DINEPA to ensure the proper ownership.
- Oxfam provided funding, and technical supervision and wrote and submitted the final report to the donor. Based on DH’s regular reports on activities which were then consolidated by Oxfam for the donor.
- Teams were paid directly by the DH from funds received by Oxfam, based on the budget agreed by both Oxfam and the DH, and were based on government salary scales.
- The Oxfam WASH team, which systematically accompanies case investigations in the field, further encouraged the participation of DINEPA and its community technicians, through regular meetings with the DINEPA departmental directors.
- Overall, Oxfam ensured to provide support and capacity building of the DH, DINEPA, and community actors involved in the fight against cholera, to ensure proper ownership and to avoid substitution of the health/wash authorities.
The type of peer-partnering at design and during implementation described above is vital for ownership and sustainability. Unless we consider people’s ownership of the project and capacities to sustain results, they won’t be sustained. See Cekan’s exiting for sustainability checklists on phasing over before phasing out and exit, strengthening ownership, which brings us full circle to the participatory hard-wiring described above in Haiti.
We have to strengthen capacities at the most sustainable level. Taking an example from IRC’s Sierra Leone Gender-based Violence project involves looking at what happens when capacities training done for local participants and partners to take over are not done right. In this case, there were two-year consultancies to the Ministry (MSWGCA) on strategic planning and gender training, but “it is not clear if this type of support has had a sustainable impact. The institutional memory often disappears with the departure of the consultant, leaving behind sophisticated and extensive plans and strategies that there is simply no capacity to implement.” The report found that community-based initiatives that are the “primary sources of support for GBV victims living in rural areas in a more innovative and sustainable way that promotes local ownership. They also may yield more results,” most donor agencies find it hard to partner with community-based organizations so they recommended a focus on training and capacity-building of mainstream health workers to respond to GBV and aim for the government will assume control of service provision in approximately five years. The excellent manual by Sarriot et al on Sustainability Planning, “Taking the Long View: A Practical Guide to Sustainability Planning and Measurement in Community-Oriented Health Programming puts local capacity strengthening at the core. We have to consult and collaborate throughout and create an ‘enabling environment’ so that the activities and results are theirs.
Source: Sarriot et al 2008
Obviously, we should check on the sustainability we hope for. As ITAD/CRS note, we should do and learn from more ex-post evaluations which is much of what Valuing Voices advocates for.
Recommendations for fostering sustainability:
Few donors require information on how hard-wired or how soft-wired programming pre-exit is at closure which would make sustainability likely. Even fewer demand actual post-closure sustainability data to confirm assumptions at exit, sadly we believe most of our foreign aid has had limited sustained impacts. But this can change. Donors need to be educated that the “localization” agenda is the new trend (just as gender, resilience, and climate change have been at one point). It is beyond the “nationalization” of staff members (e.g. replacing expatriates with national staff), which is only one of the elements relating to locallization. True localization is to promote the local leadership of communities in their own ‘sustainable development’. While this is easier to say than to do, sustainability depends on it. We foster it through the hard-wiring and soft-wiring we discussed above and more steps, below. Here are specific steps from Laurence’s and Jindra’s experiences with the Global South:
- Funds & additional time for local partnership and ownership need to be embedded in the design and planned for, which requires a different approach on which the donors also need to be sensitized/ educated/ advocated to;
- In-depth needs assessment must be carried out just before or when an NGO sets up an operation – it usually takes time and should be integrated into any operation. Advocating this approach to donors is key so that it can be included in the budget or the NGO needs to find its own funds to do so) and the NGO country and sector strategy can then be updated yearly to embed such activities into the (I)NGO DNA;
- Conduct a capacity strengthening assessment of the local authorities or partners with whom we are going to conduct the project. This can take between 3 to 6 months, depending on the number and type of actors involved but this is an essential element to build self-sustaining local capacities and ensure that comprehensive capacity building is going to take place. This transparent step is also an essential step to ensure ownership by national/governmental stakeholders;
- It is vital to allow time to plan for an exit strategy at an early stage, even as early as design. This requires time and needs to be included in the budget for the implementation of the plan at least one year before the end, for phasing over to local implementing partners to take over before the donors/ Global North implementers exit, and for possibly strengthening capacities or extending programming to deliver on their timeline rather than ours before exiting out. More on this from CRS’ Participation by All ex-post and of course the oft-cited “Stopping As Success: Locally-led Transitions in Development” by Peace Direct, Search for Common Ground, and CDA. Also do not forget shared leadership noted by UK’s INTRAC’s “Investing in Exit”;
- Finally, don’t forget about evaluating ex-posts and embedding those lessons into future design/ implementation/ monitoring and evaluation.
Investing in sustainability by hard-wiring or soft-wiring works! Let us know what you do…
THE CONTENTIOUS POWER OF EVALUATIONS
or why sustainable results are so hard to come by….
A while ago, I reacted to a discussion among development aid/cooperation evaluators about why there are so few NGO evaluations available. It transpired that many people do not even know what they often look like, which is why I wrote a kind of Common Denominator Report: only about small evaluations, and self-explanatory in the sense that one understands why they are rarely published. The version below is slightly different from the original.
Most important elements of a standard evaluation report for NGOs and their donors; about twenty days of work; about 20,000 Euros budget (TVA included).
In reality, the work takes at least twice as much time as calculated and will still be incomplete/ quick, and dirty because it cannot decently be done within the proposed framework of conditions and answering all 87 questions or so that normally figure in the ToR.
The main issues in the project/ programme, the main findings, the main conclusions, and the main recommendations, presented in a positive and stimulating way (the standard request from the Comms and Fundraising departments) and pointing the way to the sunny uplands. This summary is written after a management response to the draft report has been ‘shared with you’. The management response normally says:
- this is too superficial (even if you explain that it could not be done better, given the constraints);
- this is incomplete (even if you didn’t receive the information you needed);
- this is not what we asked (even if you had an agreement about the deliverables)
- you have not understood us (even if your informants do not agree among themselves and contradict each other)
- you have not used the right documents (even if this is what they gave you)
- you have got the numbers wrong; the situation has changed in the meantime (even if they were in your docs);
- your reasoning is wrong (meaning we don’t like it);
- the respondents to the survey(s)/ the interviews were the wrong ones (even if the evaluand suggested them);
- we have already detected these issues ourselves, so there is no need to put them in the report (meaning don’t be so negative).
Who the commissioning organisation is, what they do, who the evaluand is, what the main questions for the evaluators were, who got selected to do this work, and how they understood the questions and the work in general.
In the Terms of Reference for the evaluation, many commissioners already state how they want an evaluation done. This list is almost invariably forced on the evaluators, thereby reducing them from having independent status to being the ‘hired help’ from a Temp Agency:
- briefings by Director and SMT [Senior Management Team] members for scoping and better understanding;
- desk research leading to notes about facts/ salient issues/ questions for clarification;
- survey(s) among a wider stakeholder population;
- 20-40 interviews with internal/ external stakeholders;
- analysis of data/ information;
- processing feedback on the draft report.
In the Terms of Reference, many commissioners already state which deliverable they want and in what form:
- round table/ discussion of findings and conclusions;
- draft report;
- final report;
- presentation to/ discussion with selected stakeholders.
PROJECT/ PROGRAMME OVERVIEW
Many commissioners send evaluators enormous folders with countless documents, often amounting to over 3000 pages of uncurated text with often unclear status (re authors, purpose, date, audience) and more or less touching upon the facts the evaluators are on a mission to find. This happens even when the evaluators give them a short list with the most relevant docs (such as grant proposal/ project plan with budget, time and staff calculations, work plans, intermediate reports, intermediate assessments, and contact lists). Processing them leads to the following result:
According to one/ some of the many documents that were provided:
- the organisation’s vision is that everybody should have everything freely and without effort;
- the organisation’s mission is to work towards having part of everything to not everybody, in selected areas;
- the project’s/ programme’s ToC indicates that if wishes were horses, poor men would ride;
- the project’s/ programme’s duration was four/ five years;
- the project’s/ programme’s goal/ aim/ objective was to provide selected parts of not everything to selected parts of not everybody, to make sure the competent authorities would support the cause and enshrine the provisions in law, The beneficiaries would enjoy the intended benefits, understand how to maintain them and teach others to get, enjoy and amplify them, that the media would report favourably on the efforts, in all countries/ regions/ cities/ villages concerned and that the project/ programme would be able to sustain itself and have a long afterlife;
- the project’s/ programme’s instruments were fundraising and/ or service provision and/ or advocacy;
- the project/ programme had some kind of work/ implementation plan.
This is where practice meets theory. It normally ends up in the report like this:
Due to a variety of causes:
- unexpectedly slow administrative procedures;
- funds being late in arriving;
- bigger than expected pushback and/ or less cooperation than hoped for from authorities- competitors- other NGOs- local stakeholders;
- sudden changes in project/ programme governance and/ or management;
- incomplete and/ or incoherent project/ programme design;
- incomplete planning of project/ programme activities;
- social unrest and/ or armed conflicts;
The project/ programme had a late/ slow/ rocky start. Furthermore, the project/ programme was hampered by:
- partial implementation because of a misunderstanding of the Theory of Change which few employees know about/ have seen/ understand, design and/ or planning flaws and/ or financing flaws and/ or moved goalposts and/ or mission drift and/ or personal preferences and/ or opportunism;
- a limited mandate and insufficient authority for the project’s/ programme’s management;
- high attrition among and/ or unavailability of key staff;
- a lack of complementary advocacy and lobbying work;
- patchy financial reporting and/ or divergent formats for reporting to different donors taking time and concentration away;
- absent/ insufficient monitoring and documenting of progress;
- little or no adjusting because of absent or ignored monitoring results/ rigid donor requirements;
- limited possibilities of stakeholder engagement with birds/ rivers/ forests/ children/ rape survivors/ people in occupied territories/ murdered people/ people dependent on NGO jobs & cash etc;
- internal tensions and conflicting interests;
- neglected internal/ external communications;
- un/ pleasant working culture/ lack of trust/ intimidation/ coercion/ culture of being nice and uncritical/ favouritism;
- the inaccessibility of conflict areas;
Although these issues had already been flagged up in:
- the evaluation of the project’s/ programme’s first phase;
- the midterm review;
- the project’s/ programme’s Steering Committee meetings;
- the project’s/ programme’s Advisory Board meetings;
- the project’s/ programme’s Management Team meetings;
Very little change seems to have been introduced by the project managers/ has been detected by the evaluators.
In terms of the OECD/ DAC criteria, the evaluators have found the following:
- relevance – the idea is nice, but does it cut the mustard?/ others do this too/ better;
- coherence – so so, see above;
- efficiency – so so, see above;
- effectiveness – so so, see above;
- impact – we see a bit here and there, sometimes unexpected positive/ negative results too, but will the positives last? It is too soon to tell, but see above;
- sustainability – unclear/ limited/ no plans so far.
If an organisation is (almost) the only one in its field, or if the cause is still a worthy cause, as evaluators you don’t want the painful parts of your assessments to reach adversaries. This also explains the vague language in many reports and why overall conclusions are often phrased as:
However, the obstacles mentioned above were cleverly navigated by the knowledgeable and committed project/ programme staff in such a way that in the end, the project/ programme can be said to have achieved its goal/ aim/ objective to a considerable extent.
Galileo: “Eppur si muove” = “And yet it moves”
Most NGO commissioners make drawing up a list of recommendations compulsory. Although there is a discussion within the evaluation community about evaluators’ competence to do precisely that, many issues found in this type of evaluation have organisational; not content; origins. The corresponding recommendations are rarely rocket science and could be formulated by most people with basic organisational insights or a bit of public service or governance experience. Where content is concerned, many evaluators are selected because of their thematic experience and expertise, so it is not necessarily wrong to make suggestions.
They often look like this:
Project/ programme governance
- limit the number of different bodies and make remit/ decision making power explicit;
- have real progress reports;
- have real meetings with a real agenda, real documents, real minutes, real decisions, and real follow-up;
Project/ programme management
- review and streamline/ rationalise structure to reflect strategy and work programme;
- give project/ programme leaders real decision making and budgetary authority;
- have real progress meetings with a real agenda, real minutes, real decisions, and real follow-up;
- implement what you decide, but monitor if it makes sense;
- consult staff on recommendations/ have learning sessions;
- draft implementation plan for recommendations;
- carry them out;
Processes and Procedures
- get staff agreement on them;
- commit them to paper;
- stick to them – but not rigidly;
Obviously, if we don’t get organisational structure and functioning, programme or project design, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and learning right, there is scant hope for the longer-term sustainability of the results that we should all be aiming for.
On my way to present at the European Evaluation Society’s annual conference, I wanted to close the loop on the Nordic and Netherlands ex-post analysis. The reason is, that we’ll be discussing the intersection of different ways to evaluate ‘sustainability’ over the long- and short-term, and how we’re transforming evaluation systems. The session on Friday morning is called “Long- And Short-Term Dilemmas In Sustainability Evaluations” (Cekan, Bodnar, Hermans, Meyer, and Patterson). We come from academia as professors, consultancies to International organizations, International/ national non-profits, and our European (Dutch, German, Czech), South African, and American governments. We’ll discuss it as a ‘fishbowl’ of ideas.
The session’s abstract adds the confounding factor of program vs project versus portfolio-wide evaluations all-around sustainability.
Details on our session are below and why I’m juxtaposing it to the Nordic and Netherlands ex-posts in detail, comes next. As we note in our EES ’22 session description, “One of the classic complications in sustainability is dealing with short-term – long-term dilemmas. Interventions take place in a local and operational setting, affecting the daily lives of stakeholders. Sustainability is at stake when short-term activities are compromising the long-term interests of these stakeholders and future generations, for instance, due to a focus on the achievement of shorter-term results rather than ensuring durable impacts for participants… Learning about progress towards the SDGs or the daunting task of keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, for instance, requires more than nationally and internationally agreed indicator-systems, country monitoring, and reporting and good intentions.”
But there are wider ambitions for most sustainability activities undertaken by a range of donors, policy actors, project implementers, and others: Sustainability “needs to span both human-social and natural-ecological systems’ time scales. Furthermore, long-term sustainability, in the face of climate change and SDGs, demands a dynamic view, with due attention for complexity, uncertainty, resilience, and systemic transformation pathways…. the need for a transformation of current evaluation systems – seeing them as nested or networked systems… Their focus may range from focused operational projects to the larger strategic programmes of which these projects are part, to again the larger policies that provide the context or drivers for these programmes. Analogue to these nested layers runs a time dimension, from the short-term projects (months to years), to multi-year programmes, to policies with outlooks of a decade or more.”
When Preston did his research in 2020-21 which I oversaw, we focused on the projects precisely because that is where we believe ‘impact’ happens in a measurable way by participants and partners. Yet we found that many defined their parameters differently. Preston writes, “This paper focuses on what such research [on projects evaluated at least 2 years post-closure] 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 …received input that Sweden’s EBA has a (non-project [not ex-post] portfolio of ‘country evaluations’ which looked back over 10 or even 20-year time horizons…
So we present these compiled detailed studies on the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark for your consideration. Can we arrive at a unified definition of ‘sustainability’ or imagine a unified ‘sustainability evaluation’ definition and scope? I hope so, will let you know after EES this week! What do you think, is it possible?
Reblogged from the journal EVALUATION,Volume: 28 issue: 1, page(s): 7-35, Article first published online: January 24, 2022; Issue published: January 1, 2022
“Leading evaluation practitioners were asked about lessons from the recent 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) for evaluation practice. Contributors emphasize the importance of evaluating equity between rich and poor countries and other forms of climate injustice. The role of the evaluation is questioned: what can evaluation be expected to do on its own and what requires collaboration across disciplines, professions and civil society – and across generations? Contributors discuss the implications of the post-Glasgow climate ‘pact’ for the continued relevance of evaluation. Should evaluators advocate for the marginalized and become activists on behalf of sustainability and climate justice – as well as advocates of evidence? Accountability-driven and evidence-based evaluation is needed to assess the effectiveness of investments in adaptation and mitigation. Causal pathways in different settings and ‘theories of no-change’ are needed to understand gaps between stakeholder promises and delivery. Evaluators should measure unintended consequences and what is often left unmeasured, and be sensitive to failure and unanticipated effects of funded actions. Evaluation timescales and units of analysis beyond particular programmes are needed to evaluate the complexities of climate change, sustainability and to take account of natural systems. The implications for evaluation commissioning and funding are discussed as well as the role of evaluation in programme-design and implementation.”
Here is my article on sustainability, measurement and reporting:
“Promises made and promises unfulfilled: Focusing evaluations after COP26
Like many evaluators reading this, I am not a climate specialist but an international political economist, a Czech-American. Both my countries have polluted more than our fair share. Maybe like you, I feel responsible for those who polluted less but suffer more. Professionally, I focus on grassroots sustainability of ex-post project evaluations, including those funded by the Adaptation Fund, and consult on environmental, social and governance ‘impact’. I worry that aid impacts sustained through ingenious local efforts will not hold up to climate shocks for which our aid was not designed, and funding is insufficient.
Where to focus? Knowing what aspect of evaluation interests you, shapes which aspect of the COP26 juggernaut to examine. Results gaps between promises made versus actual change accomplished are an evaluator’s daily bread. Were I an evaluator of environmental processes such as deforestation, ocean acidification/ biodiversity, CO2 emissions, I could evaluate along the lines of the recent publication edited by Juha Uitto (2021) Evaluating Environment in International Development. Abel Gbala, an Ivoirien monitoring and evaluation expert, offers a range of roles evaluators take on, and two for climate change are
- Evaluator as a ‘judge’ (following Scriven) to investigate and justify the value of an evaluand, supported by both empirical facts and probative reasoning;
- Evaluator as ‘activist’, as argued by Bitar (2019), and Montrosse-Moorhead, et al. (2019: Chapter 3, 33) advocating for social justice and addressing the needs and interests of the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Following the money and focusing on the centrality of justice and equity between rich and poorer/‘developing’ countries involves judging and being an activist with sharing results. This includes measuring how well the Global North has helped the Global South deal with the inequity in adapting to, mitigating or addressing the devastation of a range of climate change disproportionately caused by the Global North over two centuries. Notably, only small proportions of all financing get to indigenous and local communities (see Rainforest Foundation Norway, 2021; USAID, 2021). Evaluating to whom funding goes is vital for sustainable results.
Many promises are unfulfilled
The 2015 Paris Agreement (United Nations Framework convention on Climate Change, 2016) promised fewer climate-harming emissions, yet the 60 biggest banks have invested 3.8 trillion in fossil fuels (Project Regeneration, 2020). Paris signatories promised US$100 billion climate funding a year, but the COP26 showed massive shortfalls. Not only have an insufficient US$55–US$80 billion a year been given since 2013 (Timperley, 2021), but in a recent Financial Times article by Hook and Kao (2021), Amar Bhattacharya, of the Brookings Institute, stated, ‘In terms of real impact of climate finance, and efficacy across different donors, there has been no development impact or climate impact study done to date’. A German climate watchdog confirms a massive gap if and how US$80 billion in 2019 has been spent, noting, ‘The absence of a detailed, publicly available account of this financing . . . risks all sorts of omissions: donors mis-labeling their funding [as “significant” [impactful], or money being misspent, or an under-estimation of the true volume of money required’ (Subramanian, 2021). Evaluators and auditors are needed to confirm that funding was allocated, disbursed and had an impact on climate change needs.
Needs are tenfold more
India and African countries state they need US$1–US$1.3 trillion in finance by 2030 (Rathi and Chaudhary, 2021). This is not unreasonable, given that ‘developing’ countries ‘are currently shouldering approximately $70 billion per year costs of adapting to climate change’ themselves. The Global South also wants funds to be more evenly split between adaptation (now 25%) to help them deal with sea-level rise and extreme weather events and mitigation (now 75%) (Pontecorvo, 2021). Why the imbalance towards mitigation? Because mitigation is remunerative to investors, companies and banks, who offer loans for countries to switch to clean energy or sell ‘carbon-offsets’. As noted by Timperley (2021), ‘just $20 billion went to adaptation projects in 2019’ versus UN-estimated needs of US$300 billion. It is also essential to measure the effectiveness of finance once it arrives and help those in the climate field see how such investments’ efficacy can be improved.
Where to go to measure costs and finance? One priority for evaluators is to know where to look for data on finance and costs on sustainability and adaptation. This is spread over many national and international databases and reports, and across private and public institutions. Burmeister et al. (2019) have a useful table that summarizes the many finance sources that could be used by evaluators when trying to track actual expenditures and investments on adaptation.
Proof of promises is key
Oxfam’s Climate Finance Shadow Report 2020 (Carty et al., 2020) helps judges and activists see that while donors reported giving US$59.5 billion in 2017 and 2018, ‘the true value. . . may be as little as $19-22.5 billion per year once loan repayments, interest, and other forms of over-reporting are stripped out’. Eighty percent was primarily given as loans, and a further 50 percent of this was non-concessional, requiring higher repayments from emerging countries. In short, our climate ‘largesse’ is increasing their indebtedness. Another watchdog looks at the recipient side. Climate Governance by Transparency International (2021) traces in-country corruption of the funds received. The International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation’s International Sustainability Standards Board questions corporate ‘greenwashing’. Other evaluations remind multilateral and bilateral donors not to claim what they cannot substantiate. Aid promises ‘sustainable development’. Climate funds such as the GEF could be delivering, but Čekan/ová and Legro (2022) examined the GEF’s 2019 report claim that 84 percent were sustainable post-project. ‘Can We Assume Sustained Impact? Verifying the Sustainability of Climate Change Mitigation Results’ showed no proof of ex-post project fieldwork or research to substantiate it. Worse, ‘in the absence of sufficient information regarding project sustainability, determining post-project greenhouse gas emission reductions is not possible, because these are dependent on the continuation of project benefits following project closure’.
It is vital to monitor and evaluate the gaps between promises made and actual change. Gaps include between the finance needed by developing/poorer countries and what is delivered; provable measurements of the impacts and effectiveness of finance given; and the knock-on effects of support for climate action, including indebtedness. As evaluators, we need champions willing to listen, for no one has to listen to evaluators, but much like years of the climate-science IPCC, perseverance and public interest, plus our collective survival on the line, measurements increasingly matter and drive imperative change. Our planet, institutions and many promises and fewer results need all of us.”
I also encourage readers to see the other 13 authors” fascinating submissions in Evaluation post-COP26. Also, many thanks to Elliot Stern, editor, for his support and for making this issue open-access for global learning.
Follow our path on Ex-Post Sustainability and Resilience Seasonal Joy
Rarely do we get to teach, innovate, learn, and expand a hidden corner of one’s field. This is what is I am experiencing, and the Fund is sharing. Here is the Adaptation Fund’s ex-post project evaluation of sustainability and resilience path and progress in 2021.
I am quoting liberally and highlighting our work from the Adaptation Fund’s website where their commitment to learning from what lasts is clear. “Ex post evaluations are a key element of the AF-TERG FY21-FY23 strategy and work programme, originating from the request of the Adaptation Fund Board to develop post-implementation learning for Fund projects and programmes and provide accountability of results financed by the Fund. They intend to evaluate aspects of both sustainability of outcomes and climate resilience, and over time feed into ex-post-evaluation-informed adjustments within the Fund’s Monitoring Evaluation and Learning (MEL) processes.”
How are we defining sustainability’s path to evaluate it? Here is a flowchart from our training:
There are four phases from 0 to 3:
Phase 0 Foundational Review: Not only was this work preceded by months of background research on both evaluability of their young portfolio (e.g., under 20 of the 100 projects funded were closed at least three years, a selection criteria we had) and secondary research on evidence of ex-post sustainability evaluation in climate change/ resilience across the Adaptation Fund’s sectors.
Phase 1 Framework and Pilots Shortlist: Our Phase 1 report from mid-2021 provided an overview of the first stage of ex-post evaluations, outlining methods and identifying a list of potential projects for ex-post evaluation pilots from the Fund’s 17 completed, evaluated projects. The framework presented in the report introduced possible methods to evaluate the sustainability of project outcomes, considering the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of the Fund portfolio. It also presents an analysis tool to assess climate resilience, bearing in mind that this area is pivotal to climate change adaptation yet has rarely been measured.
The Phase one report on ex post project sustainability evaluation
Vetting and pilot selection, revised design for evaluating sustained outcomes related to resilience to climate change. Key aspects are: 1) Timing (3-5 years since closure or projects at least 4 years long within the last 5 years and seasonality matches the final evaluation) and 2) Good quality of implementation and M&E with measurable outputs and outcomes traceable to impact(s) and 3) Safety to do fieldwork re: Covid, civil peace, etc.
We (my so-clever colleagues Meg Spearman and Dennis Bours) introduced a new resilience analysis tool that includes consideration of the climate disturbances, the human and natural systems (and their nexus) affected by and affecting project outcomes. This includes five characteristics of resilience in the outcomes (presence of feedback loops, at scale, plus being diverse, dynamic, and redundant) and means/actions to support outcomes. Resilience can be identified via a clear summary of the structures (S) and functions (F) that typify Resistance, Resilience and Transformation showing where a project is and is moving towards. It is a typology of resistance-resilience-transformation (RRT) onto which the overall project can be mapped based on how actions are designed to maintain or change existing structures and functions. That was integrated into the Adaptation Fund resilience evaluation approach.
Phase 2 Methods Testing and Ex-post Field-testing: Training of national evaluators and piloting two ex-post evaluations per year includes selecting among these methods to evaluate sustainability ex-post plus the RRT and resilience measures above. In the first ex-post in Samoa’s “Enhancing Resilience of Samoa’s Coastal Communities to Climate Change” (UNDP) happening December 21, it is through qualitative evaluation of wall-infrastructure. The second, Ecuador’s “Enhancing resilience of communities to the adverse effects of climate change on food security, in Pichincha Province and the Jubones River basin “(WFP) has training completed and fieldwork should be from January 22, likely be of food security assets and methods TBD.
Phase 3 Evaluations continue, with MEL Capacity Building: Two more years of ex-post pilot evaluations (2 per year) with lesson informing integration into the MEL of the Adaptation Fund. We are already finding out lessons of rigor, of knowledge management, of unexpected benefits of returning years after closure, including indications of sustainability and resilience of the assets, with much more learning to come.
Innovations include “the relative novelty of climate change adaptation portfolios and the limited body of work on ex post evaluation for adaptation, it presents possible methods that will be piloted in field-tested ex post evaluations in fiscal year 2022 (FY22).” This includes piloting shockingly rare evaluation of oft-promised resilience. In the update to AF’s Board three months ago, it transparently outlined shortlisting of five completed projects as potential candidates for the pilots, of which two projects were selected for ex post evaluations. It outlined our process of co-creating the evaluation with national partners to prioritize their learning needs while building national capacity to assess sustainability and resilience of project outcomes in the field onward.
Also, training materials for ex post pilots are being shared to foster country and industry learning, focusing on evaluating projects at ex-post and emerging sustainability and resilience, as well as presenting and adapting methods to country and project realities.
The training material for ex-post pilots
The training had three sessions (which could not have happened without colleague Caroline’s expertise):
- Part A: Understanding ex-post & resilience evaluations. Introduce and understand ex-post evaluations of sustainability and resilience, especially in the field of climate change adaptation
- Part B: Discussing country-specific outcome priorities and co-creating learning with stakeholders. Discuss the project and its data more in-depth to understand and select what outcome(s) will be evaluated at ex-post
- Part C: Developing country-specific methods and approaches. Discuss range of methods with the national evaluator and M&E experts to best evaluate the selected outcome(s) and impact(s)
Overall progress can be seen in the document updating the AF’s board: A progress update on ex post evaluations (AFB/EFC.28/Inf.4)
So in 2018 I Wished for Sustained Outcomes to be explored and in 2019 I Wished again for more Ex-post Evaluation than Needles in Haystacks. In 2021 some of these wishes are becoming fulfilled! Seasonal Happiness for me is learning about resilience to climate change, diminished vulnerability and searching for proof of sustainability and emerging outcomes and impact(s) and I am grateful to the Adaptation Fund for its commitment to sustainability.
Accompany us on this path, cheer us on, and do your own ex-post sustainability and resilience evaluations! Happy holidays from the Czech Republic!