“What IS Sustainability?” It depends on whom you ask: OECD, the UN, or Harvard Business School

“What IS Sustainability?” It depends on whom you ask: OECD, the UN, or Harvard Business School

Recently I’ve had conversations where I had to define which sustainability we were talking about. Was it:

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

 

Since I spend most of my time evaluating the ex-post sustained and emerging impacts of foreign aid projects years after projects close, or at least advocate for it, let’s start there.

  1. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a “forum and knowledge hub for data and analysis, exchange of experiences, best-practice sharing, and advice on public policies and international standard-setting.” Regarding evaluation specifically, the OECD has “established common definitions for six evaluation criteria – relevance, coherence, effectiveness, efficiency, impact, and sustainability – to support consistent, high-quality evaluation”. Focusing on long-term sustainability, their evaluation guidance is:

 

 

Source: OECD, Better Criteria for Better Evaluation, 2019

 

The good news is that in this recent publication on Applying Evaluation Criteria Thoughtfully (2021), OECD keeps the updated definition but inches towards recommending actual ex-post project sustainability evaluation, rather than just projected (and assumed “likely to continue” sustainability). For this, “likely” is the most significant reason evaluators for donors and implementers have assumed, rather than evaluated, sustainability for decades. Further, positive, ‘sustained’ trajectories are also assumed at close-out/ exit, but rarely tested ex-post.

The OECD criteria give not evaluating it as an option. I far prefer “net benefits of the intervention continue” as it is a marching order: Prove that results were sustained. In this evolution, this 2021 report states, “After the completion of the intervention, and evaluation of sustainability would look at whether or not the benefits did continue, this time drawing on data and evidence from the intervention’s actual achieved benefits.”

 

OECD even goes on to recommend implementing and monitoring for sustainability. The new piece de resistance is: “Sustainability should be considered at each point of the results chain and the project cycle of an intervention”:

  1. “The sustainability of inputs (financial or otherwise) after the end of the intervention and the sustainability of impacts in the broader context of the intervention…. as well as whether there was willingness and capacity to sustain financing (resources) at the end of the intervention
  2. For example, an evaluation could assess whether an intervention considered partner capacities
  3. Built ownership at the beginning of the implementation period…. And
  4. In general, evaluators can examine the conditions for sustainability that were or were not created in the design of the intervention and by the intervention activities and whether there was adaptation where required.”

Yes, Valuing Voices highlighted this at the American Evaluation Association presentation “Barking up a Better Tree: Lessons about SEIE Sustained and Emerging Impact Evaluation” in 2016, and we have developed this into 2020’s Exiting for Sustainability trainings and checklists. Wonderful to see implementing for sustainability in guidance by the OECD!

 

Moreover, while the 2019 OECD report mentioned resilience in passing, related to sustainability, “encourages analysis of potential trade-offs, and of the resilience of capacities/ systems underlying the continuation of benefits”. Such resilience and continuation of benefits evaluation involve examining huge systems (the financial, economic, social, environmental, and institutional capacities) that projects and programs are implemented within, whose stability is needed to sustain net benefits over time. Yes, for ex-post sustainability questions for evaluators to consider should include: “To what extent did the intervention contribute to strengthening the resilience of particularly disadvantaged or vulnerable groups” on which the sustained impacts of so much of our “Leave No One Behind” myth of Sustainable Development rely.

 

However, OECD makes suggestions to evaluate even broader, overwhelming what is feasible: “…this involves analyses of resilience, risks, and potential trade-offs.” Whose? All stakeholders, from participants to local partners and national and international implementers, and international donors? How far back and how far forward? What a huge undertaking. Further, the OECD points evaluators to define resilience, but as I learned in my Famine Early Warning System research and a current ex-post evaluation process for the Adaptation Fund, that involves creating evaluable boundaries by determining resilient to what kinds of shocks? Vital questions current industry monitoring and evaluation budgets for all evaluations, much less (too-rare) ex-post project evaluations, are insufficient for as they hover around 3-5% of total costs.

 

  1. Slight progress at OECD is being made by acknowledging environmental sustainability first brought up by the Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future” back in 1987. This linchpin report highlighted that “critical global environmental problems were primarily the result of the enormous poverty of the South and the non-sustainable patterns of consumption and production in the North. It called for a strategy that united development and the environment – described by the now-common term “sustainable development”… that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

 

While an OECD brief in 2008 considers the environmental aspects of our thinking about sustainability, it argues that sustainability primarily about “using economic development to foster a fairer society while respecting ecosystems and natural resources.” The 2021 Applying Evaluation Criteria Thoughtfully rather unhelpfully mostly ignores the environment’s role in sustainability: “Confusion can arise between sustainability in the sense of the continuation of results, and environmental sustainability or the use of resources for future generations. While environmental sustainability is a concern (and maybe examined under several criteria, including relevance, coherence, impact, and sustainability), the primary meaning of the criteria is not about environmental sustainability as such; when describing sustainability, evaluators should be clear on how they are interpreting the criterion.” Given rapid climate change, I would argue that any sustained and emerging outcomes and impacts of projects that does not include an evaluation of the environmental context will fail to foster sustained resilience. Yet donors’ fixed funding timeframes that set completion to disbursement without evaluating sustainability or resilience continue to be huge barriers.

 

  1. Finally, business sustainability brings together these impacts on communities and society along with impacts on the environment. These are called ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria. A Harvard Business School brief defines sustainability as “doing business without negatively impacting the environment, community, or society as a whole. “Where applied well, the aspiration is that “beyond helping curb global challenges, sustainability can drive business success.” While Harvard Business Review highlights “What Works’ in Calculating the Value of Impact Investing, they are, like almost all of global development ‘while- we-are-there’-measures. There is one mention of ‘terminal value’, 5 years after close of ownership, and they estimate social return on investments. This is a good, step, but as insufficient as foreign aid – for these are projected, not actual results.

At Valuing Voices, we have found hopeful examples such as IKEA as well as where ‘impact investing’ hype does not match the claims. Nonetheless, increasingly businesses are trying to consider circular economy systemic principles of “economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment.” This is regenerative, aims to decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources, not generate excess waste that cannot be reused and actuals seem to be measured at least during investments. As Harvard notes, “this leads investors to look at factors such as a company’s carbon footprint, water usage (both Environment), community development efforts (Social), and board diversity (Governance).” We encourage them to measure long-term/ longitudinally. A current Harvard Business Review sobering article on the ineffectiveness so far of measuring environmental sustainability and ESG. “…reporting is not a proxy for progress. Measurement is often nonstandard, incomplete, imprecise, and misleading. And headlines touting new milestones in disclosure and socially responsible investment are often just fanciful ‘greenwishing’”.

Australia’s RMIT defines business sustainability as comprising 4 pillars: Human, Social, Economic, and Environmental which combines a) “Human sustainability focuses on the importance of anyone directly or indirectly involved in the making of products, or provision of services or broader stakeholders;… b) Social sustainability focuses on maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people;… c) Economic sustainability aims to improve the standard of living [and] the efficient use of assets to maintain company profitability over time;… d) Environmental sustainability places emphasis on how business can achieve positive economic outcomes without doing any harm, in the short- or long-term, to the environment.” But how well measured?!

Would ESG success be sustained over the long-term rather than short-term shareholder profit cycles? Will the OECD start to recommend extensive ex-post evaluation? Will they develop guidance to incorporate environmental concerns in evaluation for our common good? I do not yet know, but I implore these silos to start talking. No time to waste!

As my colleague and  collaborator Susan Legro commented, we need to:

1) Continue to seek clarity and specificity in the terminology that we use, ensuring that it is clear to all stakeholders and beneficiaries; and

2) Find ways to study projects and initiatives over the longer term, which is the only way to study the designation of “sustainable” for any initiatives seeking that label.

What are your thoughts?

 

Reblog Ex-post Eval Week: Exiting For Sustainability by Jindra Cekan

Ex-post Eval Week: Exiting For Sustainability by Jindra Cekan

Jindra Cekan
Jindra Cekan

Hello. My name is Jindra Cekan, and I am the Founder and Catalyst of Valuing Voices at Cekan Consulting LLC. Our research, evaluation and advocacy network have been working on post-project (ex-post) evaluations since 2013. I have loved giraffes for decades and fund conservation efforts (see pix).

Our planet is in trouble as are millions of species, including these twiga giraffes and billions of homo-sapiens. Yet in global development we evaluate projects based on their sectoral, e.g. economic, social, educational, human rights etc., results, with barely a glance at the natural systems on which they rest. IDEAS Prague featured Andy Rowe and Michael Quinn Patton who showed that I too have been blind to this aspect of sustainability.

I have argued ad nauseum that the OECD’s definition of projected sustainability and impact don’t give a hoot about sustaining lives and livelihoods.. If we did, we would not just claim we do ‘sustainable development’ and invest in ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ but go about proving how well, for how long, by whom, after closeout.

After hearing Rowe, I added to my Sustained Exit Checklists new elements about how we must evaluate Risks to Sustainability and Resilience to Shocks that included the natural environment. I added Adaptation to Implementation based on feedback on how much implementation would need to change based in part on climatic changes.

Consider these Valuing Voices Sustained Exit Elements table with information on commitments to sustainability and conditions for sustainability.
Source: Author’s Sustained Exit training (December 2020)

Lessons Learned:

Yet new evaluation thinking by Rowe, Michael Quinn Patton, Astrid Brouselle/ Jim McDavid take us a quantum leap beyond. We must ask how can any intervention be sustained without evaluating the context in which it operates. Is it resilient to environmental threats? Can participants adapt to shocks,? Have we assessed and mitigated the environmental impacts of our interventions? As Professor Brouselle writes, “changing our way of thinking about interventions when designing and evaluating them…. away from our many exploitation systems that lead to exhaustion of resources and extermination of many species.”

This 2020 new thinking includes ascertaining:

  1. (Andy Rowe) Ecosystems of biotic natural capital and abiotic natural capital (from trees to minerals) with effects on health, education, public safety/ climate risk and community development
  2. (Michael Quinn Patton) New Evaluative Criteria including: Transformation fidelity, adaptive sustainability, eco-efficiency full-cost accounting
  3. (Astrid Brouselle and Jim McDavid) Human systems that affect our interventions, including: Power relations, prosperity, equity and we need to make trade-offs between environment and development goals clear.

We have miles to go of systems and values to change. Please read this and let’s start sustaining NOW.

Rad Resources:

This week, AEA365 is celebrating Ex-post Eval Week during which blog authors share lessons from project exits and ex-post evaluations. Am grateful to the American Evaluation Association that we could share these resources…. 

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

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

 Holta Trandafili
Holta Trandafili

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

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

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

To the enthusiastic evaluators ready to start ex-posts

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

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

Hot Tips:

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

Rad Resources:

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

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

Peter Kimeu Ngui
Peter Kimeu Ngui

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

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

(1) sustainable right relationship for all humanity and nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned:

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

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

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

Rad Resources:

Reblog:Ex-post Eval Week: Are we serious about project sustainability and exit? By Abu Ala Hasan

Ex-post Eval Week: Are we serious about project sustainability and exit? By Abu Ala Hasan

I am Abu Ala Hasan, an independent consultant. I am an anthropologist, have been working in the NGO sector for 17 years. A large portion of my work are evaluations and research.

In 2018 we (Jindra Cekan and I) were selected to design exit strategy and learning documentation for a client. When we started, we found, despite having a plan for devising exit strategy, the implementing organisations involved only paid attention to that at the end of the project, having only three months.

Most startling was the fact that the informants, ranging from partner NGO officials,  to community members involved gave us blank looks when asked about readiness for exit. Few NGO executives said that they would be able to continue some of the activities themselves. Almost none of the community members could answer exit questions; rather they tried to explain about the project services and their benefits.

People sitting around a table with large piece of paper with squares drawn in and round stickers in several of the squares.

Though it was thought provoking, it was not surprising at all due to existing NGO culture, where in practice, interventions are initiated and decisions made by the NGOs or funders, rather than the community.

So, why does it happen?  First and foremost, exit is not taken seriously. Rather than trying to ensure sustainability of the project from the beginning or designing the project to achieve it, it is added, as if, an auxiliary component; apparently to fulfil criteria by outsiders. The word ‘exit strategy’ was mentioned twice and ‘sustainability’ five times in the action plan, a 38- page document, and we saw few activities.

While it takes time, the trend of project cycle has been increasingly heading towards shorter duration. A decade ago most projects were planned for five years or longer but now one to three years is the norm. This is not only counterproductive for sustainability but also detrimental to bring about significant social change (outcome/impact). The community members’ reactions indicated that sustainability was unfamiliar; it appeared, they were not informed or there was no such discussion with them. Planning for sustainability was not taken seriously.

Hot Tips:

To ensure sustainability and proper exit:

  • There should be sincere commitment and effort towards sustainability and exit from NGOs
  • Sustainability and exit planning should be built in the project implementation process from design stage. Projects should be designed for sustainability and not ignored
  • Involvement of the community members, their voice and participation in decision making at all stages is very important for sustainability and proper exit
  • Except for emergency projects, development projects should be longer in duration and properly evaluated periodically

Rad Resources:

For exit and sustainability planning these resources could be helpful:

This week, AEA365 is celebrating Ex-post Eval Week during which blog