Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Funding and Accountability for sustainable projects?
What are Sustainable Development Goals? ” the United Nations adopted the new post-2015 development agenda. The new proposals – to be achieved by 2030- set 17 new ‘sustainable’ development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. Some, like Oxfam, see the SDGs as a country budgeting and prioritization as well as an international fundraising tool. They cite that “government revenue currently funds 77% of spending…aligned with government priorities, balanced between investment and recurrent and easy to implement than donor-funded spending…” National investments are vital, but how much has the world used the SDGs to target investments and foster sustainable results?
Using results data such as that of the sectoral SDGs, countries can also ensure accountability for the policies implemented to reduce global and local inequities, but we must learn from the data. Over halfway to the goal, data is being collected, and while there is robust monitoring by countries who have built their M&E systems, other countries are faltering. “A recent report by Paris21 found even highly developed countries are still not able to report more than 40-50% of the SDG indicators” and “only 44% of SDG indicators have sufficient data for proper global and regional monitoring”. Further, there is very little evaluation or transparent accountability. Some of the data illuminate vitally need-to-know-for-better-programming. SDG data shows good news that Western and Asian countries have done better than most of the world 2015-19… but there is a lot of missing data while other data shows staggering inequities such as these:
- In Vietnam, a child born into the majority Kinh, or Viet, ethnic group is three and a half times less likely to die in his or her first five years than a child from other Vietnamese ethnic groups.
- In the United States, a black woman is four times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman.
So are we using the SDG data to better target funding and improve design? This is the kind of evaluative learning (or at least sharing by those that are doing it :)) that is missing. As my colleague and friend Sanjeev Sridharan writes on Rethinking Evaluation, “As a field we need to more clearly understand evaluation’s role in addressing inequities and promoting inclusion” including “Promoting a Culture of Learning for Evaluation – these include focus on utilization and integration of evaluation into policy and programs.” How well learning is integrating is unknown.
As a big picture update on the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2021, with only nine years left to the goal: It’s not looking good. The scorecards show COVID-19 has slowed down or wiped out many achievements, with 100 million people pushed into extreme poverty, according to the IMF. Pre-Covid, our blog on sectoral SDG statistics on health, poverty, hunger, and climate, was already showing very mixed results and a lack of mutual accountability.
The private sector is ever-being pushed to fund more of such development costs, only marginally successfully, as public sector expenditures are squeezed. Yet the G20 estimates that $2.5 TRILLION is needed every year to meet the SDG goals. As we have seen at Impact Guild, the push to incentivize private commitments is faltering. “To ensure its sustainability, the private sector has specific interests in securing long-term production along commodity supply chains, while reducing their environmental and social impacts and mitigating risks… The long-term economic impacts of funding projects that support the sustainability agenda are, thus, clearly understood. However, additional capital needs to flow into areas that address the risks appropriately. For example, much remains to be done to factor climate change as a risk variable into emerging markets that face the largest financing gap in achieving the SDGs.” Further, if decreased funding trends continue, by 2030, at minimum 400 million people will still live on less than $1.25 a day; around 650 million people will be undernourished, and nearly 1 billion people will be without energy access. So we’re not meeting the SDGs, they’re being derailed by COVID in places, and we aren’t beginning to cost out the need to address climate change and its effects on global development…. so now what?
To ensure that giving everyone a fair chance in life is more than just a slogan; accountability is crucial. This should include a commitment from world leaders to report on progress on “leaving no one behind” in the SDG follow-up and review framework established for the post-2015 agenda and for the private sector to loudly track their investments across the SDGs. For as The Center for American Progress wrote, money and results are key: We must “measure success in terms of outcomes for people, rather than in inputs—such as the amount of money spent on a project—as well as in terms of national or global outcomes” and that “policymakers at the global level and in each country should task a support team of researchers with undertaking an analysis of each commitment.”
A further concern. While we seem to measure the statistics periodically and see funding allocated to SDG priorities, but there are few causal links drawn between intensity in investment in any SDG goal and sustained results. To what degree are the donations/ investments into the SDGs linked to improvements? Without measuring causality or attribution, it could be a case of “A rising tide lifts all boats” as economies improve or, as Covid-related economic decline wiped out 20 years of development gains as Bill Gates noted last year. We need proof that trillions of dollars of international “Sustainable development” programs have any sustained impact beyond the years of intervention.
We must do more evaluation and learn from SDG data for better targeting of investments and do ex-post sustainability evaluations to see what was most sustained, impactful, and relevant. Donors should raise more funds to meet needs and consider only funding what could be sustained locally. Given the still uncounted demands on global development funding, we can no longer hope or wait for global mobilization of trillions given multiple crises pushing more of the world into crisis. Let’s focus now.
There are six bright Hallelujahs on the sustained impact journey this Holiday. I’ve paired each of them by a wish, so appropriate this Holiday Season.
1. Netherlands Greatness! The government of theNetherlands has recently started talking with their implementing agencies about how to track and prove sustainability six years after exit, as one Dutch colleague told me at the European Evaluation Society Conference this Oct.
As we know, demanding evaluation of sustainability after project closure is rarer than vegan turkey on Thanksgiving, and the Dutch Ministry of ForeignAffairs is tacking the issues of a) how will they pay for it after project funding has ended (hint: see 3ie), b) how will the data disseminated and influence which decision-makers? Note: Japan’s development agency JICA is the only other bilateral to have this as a mandated aspect of their ongoing evaluations. We congratulate the Dutch for joining Japan in sustained impact evaluation leadership!
My Wish: For the other bilaterals and multilaterals for whom such evaluations are exotically occasional learnings to see the value from learning about the successes and failures of how(un)sustained your results are. Also to fund such evaluations for at least 10% of all programming per year, and do better programming focused on helping locals sustain the results they want. See, that wasn’t such a huge wish was it?
2. USAID Transformation to Self-Resilience is a promising analysis USAID is doing under the leadership of AdministratorMark Green. This Transformation “Journey to Self-Reliance” is “reorienting the way it does business to focus on supporting our partner countries… to solve their own development challenges.” It consists of a variety of policies, from using more private sector money for development to two exit-related initiatives including Financing Self-Reliance “to strengthen support for our host country partners in their efforts to finance their own development journey”and includes continuing to build local capacity and Partnering and Procurement such as using adaptive approaches and “principles of supporting locally-led development and long-term sustainability.”
Will USAID really follow the SDG aim to Leave No one Behind in terms of focusing on the poor? Metrics of USAID’s Country Roadmaps, range from national economic growth and democracy/governance to sectoral measures in health, food security etc. Maybe this is not just a way to use national data to justify exit of aid programs due to shrinking funding, but instead is a way for USAID to determine who is actually self-reliant among their recipient countries and focus more resources on those who aren’t on more needs-based criteria than politically strategic bases than in the past.Maybe it will look hard at assumptions rather than Uganda’s CDCS which projects sustainability in 30 years but will program on until then. OXFAM’sAid Localization may be a better, faster route.
My Wish: that bilateral donors like USAID test how well their current aid projects support self-reliance and how well they’re furthering sustainability. This includes learning what has been self-sustained and not renewing what hasn’t. We offer our database of 25 catalytic organizations’ ex-post project evaluations at Valuing Voices which were informed by local voices of our participants and partners. These fascinating evaluations need to inform new programming as sustainability is only high occasionally, unlike what we assume. We ask commissioners of such evaluations to tell us what they have learned and how they have done things differently (e.g. have they funding differently, chosen what projects are selected as implementers differently, and while adaptive monitoring is a terrific addition, how has evaluation changed -other than pending OECD DAC Criteria and Ofir’s blog commentary plus the WorldBank’s sustainability blog) and how has exit, sustainability planning and handover to national government using data about sustainability and impact changed and people really can sustain themselves? NOTE: this may lead to less money being spent over a longer time, more flexibly and locally-directed. We donor nations may benefit less as locals take their own ‘development’ in hand. Hallelujah.
3. Recently I did a webinar for InterAction webinar with dear sustained impact aficionados from Catholic Relief Services and World Vision on “How Sustained and Resilient are our Impacts?” Lessons about accountability for locally sustainable development was front and center. We all shared that ex-posts project evaluations have, shall we say, mixed results of success and failure. This can be difficult for agencies to absorb as the projects selected are not only typically selected to showcase success, but normally these are selected to be showcased as the best projects. Also, unsustained results can question the quality of funder’s design the agency’s and implementation, risking reputation and funding for both. But hiding failure is worse. A recent Evidence Action statement admitting failure of a promising intervention, promising to evaluate why and learn from it only gained kudos. Conversely, great results can show where future focus could be, or much can be (rightly?) attributed to unexpected new conditions which led it in very different directions.
My Wish: My CRS colleague was challenged by a younger American colleague who asked him “are we liable if we don’t deliver sustainable development?” Astonished, he answered “yes.”. Let’s get over our infallibility and inclination to promise something only the countries themselves can deliver. Yes, we are liable for wasting money and locals time and hopes. Yes, we can claim success when partnerships go well. May we all learn from failures, celebrate successes –especially those locals consider successes, and replicate only those.
4. Impact Investment is slowing inching forward in helping move more of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) toward fruition. The pressure on many global funders and countries alike to meet the 17 SDG targets set in 2015 is rising. Funding needs to accomplish the goals is $4 trillion a year, yes, trillion, compared to $150 billion available now in foreign aid. Accessing private capital is a wise investment if such development could unleash up to $12 trillion in growth. Repeatedly people like myself and Impact Guild read that “demand for SDG-aligned investment products outstrips supply“ which is true not in terms of the actual business and civil society non-profits trying to generate Social, Environmental, Governmental and financial Return on Investment (SROI and ESG), but in terms of profitable and stable investments. Investors tend to be risk-averse yet there are a range instruments that cover the range of development to humanitarian needs. It is not a mechanism to ignore as for-profit funding will sharply increase in coming years with up to $8 trillion of impact investments moving into global disasters recovery alone and vital “climate finance” investments only going to grow, as $100 billion are year is being raised for poor countries to stem the rising effects of climate change. Combined with a $10.3 billion private Green Climate Fund that privately funds climate resilience projects all over the world to meet SDG13, we can no longer rely on diminishing foreign aid alone.
While patient pessimism is needed to overcome the hype that now private capital can replace philanthropy, INGOs are – cautiously innovating. As this month’s Amplify report from 40 international NGOs dipping their toes into impact investment collaborations notes, there are a wide array of collaborations. Some are investing their own private donors funds – or those leveraging other donors’ and investors’ funds in Development Impact Bonds (DIBs) or Social Impact Bonds (SIBs), and other instruments to the tune of $545.1million in assets. These are mainly in profit-low-hanging fruit development sectors of agriculture, livelihoods, and financial inclusion. Yet some of the INGO’s greatest strengths are least appreciated and what the relatively risk-averse and ‘due-diligence-focused’ impact investors do not yet know they need: ”their deep knowledge of local environments, programs, and technical solutions; their long-standing networks and sophistication in partnering with multiple actors; their financial sophistication from their wide-ranging donor relationships; and their experience in complex, multi-year measurement of impact.“
My Wish: that these two industries listen to one another. Non-profits can be mired in a can’t spend-can’t-risk mindset while being queasy about generating revenue, while impact investors can be torn between profits being king and claims of ‘impact’ from just investing in a sector without monitoring actual effects on the ground. There is simply too much good to be done.
5. Brazil/ France’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – The French renewable energy company Voltalia has created their first CSR-funded Social Projects for Social Responsibility. It is using some excellent sustainability principles as well as leveraging Brazilian Bank BNDES social sub-credit seed financing. I met Voltalia’s small CSR team at the EES conference. They started working in impoverished northeast Brazil, using great non-profit processes of communities identifying needed projects and processes that overlapped with what CSR could offer, over half of which were in education, health and ‘social responsibility’ (aka livelihoods linked to water access and use such as fisheries etc). They invested substantial funds into these grassroots projects, alongside interesting Social Management Tools that included cost management tracking of local co-investment, great collaborative communications plans, sustainability reporting, including Social Return on Investment (SROI). Like many non-profits before them, it has been hard, but also enormously rewarding and their work has led to greater employee engagement and was recognized by global headquarters – kudos! – interested? Contact them.
My Wish: Walking in the shoes of our partners and participants teaches us about their capacities and needs, and how to adapt what we can offer to be of greatest use. We need more companies with ‘dust on their shoes’, as my PhD advisor called my fieldwork. This epitomizes the Sidekick Manifesto approach where we offer local leaders help, rather than ‘solving’ poverty, hunger, ill-health, un-representation for them (which our efforts only accomplish for a short-term anyway, see #1, 2).
6. Climate Conference COP24 corralled nearly 200 nations to create technical targets and measurements to try to keep us below IPCC’s dire projections that we are not on target to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C degrees, and that it will cost billions to the economies of the world, not to mention jeopardize past development gains. You may wonder why this is a Hallelujah. It is because for those I most care about – my children and future generations-especially those in the ‘less developed countries’ who have least-caused yet are least able to mitigate climate change effects- are finally starting to be seen and heard. Conferences such as COP24, as well as a huge range of ‘non-state actors’, including corporations, non-profits, philanthropies, tribes, even individuals like you and me. Whether it is our self-interest or expenditure-avoidance which propels us to decrease our emissions and increase our use of clean technologies, or our altruism toward the millions of species on earth, we have globally begun turning to sustainability of the ecological kind. Scientists are proposing remarkable inventiveness to capture already present CO2, studies are showing how we can be more energy efficient, buy more sustainable fashion, to eat more kindly, etc.
My Wish: We have begun changing our consumption and carbon emission and our youth are pushing us to conserve our planet. I am hopeful that we will come together to address this threat to all species. Is it far enough? Is it fast enough? Santa – help! So since it’s my holiday hallelujah, read Hans Rosling on how it’s all getting better anyway.
Happy Holidays and New Year everyone!
Sustainable Development Goals and Foreign Aid–
How Sustainable and Accountable to Whom?
Jindra Cekan, PhD of ValuingVoices
World leaders will paint New York City red next week at the UN Summit adopting the new post-2015 development agenda. The agreed plans set 17 new ‘Sustainable’ Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. These are successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
While many of us have heard of them, how many of us know whether we met them and what prospects are there for the Sustainable Development Goals to do well or better? According to Bill Gates the MDGs were “the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I have ever seen.” The Brookings Institute goes on to praise the eight MDG targets for aiming high by setting targets such as halving world poverty and reducing child mortality, improving universal primary education and gender equality and empower women etc. . Donor countries pledged three times more than they had until that time (raising the percentage of gross national income for international development assistance from 0.2% to 0.7%, not huge amounts but laudable). From 2000 to 2015 extreme poverty did fall by half (although some argue China and Asia were well on their way before this aid came) and in some countries (Senegal, Cambodia) child deaths fell by half. Global health improved via huge coalitions on immunization and HIV/AIDS. Yet while poverty dropped and health increased, hunger, environment and sanitation targets were not met, for instance, and there are 850 million people still hungry worldwide (11% of all people) . Yet gains far outweigh losses. The new Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved in 15 years, by 2030. The UN and member nations will track a remarkable 169 indicators, “monitoring progress towards the SDGs at the local, national, regional, and global levels… 
Overall, one would feel rather tickled by these results — not 100% but still amazing given global disparities. Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development thinks measurement is not the goal: “Growing global interconnectedness means that the problems the world faces, that hold back development, are increasingly shared… we’re making a promise to ourselves that we are one world, one planet, one society, one people, who look out for each other…” 
But I’m a fan of measurable results, I must admit. One would logically think that our international development projects funded by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDS), the Millennium Challenge Corporation and others could outline how the caused the good results that some MDGs showed. USAID’s website links its work to the MDGs clearly: “in September 2010, President Obama called for the elevation of development as a key pillar of America’s national security and foreign policy. This set forth a vision of an empowered and robust U.S. Agency for International Development that could lead the world in solving the greatest development challenges of our time and, ultimately, meet the goal of ending extreme poverty in the next generation” . It goes on to talk about work to “Promote sustainable development through high-impact partnerships and local solutions“ . USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service states their “non-emergency food aid programs help meet recipients’ nutritional needs and also support agricultural development and education. These food assistance programs, combined with trade capacity building efforts, support long-term economic development” . Finally, MCC states they are “committed to delivering results throughout the entire lifecycle of its investments. From before investments begin to their completion and beyond… MCC’s continuum of results is designed to foster learning and accountability” .
Maybe. We don’t actually know because 99% of the time we never return to projects after they end to learn how sustainable they actually were. We could be fostering super-sustainability. Or not.
For international development programming works on 1-5 year programming cycles. Multi-million dollar project requests for proposals are designed and sent out by these funders to non-profit or for-profit implementers. These are awarded to one or more organization, quite rigorously monitored, and most have very good results. Then they end. Since 2000, the US Agency for International Development has spent $280 billion on country-to-country development and humanitarian aid projects as well as funding multilateral aid and in spite of much work evaluating the final impact of projects at the end, they never go back . The EU has spent a staggering $1.4 trillion. USAID has funded one evaluation that has gone back to see what communities and partners could sustain… in the last 30 years, and that is about to be published. A handful of international non-profits have taken matters in their own hands and funded such studies privately. The EU’s track record is even more dismal, with policies being proposed but not done . The World Bank, which has funded over 12,000 projects has an independent evaluation arm, the Independent Evaluation Group. They returned after projects closed out to evaluate results only 33 times and we found only three of them systematically talked to project participants about what was sustained.
The bottom line is, how do we know anything we’ve done in international development or SDGs is sustainable unless we go back to see? What amazing or awful results must we know for future design? If we do not return, are we really accountable to our taxpayers and our real clients: the participants and the national countries foreign aid recipients themselves?
The UN has pledged to have an SGD report card to “measure progress towards sustainable development and help ensure the accountability of all stakeholders for achieving the SDGs….[and a] Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, to help drive the Data Revolution….by using data we can ensure accountability for the policies that are implemented to reduce global and local inequities” . I completely agree that having citizen generated data at the local, national, regional, and global levels is so very important “to fill gaps in our knowledge, establish global norms and standards and…help countries develop robust national strategies for data development.” And as the World Bank IEG’s Caroline Heider states, measuring them is complex (e.g. agriculture affected by climate change and measuring changes across sectors is hard) but worthwhile .
While SDG data tells us what donor-funded activities and policies work, very few in international development know how sustainably our programming works for our ultimate clients, our participants and partners. And the price needn’t be high—a recent post-project evaluation we did cost under $120,000 which is a pittance given the project cost over $30 million and reached 500,000 folks. We found clear (mostly successful) lessons. USAID has, after 30 years, funded one post-project evaluation that also has clear cost-effective lessons (forthcoming). Really, in this era of cost-effectiveness, don’t we want data on what worked best (Note to self: do that more) and what worked least (Note to self: stop doing that)?
Learning what participants and partners could self-sustain after we left is actually all we should care about. They want to get beyond aid. Shouldn’t we know if we are getting them there? Self-sustainability of outcomes is a clear indicator of good Return on Investment of our resources and expertise and their time, effort and expertise. It shows us we want to put ourselves out of a job, having built country-led development that really has a future in-country with their own resources.
Two steps are:
1) Donors to add a funding equivalent to 1% of program value for five years after closeout for all projects over $10 million to support local capacity-building of NGOs and national partners to take over implementation plus to evaluate lessons across different sector’s sustainability outcomes.
2) A cross-donor fund for country-led analysis of such learning plus lessons for what capacity needs to be built in-country to take over programming. This needs support from regionally-based knowledge repositories and learning centers in Africa, Asia, etc. Online and tangible centers could house both implementer reports/ evaluations and analyze/ share lessons learned across sectors and countries from post-project evaluations for projects that closed out 2-7 years ago for future design.
Now that is accountability. Let’s advocate for sustainability funding, data and learning now.
What are your suggestions? How can we improve sustainability?
 McArthur, J. (2013, February 21). Own the Goals: What the Millennium Development Goals Have Accomplished. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/articles/own-the-goals-what-the-millennium-development-goals-have-accomplished/
 End Poverty 2015 Millennium Campaign. (n.d.). MDG 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger. Retrieved from https://www.endpoverty2015.org/mdg-success-stories/mdg-1-end-hunger/
 Sharma, S. (2015, August 20). From Aspirations to Reality: How to Effectively Measure the Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/measuring-the-peoples-age_b_7999640
 Mirchandani, R. (2015, September 22). Does It Matter If We Don’t Achieve the SDGs? A New Podcast with Nancy Birdsall and Michael Elliott. Retrieved from https://www.cgdev.org/blog/does-it-matter-if-we-dont-achieve-sdgs-podcast-nancy-birdsall-and-michael-elliott
 USAID. (n.d.). USAID Forward. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/usaidforward/usaid-forward-2014-archive
 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (n.d.). Food Assistance. Retrieved from https://www.fas.usda.gov/topics/food-assistance
 Millennium Challenge Corporation. (n.d.). Our Impact. Retrieved 2016, from https://web.archive.org/web/20160325135258/https://www.mcc.gov/our-impact
 Cekan, J. (2015, March 13). When Funders Move On. Retrieved from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/when_funders_move_on
 Global Issues. (n.d.). Foreign Aid for Development Assistance: Foreign Aid Numbers in Charts and Graphs. Retrieved from https://www.globalissues.org/print/article/35#globalissues-org
 Florio, M. (2009, November/December). Sixth European Conference on Evaluation of Cohesion Policy: Getting Incentives Right — Do We Need Ex Post CBA? Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/archive/conferences/evaluation2009/abstracts/florio.doc
 Heider, C. (2015, September 15). Evaluation Beyond 2015: Implications of the SDGs for Evaluation. Retrieved from https://ieg.worldbankgroup.org/blog/evaluation-beyond-2015-implications-sdgs-evaluation