The need to return…and learn post-project close-out: Plan Int'l

It's like leaving the screening of a documentary; don't you too want to know how things work out after the movie makers leave? I do. And most of all I long to learn from it… I long to see what people value enough to maintain themselves, long after 'we' have left their lives and livelihoods.

Far too rarely in international development do organizations go back and see what 'stuck' from closed projects.  Most projects are 2, 5, even 10 years in duration, and once the funding ends, so does our spotlight and learning from them. We 'hand over' to local community-based- organizations, or the government and wish them well (albeit with no continued funding or staff continuity), and hope community capacity is strong enough to maintain what we tried to transfer… and hoped they too would feel was valuable.  Many of us in development feel it's wrong but donors say 'we have no more funds'. Basta. Shut off the camera.

There are a few exceptions. Plan International and Mercy Corps (December blog) are two mavericks who have taken their own private funds to learn what's standing long after they left.  (Others are the some well-funded development banks – EIB, World Bank, UN organizations.)  So what could we learn? TONS.

Plan is clear about its objectives of their return to Kenya nine years later: 

* To better understand how PLAN contributed to long-term changes in the communities
• To review overall community ownership of previous projects
• To provide input for programme managers on future programme design
• To inform how to start and finish work in specific areas

Talking to 165 participants, they found many things, including: 
* Water tanks and VIP latrines were not only maintained, but had been copied by others in the community, which is key to sustained uptake. Clearly these were valued.
* Building one health dispensary and two buildings for Financial Services Associations were valued and maintained, boosted dignity and pride in the area. People still used both buildings.
*  Irish potatoes were still being cultivated as the result of Plan’s promotion and training – this training stuck.

Let's learn from what's still standing and look for other, unintended consequences and results that may not have been originally planned. Speaking of which, what was originally planned and what % of project activities are these four results a remainder of?

Processes were less successful:
* Community leaders said "Plan came with its own blue-print of projects, and had not attempted to understand the local community and its needs, nor to involve them in planning" (e.g. grain stores). "Plan was seen as ‘a bringer of things’, but had not built a sense of ownership or responsibility for them. 
* Plan introduced building Community-Based Organizations but almost all Plan-supported CBOs are no longer in operation…. [Communities] did not "appear to have the ability, motivation or capacity to adopt a role representing and advocating for the interests of the 
community and its children."

This is typical of many development projects, broadly proposed to meet focused donor funding and ideals, valiantly shaped in the field to try to address stakeholder needs. Time is often of the essence and locally-driven planning and buy-in take time. All suffer as a result.

Also, situations in-country are dynamic and nine years is a long time. What changed in Plan's absence that could have led to improvements irrespective of Plan's interventions over nine years ago? Some empowerment lasted. Nine years later evaluators found that the "principle that people have to be consulted and to participate was frequently articulated by parents and District Officers… [and even] children understood their rights, as did teachers and some parents." But this could have equally been due to new government free public elementary education for children, increasing focus on ‘child friendly’ school environments, and increased attention to accountability of state actors. More research is needed during those years, especially led by communities and national-level (university, evaluation associations, community members themselves) to track attribution and other unexpected impacts.

Plan put into place some recommendations, including "‘Phasing out’ needs to be regarded as a process which requires both time and context specific analysis and design of the process. Communities need to be involved in the process and there needs to be community buy-in and ownership of post-Plan structures". Kudos to Plan for its bravery to risk learning. Yet nowhere in their recommendations was involving communities throughout in sustainable project design, monitoring and evaluation, rather than just the phase-out.

We all know 'development' needs to be locally led to be valuable at the beginning, middle, end and beyond. Let's start to be brave and ask what could we know? Where have you looked to learn? What have you learned? I long to know. We all do.