Twigas (Participant self-sustainability) throughout 'development time'- Design, Implementation, M&E and beyond


What if we saw our true clients (sometimes vulnerable twigas) as our project participants and wanted the return on investment of projects be maximally sustained?  How would this change how we design, implement, monitor and evaluate projects with country-leadership? With $1.5 trillion dollars in US and EU foreign aid spent since 2000, don't you think that our industry urgently needs feedback on what communities feel will be sustainable now, what interventions offer the likelihood of positive impact beyond the performance of the project’s planned (log-framed) activities, and what activities stood the test of time and our departure?

Shockingly, such learning is not happening today.  YET.

Country-led development through participation has been a clarion call for several years, including USAID Forward and EU’s interest in food security and development finance. The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness is a clarion call supporting country-led development. Multilaterals do some work to evaluate their projects; a handful of international non-profits do a small amount of evaluation post-project; and non-profits do some work using mobile technology to harness community feedback. Africa’s CAADP also manifests country-led and partially country-financed development (5-10% of GDP budgeted for Agriculture).  Aid transparency is gaining support, and ValuingVoices adds a much needed local voice in terms of transparent, effective assistance.  Much more funding is emerging to foster grassroots participation (e.g., Ashoka, Rockefeller and other funding), ranging from lessons learned from 6,000 aid recipients by Time to Listen to books touting Participatory Statistics, and the astonishing growth of mobile crowdsourcing platforms such as Kenya’s Ushahidi and Ghana’s Esoko. IOCE’s new evaluation initiative (VOPE) that is building capacity of national evaluators will also be a key resource.

So that's the good news coming up the riverbank. When should we be talking to communities about their views of what they feel is most sustainable and that they can sustain themselves? ALL THE TIME.

1) During Design

Most of our projects are designed in capital cities by donors who are informed by past projects, research, industry trends, policy imperatives, and are limited by narrowly focused funding streams. Very few projects are designed by those who will live with the results, namely the communities themselves. Donors often develop proposal requirements with little input from locals until start-up, when implementers fine-tune. Communities only get what donors are willing to give and donors want results. Not just temporary results but sustained ones.  Such faulty design and lack of learning from evaluations—rarely asking our true clients, our participants, from the very start—leads to rusting tractors, farmers returning to traditional practices without resources to switch, latrines that are not used, etc. We mean well, but these practices are not working well.  We know this from working over 25 years in international development. We need to change that.


2) During Implementation, at Midterm and Final Evaluation

Communities participate in midterm and final evaluations but often the knowledge is a one-way street, out.  Hardly ever are findings shared with communities and joint re-design done to optimize prospects for self-sustainability of project activities.  Ongoing learning from implementation needs to be transparently captured and shared in open-data format for discussion and adaptation (along USAID’s CLA Approach – Collaborating, Learning and Adapting program activities).  Often sustainability is planned during the last 6 months of implementation, and handed to partners that are weakly-resourced, may contain untested assumptions, and haven’t had a chance to build up the organizational culture needed. Capacity building of partners to take over implementation also requires resources, which need to be budgeted in, and systems that partners co-create to fit their needs and ability to maintain.  Program evaluation data that exists is often locked away in .pdf files in repositories that are not often accessible by countries themselves, and lessons learned within doesn’t often inform future design even among the implementers, much less by locals. We must change that.


3) After Project Close-out

Very rarely do implementing agencies return 3, 5, 10 years after projects close and ask participants what is “still standing” that they managed to sustain themselves. How often do we take community members, local NGOs, national evaluators as the leaders of evaluations of long-term self-sustainability of our projects? Based on my research (www.ValuingVoices/blogs99% of international aid projects are not evaluated for sustainability or impact after project close by anyone, much less by the communities they are designed to serve.  We can change that.

This is what ValuingVoices is all about.


31 years of Valuing Voices of national participants, project partners, donors and technical staff. Let’s have sustained impact!