Imagine standing in Detroit or South-Central Los Angeles. A team of experts has come to help you out of grinding poverty. Some of these experts specialize in credit issues, others in education or health or gardening. They have funding for three years, so they set up offices, create participant lists and prioritize problems to tackle. They give you seeds and loans, and advice. And you—and others from your neighborhood—begin creating small businesses and home gardens. You and other adults learn about infant nutrition; children who live in your area get free school materials; teachers at your local schools receive extra training. Everyone begins to do better.
A year and a half passes. Another expert arrives to find out how things are going relative to the team’s projections. Some businesses are succeeding, others have faltered; some gardens are flourishing, others are neglected. You participate in a focus group, and you answer questions optimistically.
At the three-year mark, many of your neighbors are participating in this project, and tangible successes appear to be spreading. But suddenly, the experts are packing their boxes. The project office closes. The initiative has supposedly been “handed over” to the community. No one who worked for the project comes back.
No one comes back. This is the state of affairs for too many so-called “sustainable international development” initiatives around the world, and it has to change.
As Gugelev and Stern brilliantly note in a recent SSIR article, we must be transparent about our “endgame”: Too many international development projects are bound to fixed endings and “fail to reckon with the gap between what the nonprofit can achieve and what the problem actually requires.” Due to fixed funding requirements, donors often leave when the calendar tells them to, whether or not a project has achieved the desired impact. And according to Valuing Voices research, they don’t even go back to assess the outcomes of their work or consider what (if anything) might help progress continue!
Since 2000, the US government has spent more than $280 billion on bilateral and multilateral assistance; the EU has spent $1.4 trillion. Just in 2002, US foundations, businesses, and NGOs spent more than $34 billion overseas. And while most taxpayers believe that this spending supports “sustainable development,” our research shows that 99 percent of the nonprofit grant and for-profit contracted projects these funds enabled were not evaluated after the funding concluded. Unfortunately, this continues: In 2014, the US spent $20 billion and the EU spent $80 billion on program assistance without any plan for post-project evaluation. This does not mean the projects are not sustainable; we simply do not know.
In fact, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—once considered the leader in post-project evaluations assessing relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability—has managed only one post-project evaluation in 30 years (due later this year). And although thousands of documents appear in multilateral donor database searches as evaluations, most are “desk studies”—conducted remotely and not based on new fieldwork. Of these, only a few include feedback from program participants (leading the way are Japan’s International Cooperation Agency and the UN’s Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which have systematically done post-project evaluations).
Why don’t we do a better job of following up? Are we afraid of the possibility of seeing poor results? If so, it’s time to face that fear. In some cases, we will surely see good results or even unanticipated positive impact—we’re missing that too.
Hewlett Foundation’s Fay Twersky implored nonprofits to “systematically solicit feedback from intended beneficiaries” in an SSIR podcast on Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). We agree. We need to know more than whether those participants’ situations are improving while a program is in full swing, and we need to know what it will take for things to continue to improve after the funding goes away. Imagine the cost efficiencies we would gain by replicating activities that they could sustain. Imagine the cost-efficiencies and productivity if we prioritized activities with the largest sustainable return on investment (ROI). Now that is something impact investors could buy into.
There are positive signs on the horizon. According to Keystone Accountability, an increasing number of nonprofit organizations are committing to “making governments, NGOs, and donors more responsive to the needs of their constituents.” And funding that supports the idea of using participant feedback to improve programs and make them sustainable is on the rise, as Center for Effective Philanthropy's “Hearing from Those We Seek to Help” and the Fund for Shared Insight have noted. All of this could yield a hugely different array of endgames that are sustainable by communities that can perhaps later even select development aid offers based on past effectiveness.
But there is still much to do. We offer the following recommendations to project implementers and donors, based on our own experience, and on our observations of several initiatives where we have seen project participants independently continuing and adapting work that was begun with external support:
- Shift the development model from what donors and implementers think would be best to what the intended participants think is best. Design projects with them, and mandate that request for proposals (RFP) design involves communities.
- Document, share, and discuss what was most sustained and what participating communities can do to sustain projects, and how we can sustainably support them through design and implementation to make them more effective.
- Require a plan for transitioning to sustainability after projects close for any project that uses more than $1 million dollars. This should include handover plans to local nonprofits, with training and financial support; training for communities on how to manage the sustainable activities it prioritizes; financing mechanisms for those activities; and report sharing in IATI open-data format, with project data saved and stored in the cloud for global access.
- Do post-project sustainability evaluations on all these projects, and discuss the results widely with other funders, the government, and the private sector, including how to feed back lessons into future design.
- Advocate for participatory input in all evaluations. This input should make up 30 percent of future evaluation findings (now far less).
- Consistently solicit feedback from local communities through national evaluators, both during and after projects, to better understand how the program you’re running or supporting from afar is working on the ground. Invest in building the national capacity and systems needed to make that feedback helpful for all stakeholders, including national governments.
- Advocate for extensive civil society input into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals so they serve our participants’ visions for the world they want.
As Peter Kimeu of Catholic Relief Services said to me, “It will be sustainable development if the people at community level are involved in designing and delivering their own dreams of development.”