Poor villagers like Edith, Aminata, Rituu, and Juan don’t appear much on the nightly news. You might never know they exist unless you stop and read your mail from some charity asking you to help them. On the brochures, they can look scared or sad; maybe surrounded by their thin children, with a parched land or dying animals behind them. Our foreign aid programs should be helping them, but are they?
I have met these people while they are working in their fields, growing corn and peas, millet and coffee, raising their chickens and goats. I have talked to them outside of health centers where they have brought their babies to be vaccinated or their parents for medical care. I got to know them when I interviewed them under the big tree in the middle of their village, or in empty school rooms, asking them what they need from us, and how we can design foreign aid projects to better help them.
I have worked in international development as a technical expert in project design and monitoring and evaluation for international non-profits such as Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, the Red Cross, and many others including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). I estimate that I have designed and evaluated over 200 projects in 28 countries over the last 29 years. I have felt lucky to do this work, and foreign aid does achieve some very good work while we are there: helping farmers to farm better, or helping men and women to care for their family’s health, wealth, and future with new knowledge, tools, and items they need for daily living. My colleagues do wonderful work as well, in hard conditions, within countries with few resources, and for donors with unrealistic expectations of how much can be done well in short timeframes. In 2010, USAID stated that they would aim for 30 percent of funding to be spent by national partners under USAID Forward.1 This is an excellent step toward the country-led development that the Paris Accords promised, yet as of 2016, there is no list of local partners, other than a handful of examples.2 The only ‘country partners’ list posted to the USAID website includes 80 organizations doing programming via USAID in Afghanistan alone, 55 of which are American firms, four US agencies, nine Afghan government-affiliated organizations, six foreign governments, six UN agencies, and two MENA firms.3 Not quite the national civil-society-NGO partners we envisioned in 2010. Under the new U.S. administration, these are likely to shrink even more as the 0.5 percent of our GNP we allocate to foreign aid is redirected inward—that much more reason to make it as sustained as possible. European aid as well as other rising world nations need this approach just as much.
Large parts of international aid system remain broken. We design too many projects outside of the countries themselves. We have fixed funding and leave in pre-set times rather than when participants are actually ready to take over. We ‘handover’ without partnering throughout the whole project so that partners can determine what they are able to sustain. Even worse, we leave and do not look back to learn from our Ediths and Juans after our projects have closed. Sometimes, we disparage their knowledge, and at other times we don’t make enough time to ask but wish we did. Mostly, our aid industry is designed around measuring success while we intervene, and then abruptly leave because funding ended. Yet development is, as international evaluator Ian Davies says, “A process, not a result.”
Our policies say we are doing “sustainable development”, that we are helping our ‘beneficiaries’ (really our partners and participants) feed themselves over the long-term, that our projects are almost all successful, and that all we need to do is to scale up the great projects out there. But the numbers prove we are not, in fact, achieving sustainable development. Nine times out of ten, we rarely go back to talk to our participants and partners after our project end, and we move on.
The numbers are staggering:
- Of the US$5 trillion dollars of international foreign aid spent since 1945, we have evaluated the long-term sustainability far less than one percent of the time.
- Since 2000, for example, USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation have only done three such evaluations apiece, yet they spent well over US$300 billion.
- The EU evaluated only a few dozen of its projects and programs, in spite of spending US$1.5 trillion in the last 15 years. The United Nations Development Program may do up to six a year, and the World Bank more, but how often do any of them talk to project participants and design anew based on what we learned that succeeded and failed?
- The Japan International Cooperation Agency, and to some degree EU bilateral countries (through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), have evaluated the sustainability of over 300 projects.
- Despite this, tens of thousands of new projects are launched every year.
This is why I founded Valuing Voices—to analyze what little we know to make development better.4 Not to destroy international development, but to change how we fund, design, and implement it. We need to design for sustainability of the activities by the country nationals themselves, rather than designing for results we can show to get more funding. We also must jointly implement, monitor, and evaluate our projects so countries can continue after we leave. Smaller organizations can do even simple activities, designing projects based on what the participants feel they can self-sustain, and partnering with those who will take over while they are still there.
Having spread the word for the last three years, to mostly little response, I now turn to you, readers. Our analysis – and a wonderful 2012 book, Time to Listen by Mary Anderson and Dayna Brown, shows that sometimes when our projects partner with country nationals, their people become – and stay – better off.5 They want to be engaged, yet our very structure of delivering aid prevents this. Often we are not there long enough to make a lasting difference, or we invest scarce time on untested innovations that work in some places but don’t in others. Even worse, sometimes we design activities so badly that villages are left with irrelevant technology and trainings, wasted funding, and lost hopes. At other times, there are successes as well, but not returning robs us of the chance to replicate those. We do ‘impact evaluations,’ but only on successes during project implementation, and not on what people can self-sustain after we leave. Our vision is so limited. Our well-meaning self-interest blinds us.
Across the board, our development projects make one massive and incorrect assumption that once we ‘handover’ the project, the local government, community, and households have the means to sustain our multi-million dollar investments.6 We assume that technical knowledge will still be locally available to the villagers, that inputs like seeds and tools, data and vaccines will be accessible both physically and financially, that the government staff have the means to get to villages or that new NGOs and donors will appear to fill the gaps. The Huffington Post has stated, “as long-term projects and action-plans are established, more investment must go into financing locally designed solutions and projects that ensures ownership is placed back into local communities.”7 While more project have begun using feedback loops of listening to participants during implementation, virtually all good work stops when project funding stops.
Don’t we want development to be sustained after resources leave, and the opinions of these aid recipients to be heard? Don’t we want the next project to address the needs better? Don’t we, as taxpayers, want to demand that agencies using our tax dollars learn what is really sustainable and what is not? And shouldn’t we demand that all projects costing more than US$1 million over the past 10 years be examined now for lessons learned by sector (agriculture, health, credit, education, etc) and region? Shouldn’t post-project sustainability evaluations be included in all new projects? Don’t our participants and partners deserve the dignified futures they hope for, our creating channels for their voices that enable them to evaluate us and teach us how we can help them to be successful?
In fact, a radical Foreign Aid Transparency Act was just passed in the U.S. in June 2016.8 The bill calls for the President, within 18 months of enactment, to “set forth guidelines…for the establishment of measurable goals, performance metrics, and monitoring and evaluation plans that can be applied with reasonable consistency to covered United States foreign assistance.” These include ‘ex-post’ (sustainability) evaluations, and “can have enormous value when it comes to making programming and budgeting decisions.” Yet while there is a call for guidance to be developed, no funding came along with this bill. Without the funds to make this happen, this may be more ‘window dressing’ for sustainable development than excellent policy.
There is some hope coming from the corporate sector. While impact investors are often more focused on return from emerging economies than fostering sustainable development, corporate social responsibility is building bridges in lovely ways. Tsikululu Social Investment of South Africa has thought about what advice to give to the companies they advise on such investments, as well as exiting from them.9
We argue that our budgeting needs a basic business metric: Return on Investment. In a time of huge demands on our resources worldwide from refugee flows, terrorism and climate change, we currently do little or no analysis of:
- How much actual investment: What percent of allocated funds went to the activities that benefitted the partners and participants themselves, rather than being used as overhead for operations?
- How much return: What is the value of what remains used 3-10 years after we leave? What was the value-added that communities and other funders (including the national governments themselves) who followed catalyzed based on our earlier investments? What were unexpected new results that emerged?
We envision a beautiful future, one where Edith, Aminata, Rituu, and Juan and their local partners are at the center of development. We imagine a world in which we listen to what people in need can sustain for themselves. Through these approaches data is shared widely on what has worked best and why; aid projects invest in country-systems and staff that boost their ability to self-sustain; and only sustainable projects are designed and funded that foster country-led development. The global adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals finally puts the focus on all we can do to foster sustainability of our work.
By valuing voices and focusing on sustainable solutions for excellent impacts, this will promote truly sustainable development from our aid organizations, government and non-governmental alike. We have much to learn, and there is not a moment to waste before we start Valuing Voices of those we serve and partner with on country-led development.
- USAID Forward. USAID [online] (2017). https://www.usaid.gov/usaidforward.
- In-country Partners. USAID [online] (2016). https://www.usaid.gov/partnership-opportunities/in-country-partners.
- Implementing Partners. USAID [online] (2017). https://www.usaid.gov/afghanistan/implementing-partners.
- Valuing Voices [online]. http://valuingvoices.com/.
- Jacobs, A. Time to Listen by Dayna Brown and Mary B Anderson. NGO Performance [online] (December 4, 2012). https://ngoperformance.org/2012/12/04/time-to-listen-by-dayna-brown-and-mary-b-anderson/.
- Cekan, J. What happens after the project ends? Lessons about funding, assumptions and fears (Part 3). Valuing Voices [online] (February 29, 2016). http://valuingvoices.com/what-happens-after-the-project-ends-lessons-about-funding-assumptions-and-fears-part-3/.
- Zuabi, V. Investing in Locally Designed Solutions for Syria and the Middle East. The Huffington Post [online] (May 24, 2016). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vanessa-zuabi/investing-in-locally-desi_b_10109900.html.
- Ingram, G, Miles, C & Veillette, C. The Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act is Law! Now What? Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network [online] (August 2, 2016). http://modernizeaid.net/2016/08/foreign-aid-transparency-accountability-act-law-now/.
- Cekan, J. Towards responsible donor exiting strategies and practices: Reblog from Tshikululu. Valuing Voices [online] (October 8, 2016). http://valuingvoices.com/towards-responsible-donor-exiting-strategies-and-practices-reblog-from-tshikululu/.