Wishing for ex-post evaluation Christmas Lights rather than Needles in Haystacks

This is what life of most ex-post evaluation researchers looks like, mostly without the counting congratulator:

I recently spent three days looking for ex-post evaluations for a client across nearly a dozen organizations. I was hard-pressed to find 16 actual ones. Sorting through ‘impact evaluations’ that were done in the middle of implementation does not tell us anything about what was sustained after we leave, nor do delayed final evaluations that happen to be done after closure. While these (rightly) focus on cost-effectiveness, relevance and efficiency, measures of sustained impact are projections, not actual measures of what outcomes and impacts stood the test of time. I weeded out some desk studies that did not return to ask anyone who participated. Others titled ‘ex-post’ were barely midterms (I can only gather they misconstrued ‘ex-post’ as after-starting implementation?) and a few more reports only recommended doing ex-post evaluation after this final evaluation. For more lessons on how random and misconstrued ex-posts can be, see Valuing Voices’ research for Scriven. None of these 16 actual ex-posts even told us anything about what emerged (as we look at during Sustained and Emerging Impacts Evaluations) from local efforts in the years after assistance ended.

This is what I wish my ex-post haystack would look like, bountiful treasures of numerous ex-post-project evaluations, as numerous as these Christmas lights here in Tabor, Czech Republic.

If we had more ex-posts to learn from, we could learn from what lasted. What could locals sustain? Why? Why not? How can we do better next time? We could compare across sectors and countries, and we could see what conditions and processes during implementation supported sustainability -and importantly — why some failed, so we don’t repeat those mistakes.

We could move from our current orange slices that ends at closure to green sustainability of the project cycle:

I will be adding the ones I found to our Catalysts list soon, but when my client asked me who held databases of ex-post evaluations, I had to say only Valuing Voices and Japan’s JICA (since 1993 who even differentiates the ex-posts between Technical Grants and ODA Loans). This is not to say some cannot be found by trawling the OECD or the World Bank, but this is Needle-in-Haystack work again and so there are only 2 databases to learn from. Isn’t that shocking?

Now JICA has really upped the illumination ante, so to speak: They are now doing what they are calling JICA’s Ex-post Monitoring’ which was like Christmas come early! Returning to learn 7 years after the ex-post which was 1–3 years after closure meant one could evaluate the sustained impacts of results, see if JICA’s recommendations to their partners had been implemented, how they had adapted to changes over a decade post-closure and find learning for new programming. While it was unclear why these specific projects were selected, it is amazing they are doing 5–10 per year. They are my ex-post gods/ goddesses and I fawned over two JICA evaluators at the last European Evaluation Society Conference.

“Ex-post monitoring is undertaken 7 years after a project was completed in principle in order to determine whether or not the expected effects and impacts continue to be generated, to check that there are no sustainability-related problems with the technical capacities, systems and finances of the executing agency nor with the operation and management of developed facilities, etc., and to ascertain what action has been taken vis-a-vis the lessons learned and recommendations gleaned during the ex-post evaluation.”

What we can learn from returning again is illustrated by one of JICA’s water project loans in RSA, which ended in 2003, had an ex-post in 2006, followed by monitoring of sustainability in 2013. While the report included issues of d ata access and evaluators expressed caution in attributing causation of positive changes to the project, but it not only continued functioning, the government of South Africa (RSA) solved barriers found at the ex-post:

  • “data for the supply and demand of water pertaining to the Kwandebele region could not be obtained. However, considering the calculation from the water supplied population and supplied volume and the result from the DWAF interview, water shortage could not be detected in the four municipalities studied by this project….

In another, from Indonesia’s air quality testing labs which involved capacity building and equipment maintenance 6 years after the ex-post, they mostly found training and use continued despite organizational changes and maintenance challenges:

  • “After the ex-post evaluation, many of the target laboratories changed their affiliation from the Ministry of Public Works (MOPW) and MOH to provincial governments. While the relocation of equipment has been carried out in a handful of provinces, in other provinces equipment is still located at the laboratories where it was originally installed and these laboratories still have the right of use”

In this case, there were lessons learned for JICA and Indonesia’s Ministry of the Environment programs about ownership and the right use of the equipment and retiring obsolete equipment. Talk about a commitment to learning from the ongoing success or failure of one’s projects!

As you have read here on Valuing Voices for more than six years, unless we include post-project sustainability that asks our participants and partners how sustained their lives and livelihoods could be, and even resilient to shocks like political or climate change, we cannot say we are doing Sustainable Development. We need such lessons about what could be sustained and why.

We can prepare better to foster sustainability. In the coming months we are working on checklists to consider during funding, design, implementation, M&E pre-and post-exit, to foster sustainability. Will keep you posted, but as World Vision also found: “Measuring sustainability through ex-posts requires setting clear benchmarks to measure success prior to program closure, including timelines for expected sustainment.”

And as my gift to you this Holiday Season, let me share WV’s Learning Brief about Sustainability, with wise and provocative questions to ponder about dynamic systems, benchmarking, continuous learning, attribution, and managing expectations. World Vision shares how infrastructure and community groups and social cohesion fared well, yet lessons circled back to the need for JICA-like ‘monitoring’ and mirror rich ex-post lessons from FFP/Tufts (Rogers, Coates) and Hiller et al. that explains why we do ex-posts at all: “ Project impact at the time of exit does not consistently predict sustainability “.

Now my gift: a few big lessons from the six years of researching sustainability across the development spectrum. I have found no evaluations that were only positive. Most results trended downwards, a few held steady, and all were mixed. We cannot assume the sustainability of results at closure, nor optimistic projections as we’ve seen in the climate arena.

Please consider:

  • Designing with our participants and partners so what we do,

Please make our next Christmas merry. Do MANY ex-post evaluations, Learn TONS, Share WIDELY WHAT WORKED AND FAILED TO WORK (you will be praised!), and let’s CHANGE HOW WE DO SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT. May 2020 bring health, happiness, and to all of us a more sustainable world!

Originally published at http://valuingvoices.com on December 11, 2019.

Do our development projects have sustained impact? Maybe (hint: ask local participants). Writer, speaker, evaluator, int’l developmt guru, mother, giraffe-lover