Sustainable Impact, Rigorously Measured
Moving sustainability from a vague concept to a planned approach requires using a “sustainability lens” at every phase of the project lifecycle as well as measurement during and post project.
Sustainability has long been one of those concepts that is discussed more than it is understood. Although there is a critical need to understand the long-term impact of investments in health, hunger and hardship programming and other related development efforts, few (if any) donors require robust sustainability plans, or provide the resources necessary to measure sustainable impact. Project funds, by definition, are not available to fund measures of sustainability once a project ends, so post-project measures are few and far between. As a result, “sustainability” is rarely appraised and quantified, little is known about what truly leads to sustainable impact, which strategies are most cost-effective and how best to maximize high impact strategies for optimal sustainability of program outcomes.
Moving sustainability from a vague concept to a planned approach requires using a “sustainability lens” at every phase of the project lifecycle. PCI aims to rescue sustainability from its current status as a broad, imprecise concept and transform it into an achievable and measurable outcome. Regional workshops designed to engage practitioners in defining sustainability and applying PCI’s Resource Guide for Enhancing Potential for Sustainable Impact have helped create a mind-shift about how we think about sustainability at PCI, which is focused on several interrelated key concepts:
Sustainable impact, not sustainable activities
It is important to note that the emphasis should not be on continuing all elements of a program. Some should end, some should phase out over time, and some should continue but in a different way. It is most important to sustain desired outcomes or impact, and this may indicate a very different modality that needs to be developed over time. Program designers and implementers must start planning and preparing for this at the very beginning of the project and not wait until the last 6 months of the project!
Transition, not exit
We have to stop thinking about graduation or exit at the end of a project. The concept of transition is helpful in ensuring that the process of phase out/phase over is done thoughtfully and strategically, not precipitously. Sustainability is an evolving and dynamic process, not a one-time event. A “sustainability lens” through which all decisions and activities of a program life cycle are made should be applied throughout the project’s life.
Sustainability potential or readiness
Since we won’t know whether an outcome was sustained until long after the project comes to an end, it is important to think about increasing the likelihood or potential for sustainable impact during the life of the project. There must be an emphasis on actions that can be taken during the entire project period which will help ensure highest possible sustainability readiness or potential for ultimate sustainable impact.
To increase potential and readiness for sustainable impact, we must monitor or test for sustainability readiness during the life of the project and we must measure sustainable impact post project. How can we know what contributes to sustainable impact and how can we pinpoint the most effective approaches for increasing sustainability potential if we don’t measure it and can’t identify successful models? To be responsible practitioners, we must learn what works and what doesn’t, and why or why not and then apply that learning in the way we design and carry out projects going forward.
A persistent challenge remains: how to design projects in a way that their outcomes are most likely to be sustainable and can be transitioned to local ownership and management? The four factors critical to ensuring sustainable impact through local ownership and sustainability-oriented project management are resources, capacity, motivation and linkages.
Resources can come from a variety of sources, including local government, local community, or market forces. In Bihar, India, PCI’s Parivartan model is now being “hard wired” into the Bihar Rural Livelihood Program (Jeevika) via the Jeevika Technical Support Program, an example of transitioning to local government. In several countries, PCI is working with local communities to transition a school feeding program funded by the US Department of Agriculture over to local farmers, parent/teacher associations and communities. Schools are being monitored for their “sustainability readiness” using criteria established together with local communities. Market forces examples may involve establishing committees and fee structures and ongoing mechanisms for maintenance and ongoing support, for example, the establishment of a process to collect and utilize user fees for paravet services or water access via a communal water point.
Local capacity strengthening (LCS) must be an intentional strategy with a variety of target stakeholders, including local government, civil society and communities. LCS does not mean workshops or trainings only, but must include assessment, accompaniment and ongoing learning. It’s essential to foster the desire for ongoing and evolving learning, particularly applied learning, and sustain those processes over time by linking to locally available learning resources.
Motivation can take many forms and be generated in many ways. For example, socially and economically empowered women, through participation in Self Help Groups or Women Empowered groups, can generate individual and collective agency, efficacy and action that keep efforts going. Creating a sense of the possible and increasing self-esteem can help ensure that positive behaviors continue to evolve and last over time.
By fostering linkages or partnerships, local partners can have access to additional resources, capacity, support and opportunities which can help sustain operations, programming and impact. Strengthening social capital in terms of linking and bridging capital, are key strategies for lasting impact. Phasing over activities to different groups can diversify resources and strengthen abilities to withstand shocks and stresses, as well as more be more agile in response to an ever-changing external environment.