Could We Actually Assess Impact and Sustainability?

Last week I wrote about the need for ‘breathing space’ in development programming – time for ‘beneficiaries’ to take the new skills, systems, policies and various tools imparted and go at it alone to see what happens. Because we can’t master something – or fit it to our own contexts – unless we are given a chance to do it on our own for a reasonable period of time (no, a month doesn’t count… I’m thinking a whole planning and budgeting cycle).

The more that I have reflected on this over the past week, the more keen I am on this idea being a required practice in development. What makes this idea so much different than the others we have discussed? It boils down to a very practical reason: as an M&E practitioner, there is nothing more frustrating than doing an evaluation – based on OECD DAC criteria – and BS’ing your way through the parts on impact and sustainability. Because evaluations usually take place in the last months of a project – or within three months of project completion if you’re lucky – so you can infer what may happen but you can’t know.

Everyone talks about best practice in M&E and in every single evaluation that I have been part of reports come back on impact and sustainability that suggest a ‘likelihood’ or ‘probability’ about what could happen, but recommend that an impact study be undertaken at a later day (one to three years down the road) to really assess change and impact, etc, etc. But of course, this doesn’t fit with the current operational process of project and programme implementation so we all just nod our heads and say ‘indeed.’

But what if we started instituting ‘breathing space’ and after a reasonable amount of time, say 12 to 18 months, we did the impact study and the results of that study were the basis for the ‘next phase.’ Wouldn’t the next phase be so much more practical? There’s your value for money – being able to reinforce areas/skills that continue to prove to be weak, backing off in areas where ‘beneficiaries’ are excelling, and learning about how skills and tools and everything else has been adapted or contextualized and actually works – learning about innovation and actual local ownership. Then, instead of just bulldozing through Phase 2 using ideas and approaches which are extensions of Phase 1, technical support could be better adapted and contextualized, too.

Obviously I am dreaming. But just imagine if.
Wow, we’d all need to upgrade our skills to assess actual impact and sustainability, that’s for sure😉

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