Evaluation Can Lead to Community Self-Sustainability

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If you’re interested in evaluation, check out AEA 365 from the American Evaluation Association. We recommend reading the Tip A Day by & for Evaluators. The lessons learned, resources and advice are a quick and helpful resource to stir up your thinking on evaluation.

Talking in Communities

One of our favorite Tips came from Jindra Cekan, an evaluator with more than 25 years of experience in international development fieldwork. In her blog  “Furthering Community Self-Sustainability of Our Projects,” she suggests that our current evaluation norms are just not enough.

We all know that typically, evaluations occur at the onset of a project (baseline), halfway through, and then at the end of its lifespan on the ground. Evaluators rarely take steps toward engaging the community in a dialogue about the work though. What are community members’ thoughts about the work that was done? How do they feel about sustaining the changes made indefinitely? Conversations like this could help organizations to create new tools to maintain those changes.

Although program evaluation occurs at the commencement of a project, rarely do organizations return to the site years later to check in on the status of their work. Cekan’s research suggests that 99% of projects dealing with international aid are not evaluated for sustainability or lasting impact.

Over the next 6 years, the US and EU plan to spend $1.52 trillion dollars on foreign aid programming with long term goals in place. Yet, there is no system to collect feedback from communities about what they feel will be sustainable for them in the long run–in the aftermath of the funded program.

Cekan envisions a collective effort to create more feedback loops to open a communicative dialogue about sustainability from the perspective of community members themselves: “Our industry desperately needs feedback on what communities feel will be sustainable now, what interventions offer the likelihood of positive impact beyond the performance of the project’s planned (log-framed) activities. Shockingly, this does not exist today.” We must establish some formalized practices that ensure our efforts at change are sustainable for the indefinite future.

Community and Stakeholder Feedback

Involving a wide variety of participants in any program evaluation process leads to better data. Cekan recommends asking community members – men and women of various ages and economic backgrounds – as well as local stakeholders, the following questions:

  • How valuable have you found the project overall in terms of being able to sustain activities yourselves?
  • How well were project activities transferred to local stakeholders?
  • Who is helping you sustain the project locally once it ends?
  • What were the activities do you think you can least maintain yourselves?
  • What should be done to help you?
  • What were activities that you wish the project had supported that build on your community’s strengths?
  • Was there any result that came of the project that was surprising or unexpected?
  • What else do we need to learn from you to have greater success in the future?

With 25 years of experience in the field, Cekan provides a keen observation that all of us can take to heart. Our goal-driven work around the globe relies on funding from various sources, hard work by staff and volunteers, and commitment from the communities that we serve. We need to ensure that our efforts are sustainable, and that the change that we create is lasting. Communication is a fundamental element, it opens more channels for feedback so that we engage with communities in conversations about their well-being and their future.