The lasting results of development assistance need to be discussed further

The very starting point for international development cooperation is to contribute to lasting change. At the same time, there is often a lack of knowledge about the long-term results of development assistance - after the financing has been completed. Aid must to an increased extent be designed and evaluated with the existing changes in focus, writes the Expert Group for Aid Analysis (EBA).

Already early in the history of development assistance, evaluations and studies expressed concern about whether the development assistance results would persist after the donors withdrew. To what extent would investments be maintained and businesses survive and develop without external funding?

A recent report from the Expert Group for Development Aid Analysis (EBA) is mapped what conclusions can be drawn about the sustainability of Swedish development assistance based on an analysis of Sida's evaluations. By sustainability, or sustainability, we mean here how initiatives survive and develop and to what extent the results persist after the development assistance funding has ceased.

The overall conclusion is that it is difficult to draw any secure conclusions: In about 40 percent of the 114 Sida evaluations analyzed in the EBA report, the effort is assessed not be sustainable. Equally often, the evaluations do not reach a clear answer. In 20 percent of the cases, the effort is judged to be sustainable.

Is it then a problem to get efforts that are judged to be sustainable? Not necessarily. It depends, among other things, on what it is that should be sustainable. The fact that an organization that fights for human rights in a dictatorship is dependent on aid is not a sign of failure in the same way that aid-financed roads fall into disrepair without aid. The question is also When an effort must be expected to have achieved sustainable results.

Sustainability should ideally be achieved during the funded period and thus gradually increase over time from the start of the effort. If the effort were to succeed without assistance already when the donor enters, the financing is probably ineffective. At the same time, it is not surprising that an effort that has not yet been completed needs development assistance financing in order to achieve long-term sustainable results. If, on the other hand, efforts are extended despite the fact that they lack the conditions to become sustainable, it is problematic.

The evaluations are not reliable

The possibility of drawing conclusions about the sustainability of Swedish development assistance based on Sida's evaluations presupposes that the assessments made in the evaluations are reliable, but there are several reasons to doubt this:

  1. The assessments of sustainability are usually made before or in connection with the end of operations and can be seen as simple predictions or forecasts. Predictions are also more uncertain than subsequent assessments. The conclusions of the evaluations thus reflect expectations rather than actual sustainability.
  2. The issue of sustainability is downgraded by the evaluators in relation to other evaluation criteria. Our impression is that a small proportion of the evaluation budget is used to answer the question of the sustainability of development assistance.
  3. In cases where Sida is not the sole financier of a development assistance initiative, it is seldom possible to read out in the evaluation who is financing the initiative and to what extent. Therefore, it is often unclear what role Swedish development assistance played in relation to the sustainability of the initiative.
  4. It is seldom clear when the goals of the efforts are to be achieved. In 29 per cent of the evaluations, no time frames are stated and in 46 per cent the time frames are unclear or only apply to certain sub-goals. Only in 13 percent of the cases can the time frames for the goals be said to be clearly described in the evaluation. This means that there is often something missing to put sustainability in relation to.

Many evaluations also decide whether efforts should be terminated. However, they almost always suggest continued support, regardless of whether the effort is deemed sustainable or not. This raises questions about how well evaluations work as a basis for reconsideration and phasing out.

An increased focus on learning is needed

The shortcomings of the evaluations naturally limit the opportunities to learn from them for future efforts. We believe that the drama in dismantling development assistance efforts that have not been successful can be reduced by an increased focus on learning in evaluations. A learning perspective presupposes an understanding that development assistance is necessarily an activity associated with risk, and not infrequently uncertainty. This means that efforts in retrospect can turn out to be wrong bets. We see a need for two changes:

Improved control. Policy documents, governing documents, strategies and annual reports for development assistance rarely show that a lack of sustainability is an obstacle or a challenge to be taken seriously. The term sustainability itself is used to a very high degree in Swedish development aid policy, but not in the sense that the term has here. The guidance from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs on these issues can thus be clarified.

Better evaluation work. The EBA report indicates that the issue of sustainability is given low priority in relation to other evaluation criteria. Evaluations are usually carried out when the efforts are still ongoing or just about to end, but decision-makers need knowledge about actual rather than expected sustainability. There is also no obvious connection between assessments of sustainability and assessments of continued support. The question is whether evaluators should answer the question at all whether development assistance should be allocated continued funding. Our conclusion is that more evaluations need to be carried out some time after completed initiatives and that the issue of sustainability in these evaluations needs to be prioritized.

Many countries are now choosing to scale down their development assistance, but in Sweden the development assistance budget will instead increase by SEK 8 billion this year. These funds can definitely contribute to long-term sustainable results. However, it is important that well-conducted evaluations succeed in assessing whether this is the case.

Jan Pettersson
Markus Burman


Lack of sustainability is obviously not a sign of failure. Among the evaluations that show a lack of sustainability in the EBA's review, there are examples there:

- Support for women's organizations - in unequal environments after conflicts - which according to the evaluation can not continue to conduct the funded initiatives without the Swedish support

- Support for government agencies where the partner organization has not succeeded in capturing the capacity gained in the short term (within the framework of a project)

- Support through a number of initiatives to individual countries where Sweden is phasing out the support before the initiatives have led to stable changes

- Support for university environments in middle-income countries which, despite efforts, have difficulties in financing their activities without Sida

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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