Forensic examination: what can we learn from the past?

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Back to the future: planning for long term impacts part two. 

In this second of four blogs on lasting changes, we discuss durability factors based on completed Disaster Risk Reduction projects. In a series of international workshops we identified key aspects for longevity and sustained impact, taking into account scales and project cycle, as well as the need to be flexible enough to adapt to changing contexts.

Talking about the past is not easy: we might have lost institutional memory due to turnover of staff, have misplaced project reports, or simply prefer not to think about past interventions that did not prove as successful as we were expecting.

Looking at the durability of past disaster risk reduction interventions in our workshop series, each team identified two interventions that have lasted in time and one that has not, in order to learn from both failures and successes. Discussion allowed us to identify key factors for the durability of interventions.

Key factors for long lasting changes: looking at scales and project cycle

Levels and scales

Intervention durability happens at different levels. Some interventions are overall self-sufficient, in the sense that communities can continue to maintain and operate them with limited external support. This might be the case of for example livelihood trainings, or building a traditional wooden bridge to evacuate during floods.

But most interventions require interaction at the local, regional, or national level for budget and technical resources. The process of institutionalization is then critical, as budget and technical resources can only be guaranteed in the long term if they are incorporated in legislation. Replication at scale is also heavily dependent on policy change and public investment.

The time component

Another dimension we looked at dealt with the time component: durability needs to be thought about throughout the project cycle. At the beginning of a project, real and perceived needs have to be correctly evaluated as a first step for ownership of future interventions. This is true at the community level, but also at local, regional and national levels: alignment with existing processes and policies facilitates the uptake of interventions.

Throughout the project knowledge transfer is another key component, ensuring that communities and other stakeholders can keep operating and maintaining infrastructures, or keep operating “soft” interventions such as community resilience plans, disaster risk reduction brigades, etc.

At the end of the project, formal transfer to the community and local actors ensures clarity of responsibility and facilitates accountability of local actors. The time component also reminds us that projects and policies move at a different pace… policies might change several years after the end of a particular project: that is why it is so important to plan for the long term, even during short term projects.

Design and quality

For physical infrastructure, such as rainfall monitoring stations, the quality of components is as critical as the design of interventions. Design must ensure that the infrastructure can be adapted and maintained easily, using existing technical and financial resources. Recycling and safe disposal is another aspect to look at from the start, although those steps are more likely to be relevant after the end of the project.

Flexible interventions

Finally, it is also essential to recognize the need for flexible interventions that can adjust to changing conditions. For example, climate change might modify risk patterns and make infrastructures obsolete, while first aid trainings will likely be applicable to new or changing hazards.

During an internal study on COVID-19 response we identified that even though our early warning systems (EWS) are focused on floods, EWS communications channels could be used to effectively disseminate communications on good practices around hygiene to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. This is a great example of a flexible intervention.

These durability factors are summarized in the graph below:

“Failing forward”: drawing lessons from non-durable interventions

During our internal workshops, we also discussed honestly what has gone wrong in past interventions.

A successful yet dismantled early warning system

One such intervention was an early warning system for landslides and floods. The project had been considered a huge success when it finished. However, soon after the Practical Action team withdrew from the community, the monitoring stations were dismantled. What happened?

A main reason identified was the over-reliance on a few members of the local authority and the lack of involvement of regional bodies. When the “champions” who supported the project within the Municipality left their posts after elections, the new authority stopped maintaining and protecting the system, resulting in theft of the hardware.

While turnover of officials cannot be prevented, we should have planned a clearer transfer of responsibility to the local municipality and better accountability mechanisms from the community towards local authorities. We should also have involved the right regional authorities, such as the Regional Government and the regional body for Civil Defense.

In other words, we missed the opportunity to establish institutionalization and accountability processes, both from the users of the system (the municipality) and at higher government levels.

Services that miss the point: the need to understand needs

In another country, we trained animal health-workers who villagers can ask for local support when their animals were injured or sick (for example, because of floods). Our objectives were to create employment opportunities for these health workers, as well as to protect villagers’ livelihoods. This intervention did not last, probably because a biased needs’ analysis had overestimated the number of people who would be asking health workers for support.

Looking at the past gives precious insight into factors that help interventions and their impacts to last in time. In the next blog, we will discuss practical tools to identify which risks factors are critical for specific interventions from a long term perspective.

This is the second in a series of four blogs where you can deep dive into the topic of long term impacts, these are the topics covered in the other three: 

If you’re interested to learn more or discuss the topics raised in this blog you can contact the author at

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