Sustainability, durability, long term impacts… what are we talking about and why?

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

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

This is the first in a series of four blogs about long term impacts of Practical Action’s work where we ask: what can we learn from past projects? What can we do now to ensure that positive impacts last in time? These blogs summarize discussions and learning from four internal workshops across seven Practical Action offices and partner organizations in Nepal and Bangladesh, focusing on our work to build resilience in communities affected by climate change exacerbated natural hazards. 

Non-governmental organizations like Practical Action generally assume that interventions and their positive impacts will last in time. After all, that is why we elaborate Theories of Change and Logical Frameworks, look to understand the root problems, design the most relevant interventions, define risks, assumptions, and corrective actions. But while we generally document our learning and impact up until the end of projects, we rarely, if ever, follow up on the extent to which interventions last and whether their impact is sustained. 

Very few evaluations actually go back to understand what happens after a project ends

Indeed, according to a recent meta-analysis from the consulting agency Valuing Voices, fewer than 1% of all international development projects were evaluated after they ended!

There are several potential obstacles to conducting post project evaluations, resulting in a scarcity of studies of this kind: lack of funding; short project durations; loss of project details due to staff turnover; poor knowledge management, a lack of long-term indicators, to name a few. 

To address these last three issues, we conducted a series of internal workshops. We wanted to understand what we can do now to pave the way for post project evaluations, and to embed durability in our current work. These virtual workshops gathered Practical Action teams from Bangladesh, Bolivia, Nepal, Peru, Senegal, the UK, and Zimbabwe, as well as our partners VERC in Bangladesh and CSDR in Nepal. We focused our discussions around our work in disaster risk management, looking more specifically at our work within the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance.

Sustainability, durability, something else entirely? Finding the right word

In this series of blogs, we will use the term “durability” to refer to the “quality of being able to continue over a period of time” (Cambridge dictionary), instead of the commonly used term “sustainability”. In common usage, “sustainability” and “durability” have broadly the same meaning. Nevertheless, in recent decades and especially since the Brundtland report, the term “sustainable” has acquired strong environmental, economic, and social implications.

The Brundtland Report defines “sustainable development” as developments that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Lately, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) & Sustainable development agenda, which refers to the 17 SDGs indicators, have also expanded the scope of the word “sustainable”. 

As this series of blogs focuses mainly on the time dimension, we will use the word “durability” to avoid confusion with the broader meaning of “sustainability”. If you have suggestions of alternative wording, please say so in the comments!

This is the first in a series of four blogs where you can deep dive into the topic of long term impacts, the next three can be found here:

If you’re interested to learn more or discuss the topics raised in this blog you can contact the author at emilie.marianne.etienne@gmail.com

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