When We Evaluate Development Projects, We Must Ask: What Lessons Have We Learned?
Each time a lesson is learned in international development, we are closer to our goal of using valuable resources in the right way.
As children, we all remember being told: “‘I hope you’ve learned your lesson”, which had a kind of negative connotation. In my line of work, however, which assesses development activities from the point of view of doing the right things in the right way with the right resources for lasting benefits for people – we learn lessons every day to make better decisions for improving quality of lives.
How does this work? Drawing lessons from development activities is analogous to systematically connecting dots. Each dot represents a valuable learning experience and connecting these creates a valuable lesson. In the world of development, each dot may represent a solution for a persistent problem.
For example, reducing non-revenue water to overcome the shortage of potable water or using technology to move electricity from high surplus areas to deficit ones to overcome energy shortages. In today’s world of development, guided by the interconnected Sustainable Development Goals, and ravaged by the pandemic and climate change, connecting the right dots is imperative for making smart decisions and finding lasting solutions.
Nature, where each element is linked seamlessly with the other, follows a “system” comprising an input that undergo processes leading to an output or result, leading back to the input. This cycle provides us with the essential ingredients of life such as water and oxygen. Similarly, development projects also follow a cycle, from an idea to a concept to design to implementation to evaluation and back again to design through improved ideation.
This project cycle of about 5 to 7 years is influenced by multiple demands, ranging from government processes, development agency due diligence, stakeholder interests and ultimately the most important demand: to produce outcomes for the betterment of people’s lives.
“Evaluation”, the last leg of a development project in its cycle, is most often perceived as the report card for the project. Looking at this differently it is actually that critical bridge that leads to a new or refreshed project design. The building blocks that form this bridge are the lessons discovered during evaluation.
The more constructive the feedback and the more openness to listening, the richer are the lessons, the deeper the learning and the stronger the project design.
These lessons might involve improving resource allocation through new financial models, use of an improved business process to navigate institutional bureaucracy, innovative community engagement, fixing problems with procurement, or leveraging private sector partnerships, to name a few.
The challenge however is to ensure that lessons are differentiated for countries and sectors. They also need to be based on meaningful evidence from primary and secondary sources and discussions within and across institutions and agencies. One way to ensure this is to enrich the project cycle with meaningful feedback as part of project monitoring and management.
Critical to this process are peer discussions among development practitioners, which are opportunities to gain feedback and form partnerships. These help to harness the rich knowledge that rests with colleagues and complement data that is gathered from reports and studies. This makes each project design stronger than the one before by overcoming shortfalls and weaknesses.
The more constructive the feedback and the more openness to listening, the richer are the lessons, the deeper the learning, and the stronger the project design.
This system of thinking, learning and doing, strengthened with meaningful feedback, collaborating and connecting the dots, makes development sustainable and beneficial for all involved. Each time a lesson is learned in international development, we are closer to our goal of using valuable resources in the right way, at the right time, for the right reason, and leading to improved lives for people most in need.