How targeted impact measurement drives sustainable development

The Springfield Centre, a Swisscontact company since 2019, are thought leaders in sustainable development, offering consulting, training and research services. Senior Consultant Dr Rachel Shah explains how we can better integrate sustainability in development projects to ensure a lasting impact at scale.

The Springfield Centre is a strong advocate for development that leads to ‘sustainable impact at scale.’ But isn’t all development about sustainability – or rather about ‘resilience’ – today?

Rachel Shah: ‘Sustainability’ and ‘resilience’ are often used somewhat interchangeably. That is understandable, although resilience is about something more specific: social, economic and environmental ‘resilience’ all contribute to ‘sustainability.’ However you define them, the important thing is that they are both about lasting impact.  

We would like to see sustainability be the driving force when designing development programmes. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sustainability is often misunderstood or not taken seriously enough. Most impact indicators, which project implementers have to report to donor agencies, refer to immediate figures such as how many people have benefited from the programme and to what extent so far (i.e. by the time the programme closes). How effective a project has been in the long run can, of course, only be measured some time after its completion. Such analyses are, however, rarely made as there are too few incentives for either donors or implementers to invest in them.

So will sustainability ever be a driver of development?

It can be, but only if we make sustainability a critical part of what we mean by ‘success’ and ‘impact’ in development, which means actively defining and measuring it. We are getting much better at both predicting and measuring sustainability and there are encouraging signs of change. The Springfield Centre has contributed to efforts to develop indicators that aim to capture sustainability – efforts that grew from our earliest collaboration with Swisscontact on the in Bangladesh. Out of that collaboration grew the ‘sustainability matrix’, which sets out a series of indicators against four key sustainability questions (see below).

More recently we have been working with programmes that are moving beyond asking what would happen, to evaluating what has happened after their interventions are closed. This allows us to collect evidence which gives us an even better idea of how to predict and programme for sustainability and resilience. We expect that these efforts will set a new standard and shift incentives in the sector.

Is sustainability just a measurement problem then?

No, definitely not – it is a problem we all need to face up to. I would challenge programme staff reading this to think about the work they are involved in and to reflect on these four questions. Ask yourselves ‘who will do and pay for the changes we are trying to introduce when we have gone?’ and be realistic – this is not about who should continue those services but about concrete signs that there are players who realistically can and will continue them. If we cannot answer that question, then we have a sustainability problem!

Four central questions of the sustainability matrix:

If we left now,

  1. would partners return to their previous way of working?
  2. would partners build upon the changes they have adopted without us?
  3. would target group benefits depend on too few people, firms, or organisations?
  4. would the system as a whole reinforce the changes introduced, allowing them to be upheld, grow and evolve? Would it be able to adapt and recover from shocks and stressors? 
Rachel Shah holds a PhD in Development Anthropology from Durham University. At The Springfield Centre, she applies her expertise in research methods to market systems development projects.