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Let's be realistic about measuring impact

10 Oct 2012 Voices

How do you measure impact when there's so little consensus over how to do it or what the results should be? Andrew Chaggar offers his take on measuring sustainability.

How do you measure impact when there's so little consensus over how to do it or what the results should be? Andrew Chaggar offers his take on measuring sustainability.

I’ve just returned from a week in Port-au-Prince where I was evaluating how our projects have continued to impact Haitian lives since our volunteers departed in December. The trip was critical because, like all charities, evaluating our success and demonstrating our impact is critical to keeping existing supporters engaged and encouraging others to get involved.  

We’ve always tracked statistics about our programmes, like the number of students in school thanks to our classroom construction for example, but these day-to-day project outputs do not by themselves demonstrate our overall success in Haiti. Success is also determined by whether or not we’ve achieved the main goal that all our individual projects and programmes work towards – supporting sustainable disaster recovery. Evaluating sustainability can be challenging because although the concept of sustainability may be clear, it is actually a very difficult thing to define and measure.

Find your own definition

Our own charitable objects describe sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.  While a good start, this definition is still vague and lacks information on the many types of need encompassed, or on how to ascertain whether these are being met in a sustainable manner.

Even when these questions are considered it is not easy to achieve consensus on the answers. For example, in 2008 the UN and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued a report on measuring sustainable development. While this report found common ground between contributors it also noted discord. For example, among 25 European countries the number of indicators used to measure sustainability varied from 12 to 187.

As a result an easier way to evaluate sustainability is via a conceptual framework. For example sustainability is sometimes also described in relation to the triple-bottom-line of 'profit, planet and people'. This approach breaks down sustainability into three key areas - economics, the environment and society - which must all be accounted for if true sustainability is to be achieved.

For example, our classroom construction programme provided earthquake-hit schools with the means to re-open and enroll students. With little government support schools in Haiti often fund themselves through charging tuition fees.  We supported schools which were financially viable but also accessible by their local communities. By building classrooms, we allowed these schools to admit students, which in turn boosted their income. During my recent visit I found that three of these schools were reinvesting that money on further building improvements which will allow them to accept even more students. Our classrooms have helped these schools achieve a level of sustainable economic recovery.

However, our building work involved the use of concrete which is environmentally costly and reduces the overall sustainability achieved. However, while overall sustainability would be the preferred outcome, it would be a mistake to undervalue success in an individual area.

One step at a time

In an environment as challenging as Haiti, in can be unrealistic to address all issues simultaneously. In fact it would have been hard to get started at all if we had only considered projects which tackled all three areas of sustainability at once.  

When writing this blog I came across a slightly different definition of sustainability that I thought was useful given this context. This describes sustainable development as “an ability to meet the needs of the present while contributing to future needs”.  I prefer this definition as to me it acknowledges that you often can’t achieve sustainability immediately. It needs to be built one layer at a time.

For example, our on-going English programme began with volunteers supporting existing community-based English lessons. We spent a lot of 2011 training Haitian teachers so that the school could continue teaching to a recognised curriculum after we left.

Today, while the school is still heavily dependent on us for funding and exam support, the day-to-day teaching and management is performed by Haitians. So, in terms of social sustainability we’re very happy with the current results.

Further, English is a key vocational skill in Haiti, and as more and more students gain qualifications and jobs we should seeing them earn a sustainable income. This will help the local economy and several of the students have already broached the idea of setting up an alumni association which could help financially support the school itself in the future.

All this will be an ongoing process but sustainability can only be ultimately measured over generations anyway.  Expecting to achieve or demonstrate overall sustainability after only a nine-month period would be unrealistic. What we do want to see however is step-by-step progress towards more sustainable outcomes. After all, the strongest foundations are always built layer upon layer.


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