The Sustainability Measurement Framework at Foundation Green Ethiopia
Development aid NGOs using the Sustainability Measurement Framework (SMF) are likely to address sustainability better than NGOs that look for other organizations as benchmark or use best practices. But how can a development aid NGO implement the framework? The framework itself suggests that the first discussion must clarify what the NGO understands as sustainability and where priorities are seen for the sustainable development of the organization, its projects, and the lives of beneficiaries. Secondly, the model suggests continuous learning, and therewith it implicitly suggests starting simple and improving over time. The starting point should reflect the most important and/or most critical aspects of the NGO’s approach. This might be fundraising because projects may only be implemented if sufficient funds are available upfront, or it might be project design if broad beneficiary participation is a key aspect of the NGO’s project. We will first look at the ‘business’ of Foundation Green Ethiopia, next discuss the sustainability understanding of Foundation Green Ethiopia, and finally I will introduce the initial version of the SMF used by Foundation Green Ethiopia.
The ‘business’ of Foundation Green Ethiopia
Foundation Green Ethiopia was founded in the year 2000 by Kurt Pfister, after a private travel to historic Ethiopia. During the visit he had the vision that protecting and restoring natural resources would improve the lives of rural farmers and that the corresponding projects would strengthen the rural societies. Subsequently, groups of farmers, women and youth would be empowered to market their products and generate income. After significant consideration and preparation, the foundation’s objectives were defined (without any profit-making or self-help motive) as:
- First, developing sustainable environmental agriculture and forestry,
- Second, supporting sustainable production, appropriate storage and marketing of essential home-grown foodstuffs.
These objectives are achieved by implementing afforestation projects at the request of farmer, women, and/or youth groups. These projects go through a sequence of steps to: start a tree nursery, grow seedlings, prepare plantation areas with physical structures, plant the seedlings at the beginning of the rainy season, and protect the plantation areas by area closure through by-laws (i.e. additional rules self-imposed by the community) and by guarding it.
These afforestation projects serve to establish the required natural resources and also to build stronger farmer, women and/or youth groups, which then allow to implement subsequent projects for water harvesting, fruit tree propagation, vegetable plantation, beekeeping, animal fattening, school projects, and so on. Such subsequent projects are initiated by the farmers and loosely supported by Foundation Green Ethiopia. So Foundation Green Ethiopia sees its initiatives as an initial support for self-help, with its projects being demonstration projects that invite farmers to continue and start their own initiatives.
Sustainability at Foundation Green Ethiopia
Foundation Green Ethiopia supports the idea of three sustainability dimensions that must be brought and kept in balance: society, ecology, and finance. However, Foundation Green Ethiopia also believes in fast development, and therewith the necessity to constantly or at least frequently question balances. In summary, Foundation Green Ethiopia believes in sustainable development, i.e. sustainability as an ongoing process to find new balances, and it believes that the people affected must be empowered to find and implement such balances themselves, sustainability cannot be imposed from the outside. Therefore, ecology is of utmost priority because the natural environment is all that the rural farmers have to make a living. Most importantly, through the projects, farmers also learn that they can influence their natural surroundings by the way they use it. Second priority is society. Since the structure of rural Ethiopia, with dispersed subsistence farmers, only makes rural development possible through collaborative efforts i.e. through empowered communities, with minorities being integrated into everyday life, and equal distribution of power within the community’s members. The financial dimension enjoys lowest priority for the projects (but not for the overall organization). Such a low priority is only justified by the fact that Foundation Green Ethiopia typically supports projects for three years, so there is ample time for the beneficiaries to learn the required financial aspects and secure future funding if necessary. Secondly, such funding is typically based on some form of collaborative micro-credit and beneficiary saving scheme, which requires significant social structures to become effective and successful.
Initial version of SMF at Foundation Green Ethiopia
Combining the concept of the SMF, the ‘business’ of Foundation Green Ethiopia, and the sustainability priorities of Foundation Green Ethiopia, the initial version of the SMF focused only on afforestation projects (as described above), Therefore, the subsequent projects for fruit tree propagation, irrigation of vegetable fields, or bee keeping and honey production were still discussed, decided, and managed by the existing more informal structures. Secondly, Foundation Green Ethiopia decided to focus primarily on project initialization level, somewhat on project result level, on measure and communicate tasks, and somewhat on learn tasks (detailed below). These priorities reflect the focus of Foundation Green Ethiopia, having many private donors that support the foundation’s general project approach rather than a specific project. It also reflects the fact that, since projects last for three years, full learning is only possible after three years (still, initial learnings for e.g. short-term results can be applied before). After assessing the experiences of the previous years and projects, Foundation Green Ethiopia decided on the following points:
Project initialization – measuring:
- Project proposals are expected from partners; they are then reviewed and discussed by different experts and the foundation board. After revision by the project partners, if necessary, a final agreement is signed and the project starts.
- Projects must foster self-development. They must also be a multi-lateral effort by Foundation Green Ethiopia, beneficiaries with significant participation, and local agricultural government authorities for technical expertise. Additional organizations may be considered in special cases.
- Project proposals must adhere to the standards of Foundation Green Ethiopia and answer all respective questions (which is provided to interested partners upon request) e.g., description of area, description of living standards of farmers, ecological conditions, social conditions, previous experiences, objectives, number of beneficiaries, detailed activities, applicable tree species, income for women working at nursery, income distribution in families, required physical structures for plantation, timetable, etc.
- The financial participation of Foundation Green Ethiopia is of ETB 4 per seedling, maximum (exceptions must be well documented).
- The participation of beneficiaries must be 20% of total project efforts, minimum. The participation activities and how each farmer is affected by them must be clarified.
- The project must include measures to guard the area, through area closure and agreement by the community (typically through by-laws or similar structures existent in the region)
- Special conditions that offer specific and local opportunities (e.g. existing government initiatives or existing afforestation projects) or risks (e.g. other businesses that are evolving and potential grab land) are also considered.
Project initialization – communicating:
- Inform project partner(s) about project proposal decision, including the three best points and the three most critical points (i.e. summary feedback from experts and the board)
- Inform beneficiaries about the expectation for each milestone of the timetable.
- Inform key donors about future projects.
- As all employees and board members are part of the decision process, no internal information applies.
Project initialization – learning:
- Ask project partners about their effort in preparing the proposal.
- Ask beneficiaries for feedback regarding their expectations and how they were met during the project initialization discussions.
- Ask experts regarding additional information that would be helpful to decide on future project proposals.
- Ask board members regarding additional decision criteria that must be addressed and prepared for future projects.
Project results – measuring:
- Quarterly comments about project progress and next activities.
- Annual reporting on nursery activities: effort (person days, women and men, employees and daily laborer) for different activities such as soil preparation, seed collection, bed preparation, shading, watering, caring, etc. Including explanations for significant deviations from plan/budget.
- Annual report on hill site preparation and physical structures: effort (person days, women and men, paid and free contribution) for different activities such as terracing, deep trenches, soil bunds, pitting, half-moon construction, pond construction, gabion wire construction, gully treatment, etc., including explanations for significant deviations from plan/budget.
- Annual report on financials: effective spending versus budget, including explanations for significant deviations from plan/budget.
- After three years: report about social, ecological and financial changes of the area, the community, and beneficiaries. Including quotes about specific changes.
Project results – communicating:
- Provide feedback to project partners about reports: three positive aspects and 3 aspects that need consideration for the next period/year.
- Agree with project partners what feedback must be given to the beneficiaries (again, 3 positive aspects and 3 aspects that need consideration).
- Annual summary feedback to experts and board, including suggestions what projects or aspects should be enforced or should enjoy special consideration and attention.
- Annual summary feedback to key donors and feedback to specific donors regarding the projects that they support.
The initial version of the SMF proved to show the expected benefits for Foundation Green Ethiopia. Most importantly, it helped to structure discussions with project partners regarding the subsequent activities that were required to improve sustainability in a specific location with the given conditions. It also helped for continuous feedback on social and environmental conditions, and within 4 years three master theses were written on the project areas in order to bring respective changes to neighboring areas. Beside these positive effects, the initial implementation of the SMF also showed that the application was not able to foster trust among partners. However, trust is one of the most critical aspects for successful projects, especially for the subsequent projects such as irrigation for vegetable plantation or school projects. In the current revision and extension of the SMF implementation, different measures, communication and learning aspects are tested which should support trust-building activities as well as foster discussions with partners and beneficiaries regarding the current level of trust and the level of trust required for subsequent activities and potential future projects.
After three years of using the SMF, Foundation Green Ethiopia is convinced that a structured and ongoing sustainability discussion with partners and beneficiaries is a necessary prerequisite to realign ongoing and future projects to changing conditions in developing countries. The structure of the SMF proved simple enough for all stakeholders to understand the objectives, their participation, what information they can expect, and what contribution is expected from them. At the same time, the framework is flexible enough to accommodate specific sustainability priorities, different business approaches, multiple types of programs of projects, and different level of stakeholder integration. However, because of its generic nature, the framework itself offers little guidance on what ‘good’ sustainability is. Therewith, NGOs must invest significant time and resources to establish their own SMF, i.e. fill all the matrix fields with their individual aspects, before they can benefit from the strengths of the framework. While the required time and effort can be seen as disadvantage, it proved to be a valuable exercise for Foundation Green Ethiopia, allowing for repeated applications or project extension, partner selection, and donor communication. So, overall, Foundation Green Ethiopia will continue to use structural approaches to discuss multi-dimensional orientation for improving living conditions of farmers, women and youth in rural Ethiopia.
About the author - After 15 years of practical experience in consulting and financial responsibility for international sourcing, Simon Pfister finished his Ph.D. degree at the University of St. Gallen in 2014. The dissertation researched sustainability measurement for development aid NGOs. Today, Pfister is part of the faculty of the University of St. Gallen for managerial finance and general business administration. In addition, he supports different companies and organizations regarding financial management and sustainability. Pfister also serves ass managing director for Foundation Green Ethiopia, a charitable NGO planting more than 5 million indigenous trees annually in rural Ethiopia and supporting their agricultural development.