Are people better off after they participate in development projects? How long do project results persist after hundreds of thousands—or millions—of dollars have been spent? To improve development outcomes and justify future spending, government agencies and philanthropic organizations need to know if the resources they provide are actually making a lasting difference in people’s lives.
For the last 18 months, I’ve worked with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Food for Peace (FFP) on a long-term follow-up of a program designed to improve food security for more than 200,000 chronically food-insecure households in southern Malawi. The Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement (WALA) program was implemented from 2009–2014 with activities to improve health, nutrition, agriculture, natural resource management, and economic diversification. Activities were also designed to help communities better prepare for natural disasters, because southern Malawi is prone to large-scale weather-related shocks.
USAID asked researchers like me from the Expanding the Research of Impact Evaluation (ERIE) consortium to return to southern Malawi four years after the program ended to see whether WALA-promoted activities had continued and how people’s lives had changed because of them, including whether households were more resilient because they had participated in WALA. The ERIE team of researchers from Notre Dame, AidData, and Mathematica applied an innovative design and used rigorous quantitative and qualitative methods to answer these questions.
My role in the evaluation was to lead the qualitative research. Using interviews with key informants and focus groups, my team talked with WALA village residents to understand how the program’s activities had changed their lives and to hear their perspectives on why these changes were or were not sustained.
During one typical interview, I sat under a tree with 12 women and learned how much they appreciated the activities WALA promoted during the five-year program, such as using diverse local foods to improve children’s nutrition and new agriculture practices to increase yields. But the evaluation’s quantitative survey revealed that four years after the program ended, there were no substantial differences between WALA and non-WALA villages in crop yields or other expected outcomes, such as the proportion of undernourished children. From talking with residents like those 12 women, we learned why.
Residents and other stakeholders told us about the crises—including droughts, historic flooding, and crop pest infestations—that had struck their villages in the four years after WALA ended. Many of their fields had been parched, and then eroded by floods. The crops farmers did manage to grow were decimated by a new invader—the fall army worm. Residents also explained that WALA interventions like new irrigation systems were useless when the rivers dried up, and no plans had been devised to fix irrigation infrastructure when it broke. With little—if any—food to eat, the diversity of food needed to help malnourished children was unavailable. Money was also in short supply, hampering village savings and loan initiatives.
In village after village, residents’ stories made it clear that two main culprits doomed the sustainability of the activities promoted by WALA, along with any impacts they had produced. WALA-promoted practices were not sustained because of particular program features and, more broadly, the shocks faced by villages in southern Malawi that outstripped communities' resilience and overwhelmed individual coping strategies.
We needed a multi-method study design to learn what was happening in these villages and how and why WALA did not achieve its long-term objectives. The results of the study can be used by FFP, USAID, and others to ensure future programs plan more intentionally for sustainability, adjust agricultural practices to cope with the risk of major shocks, and complement interventions with much broader insurance and social protection schemes that extend beyond villages or even districts in places that face broad shocks like these. Learning from these findings will make development programs more likely to be helpful and sustainable in the future.
Learn more about the results of the WALA program here.