Impact Investing — International Development’s New Holy Grail?

There are so many things I love about the private sector such as Forbes 18 Dec Quote of the Day: “You’re going to be wrong a fair amount of times. So, the issue is, how do you be wrong well?” asked Ray Dalio, Founder of Bridgewater Associate. This is a key issue for impact investors and international ‘developers’ alike.

International development suffers from the myth that failure must be downplayed. Too often only success is highlighted, whereas project shortcomings are framed as: “less successful” “numerous issues affected a less optimal…” Yet by downplaying the less great (aka awful) results we miss vital learning that private sector expects, learns from and integrates toward the greater success. Why? Many in foreign aid believe (rightly?) such admissions might endanger winning more funding for more projects. Even as recently as 2014, U.S. foreign aid industry websites such as DevEx are still posting: “One can be forgiven for forming the impression that our development efforts are nearly perfect if typical annual reports, scientific conferences and event social media content are the basis for information. Successes are proudly packaged in glossy formats and heavily disseminated, whereas any objectives not achieved are relegated to the obligatory, and typically short, lessons learned section. This practice does not accurately represent an important reality: development efforts do in fact fail…”

Admitting failure, posting failure reports are awfully rare in international development, but how bad is it? The Asian Development Bank wrote in a large overview of the sustainability of post-project results, “Some early evidence suggests that as many as 40% of all new activities are not sustained beyond the first few years after disbursement of external funding.” A 2017 Cambridge University study found that “using an original database of over 14,000 small development projects in Ghana, I estimate that one-third of projects that start are never completed, consuming nearly one-fifth of all local government investment.” Even when they do start, complete, and even have salutary results at the end of the project, Valuing Voices research shows quick declines toward failures in as little as two years post exit, such as these post-project results at the AEA 2017 conference. The foreign aid industry is so focused on showing results while conditions are (relatively) conducive, that far fewer than 1% of all projects are evaluated for what was still standing in as little as two years after project closeout, and those are mostly those projects expected to be successful. Sustainable, long-term results suffer from what CGDev researchers are concerned “that pressure to demonstrate results in the short term may undermine efforts to ensure any impact is sustainable…. Unfortunately, the pressure to show immediate results can encourage pursuit of agricultural investments unlikely to be sustained.” Luckily there’s a place to go. DevEx reminds us that “Venture capitalists and corporate investors understand that less than 20 percent of new businesses will succeed,” hence my love of the private sector’s admitting, learning and improving that ‘aid’ needs.

As a former investment banker (Solomon Brothers) and management consultant (Price Waterhouse & Coopers and Lybrand), I know that the corporates care for results, and do not shy away from pulling money from where things don’t work and put it where they do. 30 years in international development showed me that rigid bureaucracies and fixed ‘project cycles’ and an industry focused on ‘getting money out the door’ lead to a focus on accounting for all funds, but not for changing lives over the long term. Virtually no one calculates return on (our) investment compared to the cost of projects, especially including the value of what projects generate and participants can sustain.

I am quite fervently hoping Impact Investors focused on financial ROI to firms and investors as well as Social Return on Investment will step in, fund gathering and learning from the whole range of ‘returns’. Will they share both financial profits/ losses and feedback from the whole social ‘value chain’ of stakeholders of those involved on what succeeds and fails? Will investors learn from national partners and participants on what should be done better? If yes, all of us will win. I am heartened by cautiously optimistic statements such as Next Billion’s “a core characteristic and challenge of impact investing is the measurement and management of social and environmental impacts alongside financial returns. Development cooperation and impact investing communities can build on their respective experience in results measurement and learn from and with each other.” We can IF we are going to the same place.

From my early look at impact investing, it is a ‘game changer’ with $250 billion in assets looking for a profitable home. UBS Asset Manager Baldinger says “In the past you sold products to your client, now you empower your client to create a desired impact. As an industry, we’ve had to rethink everything we do — impact and sustainability is the Silicon Valley of finance and we want to be the Google.”

These are happy words to someone focused on sustained (and emerging) impacts but among impact investors, so far, ‘impact’ seems to be thrown about as specifically as ‘results’, and GIIN ‘sustainability’ metrics are so wide ranging as to illuminate less quality than quantity. So far, many of their metrics look more like outputs relevant to companies (‘clients served’, ‘new investment capital’) that results of SROI. While there is something to be said about measures of ‘organizations trained’, ‘poverty assessments’ done, at least as a start, yet does ‘gross profit’ indicate that corner of the world is better off (and does this measure the investment into the enterprise, or is this of the investment fund itself)? Does ‘communities served’ and ‘social impact objectives’ illuminate the quality of the impact on lives changed? Is anyone asking how long-lasting, and sustained these investments, measuring what I call SUStained Return on Investment (SUSROI), will be after these investors leave (which is what I suspect most investment participants and millennial investors think they’re buying)?

This is the start of a series of blogs exploring how we who care about generating and evaluating sustained impacts can learn from, inform, (gasp) shape impact investing’s gargantuan footprint in international development. Powerhouses such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and Soros are looking, teaching, investing, and all public and private equity as well as a whole range of other investors now invest in this new hybrid. Who else is? What can we learn to make the world better? What do you think: Is impact investing development’s holy grail?

Originally published at on January 8, 2018.

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