How might we design development programs that achieve impacts that are sustainable beyond the program’s lifecycle?

Supporting USAID’s Journey to Self-Reliance by Exploring Case Studies of Sustainable Development Interventions


The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is in the midst of a shift toward one overarching goal: to support societies around the world in achieving a state of self-reliance from development assistance.  Self-reliance is defined as the ability of a country, city, or community to design, finance, and implement solutions to their own development challenges.  But for USAID to achieve this goal, the programs it designs, funds, and manages must be capable of achieving development impacts that are sustainable beyond USAID’s cycle of funding.  However, there are many barriers and challenges within and outside of a development program that bear on the sustainability of its impacts.  This is particularly so when seeking to affect lasting change in complex systems, such as those that development organizations typically operate in.  Assuring sustainable impact requires a holistic perspective of the challenges and coalitions of actors committed to finding better ways of doing things, along with the ability to learn and adapt as the context changes.  Without these elements, development projects often conclude only to trigger the onset of further projects and programs, falling short of their lofty expectations of truly lasting and durable outcomes.


Building on our previous research that examined the concept of Systems Leadership, USAID’s Global Development Lab asked GKI to examine a new question related to the challenge above: How might we design development programs that achieve impacts that are sustainable beyond the program’s lifecycle?  To answer this query, GKI constructed and facilitated a Visioning Workshop designed to explore potential directions for the future of USAID, with a focus on how the Agency might more intentionally program for sustainable outcomes.  Using secondary research to complement the ideas that emerged from the workshop, GKI developed a novel conceptual framework to define the elements of a program that contribute to sustainable outcomes.  GKI’s framework is composed of three dimensions: Systems Practices, Collaboration & Capacity, and Adaptive Management & Implementation.

Using these three dimensions, the team developed a set of case studies profiling past USAID projects and activities.  Construction of the cases allowed GKI to test the framework against an anecdotal evidence base and to further understand how and why some USAID programs achieve more sustainable results than others.  To develop these cases, GKI conducted key informant interviews with 25 individuals from USAID Mission staff, implementing partners, and project evaluators.  The resultant compendium of seven case studies is complemented by a synthesis of findings that offers insights into how USAID staff, and development practitioners more broadly, can improve the design, implementation, and close-out of the programs they lead and fund.  This research is now being shared widely with USAID staff with the goal of continuing to advance USAID’s policies and practices that enable programmatic sustainability and, ultimately, self-reliance.

Results / Outcomes

  • Designed and facilitated an interactive Futures Foresight-based workshop with 20 participants to envision distinct ideal futures in which the sustainability of USAID program is achieved
  • Designed a novel analytic framework comprised of three dimensions for sustainable program design, implementation, and close-out
  • Conducted qualitative research in the form of 25 key informant interviews to uncover novel insights about the sustainability of past USAID programs
  • Developed seven case studies detailing how past programs have utilized the dimensions of sustainability effectively
  • Formulated recommendations for USAID Missions, Bureaus and team who may apply these insights at different stages of the program cycle, including design, implementation, and close-out