Value for money is more than just a number: A new publication and interview with an author

Calculating the value for money of investments in restoration is complex – but becoming clearer. Guatemala has made strides in forest landscape restoration, and IUCN played a small but significant role. A new publication explores this dynamic field.

words over landscape with trees and mountain

A small, multi-disciplinary team recently completed an assessment of IUCN’s contribution to forest landscape restoration in Guatemala and published their findings in Value for Money: Guatemala’s forest landscape restoration. Jules Colomer, one of the lead authors from IUCN, sat down with us to share his thoughts on this evolving approach.

man with beard and glasses sitting and smiling next to wall Photo: IUCN / Jules Colomer

Q. What is Value for Money?

There’s a great line about Value for Money (VfM) being a phrase that is used more than understood. For me it’s about getting the best bang for your buck, however you define it, while maximising co-benefits. IUCN works in complex, dynamic contexts with long causal chains between our interventions and desired end-state results – and Value for Money is part of the criteria that can be used to plan for, monitor progress towards, and assess and learn from contribution to impact.

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) use the concepts of economy, efficiency, effectiveness, and equity (the 4Es) to describe Value for Money. It’s a broad performance assessment construct that allows for other aspects, such as expected return on investment, to be included. IUCN is new to the VfM world, so it hasn’t yet defined what VfM means for its interventions. In the Guatemala VfM assessment, we used an approach based around cost-benefit analysis to calculate the expected return on investment of our interventions.

Q. What is the rationale for conducting a Value for Money assessment around forest landscape restoration in Guatemala?

In this case, it boils down to donor mandate – DFID really incentivised us to conduct a Value for Money assessment within a broader programmatic evaluation of a programme called KNOWFOR, a forest knowledge uptake programme that, for IUCN, was mainly focussed on forest landscape restoration.

We looked across IUCN interventions to find a suitable case where we knew we had a good story to tell, and also had most of the data to conduct a VfM assessment. Guatemala turned out to have both. We had already commissioned an episode study of IUCN’s contribution to Guatemala’s forest landscape restoration policy processes that indicated that IUCN had made a small but potentially significant contribution. We also had access to financial cost/benefit data, which simplified our task greatly. That’s why we selected Guatemala as our first VfM assessment.

Q. What kind of data did you need to start the VfM assessment?

For the kind of cost/benefit assessment we conducted, we needed three main types of data: contribution data, cost data and benefit data.

For the contribution data, we ran an interactive workshop with 19 members of Guatemala’s National Forest Landscape Restoration Roundtable. We collectively built a timeline of key milestones and processes leading to the main policy change process, mapped key actors to the timeline, and then used a simple contribution typology to assess who played what kind (and how big) of a role in the timeline leading to the policy change process. We ran the results back through workshop participants to validate key findings.

For the cost data, we identified six IUCN projects funded by five separate donors, all contributing to the forest landscape restoration policy change process in the period of interest. We calculated the relevant in-country spending from these projects, tallied up totals and corrected for inflation.

The benefit data description is covered by Leander Raes, environmental economist and co-author of the Guatemala VfM assessment. But suffice to say that the results from an IUCN-supported restoration opportunity assessment generated the marginal net present value needed for the cost/benefit data. This gave us a financial value that would accrue to landholders who transitioned from their current land uses to restoration-focussed land uses in Guatemala’s priority landscape restoration actions.  

Q. Who benefits from this information? How?

I think anyone who is interested in understanding aid impact will benefit from this type of information. That goes from IUCN, in selecting which projects to run through which type of modality; to donors, who increasingly expect grantees to be able to demonstrate a clear and robust link between their investment and results; to partners and beneficiaries, who can use this type of information to inform their policies and land use practices.

Q. Is this approach applicable to any donor-funded project? Are there specific attributes that make a particular project more or less amenable to a VfM assessment?

We’ve completed one assessment and have another in development on a similar topic but focussed in El Salvador, so it’s hard to say where the potential limits are based on our experience to date. What is clear is that there is interest in planning for, monitoring, assessing and learning from VfM across many parts of IUCN – disaster risk reduction, resilience, forest landscape restoration and marine plastic pollution prevention. These areas, and more, all have potential VfM use cases to explore.

The limiting factor at this stage is really time and money. Not all projects need to go into the level of detail that we’ve done for the Guatemala assessment, and not all projects have the money to do so. At the programmatic or institutional level, however, we should be aiming to develop more of these kinds of assessments on a rolling, ongoing basis – taking priority areas of enquiry and applying rigorous impact assessment approaches to demonstrate accountability, promote solutions, and learn from success and failure.

Q. What’s the next step? How do you see this methodology evolving?

We’ve basically opened a door to a different way of thinking about result delivery – from a planning perspective, but also from monitoring, assessment and learning perspectives too. It’s imperative that we integrate VfM into IUCN’s programme cycle so that new interventions are designed with VfM considerations in mind from the outset, and that they know what to monitor during implementation.

Different audiences want different types of evidence. In the Guatemala VfM assessment, we tried to blend quantitative and qualitative evidence into a compelling and robust narrative, and I think this balance can be evolved to suit different audiences. I’d like to bring out human stories much more strongly in the evidence base to complement the other types of evidence we’ve brought together (one of my key take home messages from a recent conference).

I’d like to explore a whole body of work on integrating actualised, short-term benefits into the impact framework we used – inspired by work such as PROFOR’s predictive proxy indicators. Clearly, I’d also like to explore the benefits of using ICAI’s 4Es approach, so I think that will figure in our upcoming work.

Finally, while we’ve approached this from a network or multi-partner perspective – IUCN is just one of many players in change processes – I think that a powerful evolution of this approach could be to frame studies much more explicitly as a multi-partner enquiry from the outset. That way we’d have greater ownership of process, results and next steps beyond IUCN. These are the aspects of the work that I find most motivating.

Vfm Photo: IUCN / Patricia Ugalde  

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