NIRAS and Icelandic development aid: An adaptive collaboration that keeps on giving

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As part of a CSO evaluation, NIRAS conducted field studies in Ethiopia and Uganda for the Icelandic MFA.

Working together on a range of interesting evaluation assignments since 2017, the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NIRAS have built a fruitful relationship while fostering change.

March 30, 2021

Fisheries, gender equality, geothermal energy and land restoration. Although quite diverse sectors, they are all areas in which Iceland possesses long-running and unique expertise. While a small donor within development assistance, the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) capitalises on these strengths by channelling funds to capacity development programmes for developing countries within these four sectors. For the Icelandic MFA, evaluations play an important role in making sure funds contribute to effective change on the ground. NIRAS has been providing evaluation services to MFA for over four years.  

As a company with a strong Nordic base, NIRAS has an in-depth understanding of the Nordic development cooperation landscape. Being a small Nordic country, MFA Iceland has valued being able to draw on our Nordic knowledge, experience, and networks. We can help clarify the strategies of the other Nordics and explain how they work in practice. We can advise Iceland based on other Nordic experience. This has led to a trustful relationship.

Cecilia Ljungman, NIRAS Evaluation Expert

Shedding light on practices for civil society collaboration with inspiration from the Nordics

Iceland engages in multilateral cooperation and humanitarian aid as well as strategic partnerships under which collaboration with civil society organisations (CSOs) falls. In Iceland, CSOs have not had a long history of grassroots activism beyond its borders as have their Nordic counterparts. Therefore, Iceland has found inspiration in the Danish and Swedish approaches to CSOs – which also made NIRAS an attractive company to work with. In our most recent assignment for the Icelandic MFA, we conducted an evaluation of the country’s CSO strategy that focuses on the CSO support granted since 2015, including a framework agreement for humanitarian interventions between the MFA and the Icelandic Red Cross.

Among other things, the evaluation suggested that the MFA shift from providing conventional grants to framework agreements with longstanding CSO partners. “I think the evaluation will be a tide turner for the way we do our work,” says Erla Hlín Hjálmarsdóttir, who is Director of Results and Evaluations at MFA Iceland.

To her, evaluations that invite one to shift perspectives and change mechanisms substantially are the most valuable ones, and equally important is accountability: “Evaluations are important for us as an accountability measure – both towards beneficiaries and to our own tax payers, the Icelandic public.”

Erla is positive about the collaboration and refers to the latest evaluation of the Icelandic CSO Strategy: “With NIRAS, we are attaining institutional knowledge, which other evaluators would not be able to have. To design an evaluation in a clever manner and have a firm evidence and results-based approach is challenging, but in my experience, NIRAS has managed to do exactly this in all the evaluations they have conducted for us.”

Cecilia Ljungman, who has led all of the MFA assignments on behalf of NIRAS, echoes the good experience: “Our collaboration has worked very well, and the Icelandic MFA are always open-minded, quick decision-makers and competent. When they recognise a good idea, they make things happen. It is a joy to work with them.”

Contributing to an interdisciplinary approach to capacity building

NIRAS’ work for the Icelandic MFA started in 2016, with the largest evaluation the Icelandic government had ever procured. The aim was to evaluate the nation’s flagship programmes in capacity development that operated under the umbrella of the United Nations’ Universities (UNU) within the four sectors – namely fisheries, gender equality, geothermal energy and land restoration.

Gathering data in 12 countries, the evaluation centred on what had been achieved at country level and how the MFA should build on the success of these programmes and move them into the future. At the time, the four programmes were run separately, and the evaluation was to investigate how to bring them together.

Mary Frances Davidson, who is Deputy Director for the fisheries programme explains: “It is complicated to do an impact evaluation on a capacity building programme, as attributing effects can be difficult. NIRAS’ team were experts in each of the fields. They built a comprehensive evaluation methodology which included workshops, surveys, and interviews with programme staff, teachers, supervisors and former fellows. They also visited partner countries and met with people we had trained to learn about the impact of participating in the programmes… NIRAS asked all the right questions and talked to all the right people.”

Fellows In Snow2
Fellows of the fisheries programme visiting Iceland

The evaluation concluded that the programmes had achieved important results at country level, including contributing to policy changes and alumni that went on to become ministers. It also gave Iceland a clearer roadmap for how to increase efficiency and impact of the programmes by bringing them together as part of the same centre. Leaving the UNU with facilitation from NIRAS, Iceland engaged with UNESCO to establish a so-called UNESCO Category II Centre, the GRÓ Centre, within which the four programmes are run. The GRÒ centre is the first ever cross-disciplinary Category II Centre established under UNESCO’s a auspices, reflecting an integrated SDG approach that is attracting attention.

“NIRAS’ dedication and the thorough nature of the report gave us the foundation to move into this new territory of GRÓ. NIRAS also opened up a broad network of people and gave us the chance to work on new and exciting projects,” Mary Frances concludes. For instance, in 2019, she collaborated with NIRAS on a study funded by the Swedish Government’s expert group on development aid analysis, related to mapping evidence in support of SDG 14’s fisheries targets.

“From my experience with NIRAS, the level of confidence with the team is high. Professionalism makes working with them a lot of fun. Beyond that, there is always an opportunity for extra support. In my view, NIRAS has the expertise to support you and help coach you in the right direction,” Mary Frances says.

Moving forward, there are new projects on the horizon and excitement from both sides to continue the strong collaboration.

NIRAS’ work for the Icelandic MFA from 2016 until now includes the following:

  1. A multi-country evaluation of the United Nations Universities’ capacity development programmes in Iceland, 2016-2017

  2. A review of the Latin American Geothermal Context and of the Geothermal Diploma Course for Latin America, 2017

  3. A CSO evaluation – during which NIRAS provided “on the job” M&E training for two MFA staff and two CSO staff members by including them as team members on four country level field studies, 2017-2018

  4. A review of a women’s entrepreneurship CSO in South Africa, 2017

  5. Cecilia Ljungman was personally appointed to serve the Minister of Foreign Affairs as part of a three person expert group, 2018-2019

  6. Playing an instrumental facilitation role in establishing a UNESCO Category II Centre in Reykjavik - the “GRÓ International Centre for Capacity Development – Sustainable use of Natural Resources and Societal Change”, 2018-2020

  7. Providing results-based management (RBM) training and support to the four capacity development programmes of GRÓ, 2019-2020

  8. Undertaking an evaluation of Iceland’s CSO Strategy, 2020-2021

Cecilia Ljungman

Cecilia Ljungman


Stockholm, Sweden

+46 8 588 318 24