SUSTAINABILITY marker to support the project selection process: the UNOPS case


Ricardo Viana Vargas – United Nations (UNOPS) – Universidade Federal Fluminense

Carlos Alberto Pereira Soares – Universidade Federal Fluminense

André Bittencourt do Valle – Universidade Federal Fluminense

The objective of this paper is to present a non-conventional approach to the project selection criteria that is currently being implemented at the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in order to include social, environmental, and economic sustainability in humanitarian and development projects globally.

Using a set of twenty-five themes in four major groups, an internal tool called “Sustainability Marker” was developed to analyze projects above and beyond the traditional financial criteria in order to evaluate the real impact of the project in the sustainable development goals.


When looking into how organizations decide which projects to execute, we can notice a constant desire to have clear, objective, and mathematical criteria (Haas & Meixner, 2005). However, decision making is, in its totality, a cognitive and mental process derived from the most possible adequate selection based on tangible and intangible criteria (Saaty, 2009), which are arbitrarily chosen by those who make the decisions.

Basically the prioritization of projects in a portfolio is nothing more than an ordering scheme based on a benefit cost relationship of each project. Projects with higher benefits, when compared to their costs, will have a higher priority. It’s important to observe that a benefit cost relationship does not necessarily mean the use of exclusive financial criteria like the widely known benefit cost ratio, but instead a broader concept of the reaped benefits from executing the project and their related efforts (Vargas, 2010).

In most enterprises, the main criteria groups are related to financial, strategic, risks, urgency, and stakeholder commitment aspects (Vargas, 2010). The main challenge is to put in place criteria that can capture outcomes instead of just basic outputs. Many real cases support the lack of understanding of the real outcome, where projects were delivered to time, cost, and quality and yet are not yielding positive results (Dugal, 2010). Project managers have constructed bridges without access roads, have built hospitals and courthouses with no one in them, have implemented ERP systems and other business changes that have destroyed organizations (see Catalog of Catastrophe at

The Project Management Institute’s Standard for Portfolio Management – Third Edition (PMI, 2013a) says that the scope of a project portfolio must stem from the strategic objectives of the organization. These objectives must be aligned with the business scenario which in turn may be different for each organization. Consequently, there is no perfect model that covers the right criteria to be used for any type of organization when prioritizing and selecting its projects. The criteria to be used by the organization should be based on the values and preferences of its decision makers.


With strong focus in a developing world context, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) pointed out that a project can only be considered sustainable if it address the impacts on a broader set of stakeholders, including generations not yet born (Bobrow, 2014). This comprises sustainability aspects that should be embedded in the project while executing it (how) and the sustainability aspects after its conclusion (aim).

UNOPS definition of a sustainable project

Exhibit 1 – UNOPS definition of a sustainable project

Inserting sustainable principles into every single project is a major task and sometimes the decision on what actions should be in place create a dilemma for the project manager and the project team. In the places that UNOPS works, funding is often too limited to address all of the basic needs. Take for example the case of a school. There is enough funding to put solar panels on the roof or to build more class room space but not both. If we put the panels on then the school can have electricity and provide space for computers and potentially evening classes. However, if instead the classroom is made larger, more children can attend. How should a project manager make such a decision? (Bobrow, 2014).

Example of transforming inputs in to outputs, outcomes, and impact in the development sector (UNOPS, 2014)

Exhibit 2 – Example of transforming inputs in to outputs, outcomes, and impact in the development sector (UNOPS, 2014)

In order to support informed decision making process, UNOPS defined four dimensions of sustainability:

  • Social—Aspects covering gender, population, vulnerability, and other aspects related to the community where the project is being implemented.
  • Environmental—Aspects related to air, land, water, and biodiversity where the project is being implemented.
  • Economic—Aspects related to the economic relevance for the community, job generation, equity, and livehood.
  • National capacity—Aspects related to the use of local capacity to deploy the project including skills and knowledge, corruption, political, and social stability.

25 themes of the sustainability marker

After discussions with partners, project managers, and experts in the field, UNOPS developed the 25 Sustainability Themes to be evaluated in the Sustainability Marker (Exhibits 3, 4, 5 and 6).

Social themes

Exhibit 3 – Social themes

Economic themes

Exhibit 4 – Economic themes

Environmental themes

Exhibit 5 – Environmental themes

National Capacity themes

Exhibit 6 – National Capacity themes

Evaluating the sustainability themes

UNOPS project life cycle follows a five stage process (UNOPS, 2014) as presented in the Exhibit 7.

UNOPS Engagement Process (UNOPS, 2014)

Exhibit 7 – UNOPS Engagement Process (UNOPS, 2014)

The engagement process steps follow a progressive development where higher effort is put in place at initial phases in order to work with major stakeholders to adjust the plans and the outputs to relevant sustainability aspects. This approach follows the concept that the capability to add value decreases and the cost of correction increases exponentially over time for an specific project (Vargas, 2014).

Potential to add value agains the cost of correction for an specific project (VARGAS, 2014)

Exhibit 8 – Potential to add value agains the cost of correction for an specific project (VARGAS, 2014)

On the lead generation phase, a bigger effort is in place to work with the major stakeholders about the relevance of sustainability aspects. On this stage, training, discussion foruns, and informal assessments are put in place to create the positive environment for the pre-engagement phase assessment.

On the pre-engagement phase, the team needs to access the twenty five themes for the project delivery (effect during project delivery) and for the post-project (effect after the outcome). The effect-based scale is presented on the Exhibit 9.

Effect based scale on the pre-engagement phase (during and after project delivery)

Exhibit 9 – Effect based scale on the pre-engagement phase (during and after project delivery)

After consolidating the information, the marker graphic is presented for both post-project and during delivery scenarios (Exhibit 10).

Example of Sustainability Marker Weel Graph during the Pre-Engagement phase

Exhibit 10 – Example of Sustainability Marker Weel Graph during the Pre-Engagement phase

After the pre-engagement, the project team will work with the stakeholders to address the relevant sustainability aspects thru direct actions on the project delivery or changes in the scope statement and scope definition (PMI, 2013) to include specific activities, potential budget lines or a direct benefit of the project, if applicable (Exhibit 11).

Action plan scale on the initiation phase

Exhibit 11 – Action plan scale on the initiation phase

The final result is an expected improvement on the sustainability of the project by the implemented actions, like it is presented in the Exhibit 12.

Example of sustainability marker bar graph during the initiation phase (including action plans)

Exhibit 12 – Example of sustainability marker bar graph during the initiation phase (including action plans)


This paper aimed to present and discuss the selection criteria implemented by UNOPS to address social, environmental, and economic sustainability in humanitarian and development projects by using twenty five themes grouped in four dimensions for the project execution and post-project results.

The UNOPS Sustainability Marker is currently on pilot in most of the 1,300 UNOPS project globally. Challenges related to different cultural aspects, resistance to change, and short term need x long term perspective have been addressed and incorporated on each new release of the tool.

Bobrow, H. (2014, May). Taking Responsibility for Project Success: Sustainability and the Project Process. PMI Global

Congress 2014 – EMEA. Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

DUGGAL, J.S. (2010). Next Level Up: How Do You Measure Project Success? Rethinking the Triple Constraint.

Retrieved on 1st August 2014 from

Haas, R. & Meixner, O. (2005). An Illustrated Guide To Analytic Hierarcy Process. Vienna: University of Natural

Resources and Applied Life Sciences.

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (2013a). The standard for portfolio management – Third edition. Newtown Square, PA:


Saaty, T. L. (2009). Extending the measurement of tangibles to intangibles. International Journal of Information

Technology & Decision Making, 8(1), 7–27. Available at SSRN:

UNOPS. (2014). Body of knowledge sustainable project management practice. (12th ed.). Copenhagen: Author.

Vargas, R.V. (2010, October). Using the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) to Select and Prioritize Projects in a Portfolio. PMI Global Congress, North America, Washington DC.

Vargas, R.V. (2014). Gerenciamento de projetos: Estabelecendo diferenciais competitivos—Oitava Edição. Rio de Janeiro: Brasport (Brazilian Portuguese).

© 2014, Ricardo Viana Vargas
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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