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Evaluation must promote sustainable development



By Dr. Vinod Thomas and Dr. Namrata Chindarkar, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Evaluation can be used as a tool to test economic growth theories and bring out key policies and investments that make growth (environmentally and socially) sustainable. Unfortunately, evaluation has shied away from confronting the increasingly central concerns of producing high-quality evidence for social inclusion, the environment, climate change, and good governance. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a starting point to change the evaluative focus.  In this context, our new book Economic Evaluation of Sustainable Development unveils tools for evaluation that can help support sustainable development. In the book, we argue that it is critical to use the right tools for credible evaluations and evidence. 

An essential first step for evaluations that are useful for the SDGs is recognizing their links with broader development goals. Country experiences show that social inclusion, environmental care, and good governance are interlinked. For example, environmental destruction and climate change hurt the poor the most, and hence weaken the goal of greater social inclusion. Similarly, numerous studies have documented the impact of corruption and weak governance in aggravating illegal logging and deforestation. 

In this book, we argue that the evaluation community can work towards SDGs by using existing approaches in evaluation: impact evaluation, cost-benefit analysis, and objectives-based evaluation. 
 
To identify economic, social and environmental concerns, there needs to be country-specific priorities and context-specific methods of analysis.

We further argue that rigor in analysis should also be strengthened by connecting evaluation tools with promoting growth, inclusion, and environmental protection underpinned by better governance. Unfortunately, these goals are often thought of as too complicated to be evaluated, considered to be “wicked” problems, and thus are left out of systematic evaluation exercises.
 
Impact evaluation can serve as a valuable way in which to gauge the attribution effects of a program. It may also improve the chances that programs such as conditional cash transfers (that promote greater social inclusion), for example in Brazil, Mexico or the Philippines, are sustained regardless of changes in political leadership in a country.

Cost-benefit analysis has a growing role to play too. For example, assessment of growth impacts could give special attention to the time frame to ensure that movement toward greater sustainability is rewarded. Cost-benefit analysis could apply distributional weights to ensure that income disparities are addressed along with growth effects. 
 
We also show that the gap in terms of incorporating sustainability of growth is largest when it comes to pursuing growth alone as compared to growth plus climate impacts. In aiding the application of objectives-based evaluation, project analysts would do well to routinely include a statement of the climate risks and impacts, and for program and country strategies to integrate climate goals in their core.

We note that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) is highly cognizant of both the need and the challenge of integrating climate concerns with sound development financing. A combination or a complementary application of impact evaluation, cost-benefit analysis, and objectives-based evaluation tools may prove helpful in this objective. This is being used in the IEU’s focus on the Learning-Oriented Real-Time Impact Assessment (LORTA.) 
 
Greater attention to evaluation of sustainable development should motivate more investments in generating and sharing the underlying data. There are helpful developments in harnessing socio-economic data including the analysis and application of so-called Big Data, as envisaged in the last chapter of our book.  
 
Our overarching objective is to explicate the connection between evaluation and economic policy analysis. Evaluation, while valuable, becomes useful only when its interconnection with socio-economic policies is realized. But in doing so, it pays to get the analytical methods and priorities of evaluation right.   

Dr. Vinod Thomas and Dr. Namrata Chindarkar are Visiting Professor and Assistant Professor respectively at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore; and authors of the recently released book Economic Evaluation of Sustainable Development. They can be found at @vthomas14 and @namratarc on Twitter.