Evaluations, reviews and assessments are key to embedding the SDGs

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19 July 2017

How can we embed the Sustainable Development Goals into development processes to reach the tipping point that we desperately need for dealing with the big challenges of our time? This blog by Stefano D'Errico follows up a joint UNICEF/EVALSDGs webinar in New York. 

More than 70 people joined the webinar about evaluation and voluntary national reviews. You can watch a recording of the webinar at the bottom of this page (Image: IIED)

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will only become embedded in development planning when reviews, assessments and evaluations are used to accelerate the process.

Countries report back on progress to the High Level Political Forum every four years. While important, this is only one piece of the jigsaw. Ongoing evaluations, reviews and assessments must be used in country to keep the SDG implementation process moving.

This means understanding national politics as much as fuelling movements for social action. It means dealing with hard-to-predict, intricate and often volatile interactions between different interested parties. Ultimately for evaluators this means brokering the values, views and needs of different stakeholders while new knowledge is generated about effectiveness, efficiency, equity and impact. 

In doing this, evaluators have a responsibility to challenge monopolies of any kind – of problem definition, of issue formulation, of data control, of information use. For example, the interaction of the SDGs often leads to trade-offs and clashes between conservation policies and economic growth. Evaluators need to mediate different interests in the process of value definition.

As evaluators, we can serve Agenda 2030 by facilitating the co-generation of value judgements about what works, for whom, under what conditions. These judgements must be based on rigorous evidence. And they must be based on processes that engage different stakeholder groups.

Agenda 2030 is a massive step forward because it recognises the inter-relationships between human, economic development and the environment. However, in its complexity, it can become a burden for national governments. So, we need to find ways to digest the agenda by developing simple messages around its key principles:

  • Country ownership
  • Universality
  • Sustainability
  • Partnerships, and
  • No one left behind.

In 2016 22 countries put themselves forward to report to the High Level Political Forum; 44 will be reporting this year.

EVALSDGS, an international network of evaluation professionals, has analysed the first set of 22 reports and found that 16 of the first 22 countries have already established a governance system for monitoring and evaluation (M&E) at the president/prime minister level or at a ministry level. In eight countries, inter-ministerial agencies coordinate exchanges between ministries.

These are remarkable efforts and a tangible sign of how a few nations are taking the lead.

It struck us that many states, including Australia, Canada, Russia, South Africa, the UK and the US, have not yet announced any plans for reporting on their voluntary national reviews. This clashes with the universality principle of Agenda 2030.

It is also interesting to note how some developed countries see the agenda as mostly related to their overseas development assistance. Examples include the UK and Finland, where despite there already being an impressive system in place to implement the SDGs, evaluation is only mentioned as a tool to assess development aid. 

Very few of the reporting countries are considering developing a specific M&E system for SDGs. In fact, many are relying on systems already put in place for the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs). 

This will give rise to three different situations:

  • Countries using an adapted MDGs framework 
  • Countries with advanced frameworks on sustainable development, and
  • Countries that must build a framework from scratch. 

The MDGs could become the biggest enemy of the SDGs if the new frameworks simply mirror the previous ones without considering the interaction between social, economic and environmental dimensions. Equally, countries that must build new frameworks have a big task ahead and need greater support.

So, challenges and solutions are context specific but the key message is global: sustainability is about humans as much as the environment. The two go hand in hand. 

In terms of partnership, many of the 22 countries have implemented special committees to consult, guide or oversee their SDG national processes. These institutions often include civil society organisations and people from the private sector. Some countries are engaging civil society in assessing the gaps in their previous reporting systems. Others are engaging sustainability experts. These are very good evaluative practices.

Many countries noted that they lack data and need to improve their statistical reporting system if they are to use monitoring to help implement the 2030 Agenda. We all know that the more we try to disaggregate data, the more they can become unreliable and undermine the ability to understand who has been left behind. 

The way to understand progress on equity and equality cannot come only from numbers and survey data. We need to have processes to analyse qualitative and quantitative information, but also maps and other types of data. We need standard ways to synthesise all these data into value judgements — and that is an evaluation job.    

Related resources:

Stefano D'Errico presented the essence of this blog at a UNICEF/EVALSDGs webinar in New York on 13 July 2017. Watch a video recording of the webinar below, or see it on YouTube

You can review D'Errico's presentation slidedeck on IIED's Slideshare platform.

IIED has also published a briefing paper on evaluation and the voluntary national reviews (VNRs). The paper was produced by a team of 11 evaluation experts led by Benoit Simon and analyses all 22 VNRs submitted to the HLPF in 2016:

This paper is part of a series of briefings about evaluation being produced by IIED and EVALSDGs.  

Stefano D'Errico (stefano.derrico@iied.org) is monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning manager in IIED's Strategy and Learning Group.

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