The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known at the 2030 Agenda, is a UN initiative of 17 goals set for all nations, not just poorer ones, to aid in their efforts to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. There are targets established for each goal and an end date of 2030 to try to achieve them. Arbitrary? Of course, development, by its very nature, is an ongoing process. But focused development-oriented agendas with set targets and indicators can drive policies and programming to move towards measurable improvement.
The policies and programming that countries put into place to address the SDGs should be monitored and will need to be evaluated to see if they are playing out as they were first envisioned. The SDG initiative, and its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), call for nations to take charge of their own development and goal setting to achieve their development aims. This is a big deal.
In 2011, ECDG sponsored an international workshop on evaluation capacity development. Two recently commissioned reports from SE Asia were presented at that time. Their findings included the following, “Evaluation practices in the studied countries were mostly donor driven. In most cases, there was a good appreciation of the need for and usefulness of internal evaluation capacity development to enable agencies to improve their performance. However, it was also clear that the donors’ agenda and resources provided very little to support this goal.”
In November, 2016, ECDG co-sponsored a seminar following the Asia Pacific Evaluation Association (APEA) conference in Hanoi, Vietnam. Its purpose was to critically examine key issues and challenges faced by the evaluation community with special regard to the SDGs.
During the event, participants were divided into groups representing internal or external drivers of ECD. Some of the key issues cited for internal drivers to ECD included: reflecting values of the society; use of local language and interpretation; challenges to reach ethnic and marginalized groups; and the localization of evaluation. External drivers included the need for government champions and ownership of evaluation from the beginning. I see a pattern here…
The need for national ownership of ECD is acknowledged by all. However, many governments do not yet have a comprehensive evaluation system in place to adequately assess their achievements and determine what course corrections are necessary. If national evaluation capacity is lacking, who is responsible, willing and able to take charge of this critical role?
There was a supposition during the creation of the SDGs that UN agencies, and their respective evaluation units, would assume the duel mantel of evaluating their support of countries as they address the SDGs and simultaneously developing national evaluation capacity. And indeed, a number of UN organizations and multi-lateral development agencies are working with governments on implementing their SDG strategies and means to evaluate them.
With these thoughts in mind, I recently reviewed the latest assessments by The Multilateral Organization Performance Assessment Network (MOPAN), a network of donor countries that monitors the performance of multilateral development organizations at the country level. The assessments included 12 UN agencies and revealed several areas of weakness that encompassed the majority of the UN agencies assessed.
A lack of adequate financial resources, diminished funding and financial independence were common challenges faced by many UN agencies. If UN agencies are struggling to fund their existing programmes, how will they manage an extended mandate to include evaluating their support of national progress in achieving the SDGs and providing the necessary support to help countries develop the capacity to evaluate their progress themselves?
Management buy-in to the value of evaluation was cited as an impediment in several instances. Structural independence of the evaluation function was also noted and political pressures can sway both tone and substance of evaluations.
A number of agencies were reported to have challenges with evidence-based decision making. Others lacked evidence to show progress towards country-level results. Results-based management and results-based budgeting were problematic almost across the board. The decision making process was sometimes too centralized with a lack of adequate country-level staff. Top-heavy, often politically-led decision making at headquarters and lean local staffing with limited country-level decision making encourages a negative evaluation culture within the organization and can put constraints in effectively promoting national evaluation capacity.
In addition, lessons-learned mechanisms were sometimes lacking as well as a culture that supported integrating lessons learned into decision-making. When evaluations are conducted, a system must be in place to encourage results of what is learned and recommendations for improvement to be fed back into the loop for improved future planning and course corrections to existing programming.
Another common theme in the report centered on partnerships. The alignment of UN agencies’ efforts, a lack of integration, and programme overlap were frequently reported. Working for the benefit of national development requires a priority of collaboration and partnerships.
When UN agencies are trying to grapple with crucial issues ranging from growing financial constraints and tighter budgets to basic management buy-in of the evaluation function, it will be difficult for them to expand their directive to the immense task of evaluating their support of SDG progress and the even more gargantuan task of growing national evaluation capacity of each county.
Should the role of UN agencies be to tackle SDG-related evaluation and simultaneously be the primary promoters of evaluation capacity development at the country-level? If not, who and how?
 http://www.ecdg.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Current-Situation1.pdf; http://www.ecdg.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FINAL-UNEDAP_Joint_Evaluation_ECD_Final_Report-Feb-20121.htm