EPE TIG Week: Juha Uitto on Sustainability Evaluation and the Need to Keep an Eye on the Big Picture
Hi all! I’m Juha Uitto, Deputy Director of the Independent Evaluation Office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I’ve spent many years evaluating environment and development in international organizations, like UNDP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF).
As we all know, evaluating sustainability is not easy or simple. Sustainability as a concept and construct is complex. It is by definition multidimensional encompassing environmental, social, cultural, political and economic dimensions. It cannot be evaluated from a single point of view or as just one dimension of a programme. Apart from the above considerations, sustainability refers to whether the programme or intervention that is the evaluand is in itself sustainable. Sustainability evaluation, must take all of the above into account.
At its simplest, sustainability evaluation would look into whether the intervention would ‘do no harm’ when it comes to the various environmental, social, cultural and other dimensions that may or may not be the main target of the programme. At this level, the evaluation does little more than ensuring that safeguards are in place. The evaluation also has to look at whether the intervention itself was sustainable, i.e. whether it has developed exit strategies so benefits will continue beyond the life of the intervention.
But this is not enough. It is essential for evaluations and evaluators to be concerned with whether the evaluand makes a positive difference and whether it has unintended consequences. In environment and development evaluation a micro-macro paradox is recognized: evaluations show that many individual projects are performing well and achieving their stated goals; yet the overall trends are downward. There are lots of projects focused on protected areas and biodiversity conservation; still, we are facing one of the most severe species extinction crises ever. Many projects successfully address climate change mitigation in various sectors ranging from industry to transportation to energy; still, the global greenhouse gas emissions continue their rising trend. It is not enough for evaluators to focus on ascertaining that processes, activities, outputs and immediate outcomes are achieved.
Lessons learned: In evaluating environment and poverty linkages, one should never underestimate the silo effect. Sustainable development requires a holistic perspective but few organizations operate that way. People have their own responsibilities, priority areas, disciplinary perspectives, partners, networks, and accountabilities that often preclude taking a holistic perspective. Evaluators must rise above such divisions. An evaluation – such as the Evaluation of UNDP Contributions to Environmental Management for Poverty Reduction – can make a major contribution to how an organization acknowledges, encourages and rewards intersectoral and transdisciplinary cooperation.
Rad resource: All UNDP evaluation reports and management responses to them are available on a publicly accessible website, the Evaluation Resources Centre, and independent evaluations at Independent Evaluation Office of UNDP.
The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Environmental Program Evaluation TIG Week with our colleagues in the Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our EPE TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.