By Chris Barnett

What role will evaluation play in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?  A recent event at Wilton Park, convened in collaboration with CDI, explored how evaluation should track the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Over the course of the event, I came to four realisations:  

  1. Evaluation has come a long way in the past decade. It is better resourced, more methodologically inventive and more recognised by decision-makers. While there is a way to go in really making a difference, we have a positive foundation to build on going forwards.
  2. The task ahead is considerable. The SDGs set out an ambitious vision for humanity, which implies a considerable measurement challenge. Not only are there are 17 goals and 169 targets, but there are no less than 230 indicators! While tracking progress against the goals is important, the very notion of ‘indicators’ seems counterintuitive to this new agenda for sustainability. An indicator-based approach (more monitoring than evaluation) leans towards slicing up the whole into many, many parts – whereas, in contrast, the SDGs provide a holistic vision which requires an often complex interplay between social, economic and environmental systems. This is where evaluation has a valuable role to play helping to understand and learn about this complexity, how transformational change comes about and the impact on both society and the environment.
  3. Partnerships will be essential, especially in building national evaluation capacity. A fascinating case study from Mexico showed how evaluation can make a difference and really become embedded within a nationally led discourse, supporting priorities for funding social programmes (given very real fiscal limits), as well as providing a type of ‘social audit’ for the parliamentarians. Another case study from Finland showed how leadership to embed the SDGs across the domestic situation inevitably placed increased demands for evaluative evidence of what works and why.
  4. This was just the start of discussions. Evaluation now needs to move beyond its public-sector comfort zone. We need to build new partnerships and alliances (such as with the private sector), work in new ways (by embracing data science, or bridging the social and natural sciences), and on pressing issues (such as the policy coherence between aid, trade and foreign policy – where one can undermine the achievements of the other).

It is a certainly a challenging but very interesting time to be an evaluator, and as a community we have a responsibility to track the SDGs for public accountability and future lesson learning. We’ll keep you up to date on how CDI’s work is contributing towards this progress, and in the meantime, find out more about the event by reading the report