By Dr Rashmi Agrawal
Towards the SDGs
In the keynote address delivered during EvalFest 2020, organized by the Evaluation Community of India (ECOI), Marco Segone, Director, UNFPA Evaluation Office, indicated that if the current trends were any evidence to go by, attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) would take several decades beyond 2030. That was even before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. In April 2020, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), a UN global initiative, conducted a survey on the progress made and the major challenges faced in implementing the SDGs, covering 715 respondents from 104 countries in the SDG community. Respondents indicated that even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was not on track to achieve these goals. Two-thirds of the community believed that their country would only achieve up to half of the goals. Only 16 per cent of respondents believed that their country was on track. These two pieces of evidence – one based on data and the other anecdotal – are enough to alert the global community that a significantly major push (perhaps superhuman) is necessary to reach anywhere close to the goals by 2030.
"Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was not on track to achieve these goals."
COVID-19 and the SDGs
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be throwing all development into disarray and exposing the inadequacies of all public health systems in more economically developed and developing countries alike. The effects of the pandemic has harmed millions of lives and livelihoods. It may take a few years for countries to recover from the economic and health crisis inflicted by the pandemic. To use the language of a cardinal principle of SDGs, those who were left behind earlier have been pushed back even further and those who had enjoyed a modicum of fruits of development have also been pushed into the class of left behind, raising the amount of corrective action required to get back on track considerably. Examples of the negative impact are not restricted to just SDG 8 related to employment and decent work but to many other SDGs addressing hunger, poverty, well being among other areas (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 4). Online education has replaced normal education methods. The major disadvantage of this trend is the exclusion of students who do not have access to the necessary technological equipment and/or the internet. An online survey conducted by the author and team in April 2020 (542 respondents from 58 countries) showed that continued lockdowns and other restrictions imposed raised negative feelings such as stress, anxiety and fear among the people (SDG 3) and even behaviour patterns had changed due to continued disconnect with the outside world.
"Those who were left behind earlier have been pushed back even further and those who had enjoyed a modicum of fruits of development have also been pushed into the class of left behind, raising the amount of corrective action required to get back on track considerably."
COVID-19 and the evaluation practice
Evaluation itself has been affected by the pandemic. First, economic impact and budget constraints have affected the scope for evaluations. Some evaluations have been cancelled or postponed. Second, with drastic restrictions imposed upon some of the established evidence-gathering procedures such as face-to-face individual and group interviews, evaluation practice has been forced to modify its methods. Participatory methods such as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and the like, which demand personal proximity, are not possible. The evaluation profession is no doubt resilient enough to adapt its techniques to these restrictions. However, alternative techniques have their own limitations. For example, in countries where internet communication is not very widespread, online surveys do not reach all, particularly the most deprived sections. The examples are only indicative. However, these set a limit on knowing what is happening to those left behind.
"The evaluation profession is no doubt resilient enough to adapt its techniques to these restrictions."
The Eval4Action campaign has been conceived under these circumstances. The campaign intends to promote influential evaluations contributing to acceleration of results through evidence-based policies and programmes. A legitimate question, however, is how evaluation can by itself improve the progress towards the SDGs? This requires a) carrying out quality evaluations to produce quality evidence to indicate what policies and programmes work, and, b) convincing the policy-makers to plough this evidence into reshaping policies and programmes. The latter is more difficult to achieve. This is why the campaign is mobilizing the global evaluation community to come together to advocate for influential evaluation at all levels.
Role of evaluators
Evaluative evidence is required to assess the impact of the pandemic on the lives and livelihoods of the population and interventions made by the governments to tackle the situation. In these circumstances, the role of evaluators has increased many folds to generate quality evidence and guide the assessment of changed priorities and impacts by inventing new methodologies. Technological advances in information gathering, processing and dissemination need to be harnessed for more efficient evaluations, but at the same time, it should be recognized that such methods could be biased due to exclusion and may infringe individual privacies.
"The role of evaluators has increased many folds to generate quality evidence and guide the assessment of changed priorities and impacts by inventing new methodologies."
How can VOPEs contribute?
While developing evaluation capacities at all levels and professionalizing evaluation would raise the evaluation standards, leading to evaluations of high quality and utility, advocacy is required to ensure policy-makers use the evidence to frame policies and programmes. Coordination, synergies and constant dialogue between evaluators and other stakeholders like decision makers, legislators, media and the civil society at large are pre-requisites. VOPEs (Voluntary Organizations for Professional Evaluation) have an important role in all the areas - evaluation capacity building, maintaining professional standards, advocacy for use of evidence and so on.
"VOPEs have an important role in all the areas - evaluation capacity building, maintaining professional standards, advocacy for use of evidence."
This is the right time for some introspection on the time span set for the global development agenda. We need to re-look at the global agenda and reprioritize the SDGs to address the total well being of people – both material and mental. The COVID-19 pandemic could leave lasting imprints on the attitudes of people. While all the SDGs are important, emphasis on fewer goals related to poverty, hunger, health and inclusivity (SDGs 1, 2, 3 and 4) with fewer targets need to be considered. The role of evaluators is immense in the present scenario, both in creating demand and supply for evaluations and innovating appropriate techniques for evaluations.
The author is an IPDET alumni, retired as Director from Government of India, now working as an independent M&E consultant with various national and international organizations. She is a Core Group member of Evaluation Community of India (ECOI), Ex Board member of IDEAS and a member of EvalGender+. Contact Dr Rashmi Agrawal on Twitter and at firstname.lastname@example.org.