Leaving no place behind amidst growing subnational inequalities: Role of development evaluation

By Clement Mensah

Consultant, Independent Development Evaluation

African Development Bank



On 18 July 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, in an address delivered in honour of Nelson Mandela International Day, bemoaned the growing global inequalities, charging world leaders to step up action in order to realize the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, various reports – including Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) Index 2018, World Inequality Lab’s World Inequality Report 2018, and the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Goalkeepers Examining Inequality 2019 – have similarly raised alarms about growing inequalities in the areas of income, gender, and access to social services and more.




Besides, subnational inequalities between rural and urban areas or regions are also widening. For example, northern territories in West African countries such as Benin, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire are poorer compared to their southern counterparts. Unsurprisingly, the onset of the novel COVID-19 pandemic has come to exacerbate territorial inequalities. For example, a territorial assessment of the impact of the pandemic in some OECD countries revealed a disproportionate health and economic impact on poor urban areas and regions. [1] This clearly exposes the huge regional development disparities that exist within countries. And in some countries, these disparities have persisted for decades, with national development agendas favouring some people and places over others.


"Unsurprisingly, the onset of the novel COVID-19 pandemic has come to exacerbate territorial inequalities. "

Indeed, these territorial inequalities don’t just happen. They are the result of non-inclusive policies, weak institutional arrangements, and poor development governance processes including how governments set national policy priorities. This certainly calls for a rethink of regional development policies with broader national development agendas.


But, do these rising regional inequalities mean anything for development evaluation? Can evaluators – through their evaluations – inform better regional development policies? I dare say yes!


"Territorial inequalities don’t just happen. They are the result of non-inclusive policies, weak institutional arrangements, and poor development governance processes."

Leveraging the power of development evaluation


In July 2019, I remotely participated in a side event jointly organized by EVALSDGs, UNICEF and UNITAR during the 2019 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. The event, which had a mix of senior evaluators and policy-makers as panellists, discussed pertinent issues regarding the evaluation imperatives for a successful implementation of the SDGs at the country level.


What actually stood out for me though was a terse discussion on the power of evaluation. Not only did the panellists reinforce the accountability-promoting function of evaluations, but they also talked about how evaluation lessons could be leveraged to shape and bring about improvements in government policies and development interventions in general. And that for governments and their development partners, investing more in evaluation is a win-win for better inclusive development policies.


Hence, I believe the development evaluation community stands in a very good position to help governments and development partners design as well as implement the right policies and interventions using the most effective institutional arrangements and processes so as to correct these growing subnational inequalities. Of course, by the nature of their work, evaluators do not have the luxury of choosing which interventions to evaluate. But as a community, they can be a critical force in shaping conversations and debates on topical developmental issues including for instance, pointing out areas where evidence is lacking regarding what works and what doesn’t in the fight against regional development inequalities.


"Evaluators do not have the luxury of choosing which interventions to evaluate. But as a community, they can be a critical force in shaping conversations and debates on topical developmental issues."

How can the evaluation community be a part of the solution?


There are a number of ways by which the evaluation community can help governments tackle growing inequalities.


First, a renewed evaluation agenda that specifically targets territorially-focused inclusive development policies and interventions is needed. There is a dearth of evidence on the effectiveness of regional development policies – especially in developing countries – even though many countries continue to try out place-based and regional policies aimed at revitalizing historically disadvantaged territories. Stepping up evaluation efforts in this regard is crucial.


Of course, such an agenda should also prioritize the policy-making design processes and development structures. For example, as part of country-focused evaluations, it may be vital to examine how national policy priority setting happens. Also, in some countries, meso-level, territorially-focused development authorities have been established to augment traditional local government structures. We need to understand whether such parallel arrangements are more effective in addressing subnational inequalities or otherwise.


Second, we need to develop new tools for measuring efforts towards leaving no place behind. For governments and development partners alike, having in place some form of validation tools that are able to flag how their policies and programmes are sensitive to regional disparities in-country is important. Specific to multilateral development banks (MDBs), including a specific benchmark in validation tools – in addition to other thematic areas such as gender and green growth – can help flag whether a country support programme adequately guarantees equitable regional development. By doing this, evaluation offices will afford MDBs the opportunity to have a deliberate approach to addressing subnational inequalities.


"Developing complementary tools specifically dedicated to tracking and measuring governments efforts and or readiness to bridging territorial disparities is key."

In addition, tools such as the multidimensional poverty index continue to provide useful insights into subnational patterns in the area of poverty for example. But developing complementary tools specifically dedicated to tracking and measuring governments efforts and or readiness to bridging territorial disparities is key. By nature, regional development programmes are complex and so is their evaluation. Having some sort of an index or dashboard with a granular insight into in-country disparities is a good start. Such tool can be comparable across countries. One of the benefits of such a tool is that it will elevate issues of subnational disparities and demonstrate how governments across the world are addressing them, allowing for sharing of best practice.


Third, there is a need to build evaluation capacities for regional development. This may include the development and dissemination of contemporary guidelines for conducting evaluations for regional development policies and programmes. In addition, deepening regional development-evaluation dialogues using platforms such as a community of practice may be helpful.


These recommendations are not exhaustive but provide good entry points for the development evaluation community to proactively engage in discourses on subnational inequalities. But, this cannot happen without the support of governments themselves. It is only in such collaborative spirit that the development evaluation community can support them win the inequality battle and eventually make significant strides towards leaving no place behind by 2030.

The author is a researcher and an emerging evaluator currently working as a consultant with the Independent Development Evaluation Unit of the African Development Bank. He is a member of the South African Monitoring & Evaluation Association and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Social Development, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Follow Clement on Twitter and LinkedIn or contact via mcashine@gmail.com.


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