From monitoring the SDGs to sustainable development evaluation

By Stefano D’Errico

International Institute for Environment and Development



In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and soon after, in December that year, countries signed the Paris Agreement on climate change. Seven years later, the world has changed dramatically. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit economies and health systems across countries, while the climate emergency has caused environmental disruption and hazards threatening our existence on the planet. It is worth asking ourselves whether the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become unreachable targets and whether the 2030 Agenda gives us the right tools to tackle the massive challenges ahead. This blog looks at SDG 2 on ending hunger as an example of the challenges that are currently affecting follow-up and review processes of the SDGs and proposes a few ideas on how evaluation could help to overcome them.



Statistics without evaluation


There is no doubt that so far the most significant result achieved by the 2030 Agenda is the production of sustainable development data. Many countries, regional and international organizations are reporting impressive efforts to further develop their statistical capacity; and the number of monitoring platforms reporting sustainable development indicators is growing exponentially. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about sustainable development evaluation. So far, only three countries – Costa Rica, Finland and Nigeria - have attempted to assess their national policies and programmes against the principles of the 2030 Agenda.


Apart from political will, there are some practical challenges to evaluating sustainable development. Defining the evaluand is often the first stumbling block that evaluation commissioners need to tackle. The guidebook Evaluation to connect national priorities with the SDGs (D’Errico S. et al 2019) provides guidance on how to choose the scope by presenting the practical experience of Costa Rica, Finland and Nigeria. The second challenge relates to assessing the effects of policies and programmes across the different areas of sustainable development. How can evaluators conduct a meaningful inquiry and keep the exercise feasible at the same time?


So far, only three countries – Costa Rica, Finland and Nigeria - have attempted to assess their national policies and programmes against the principles of the 2030 Agenda.

Ending hunger: an example


Let’s look more closely at one of the goals: SDG 2, which aims to end hunger, achieve food security and promote sustainable agriculture. The UN Food System Summit that took place in July 2021 and the current estimates suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on how people access nutritious food. The pandemic has exacerbated an already alarming situation. In the last three years, the numbers of chronically malnourished people have grown to 821 million, while two billion people have been experiencing moderate to severe food insecurity. In the near future, the number of malnourished people may increase by over 130 million because of the COVID-19 crisis. Undernutrition often coexists with overweight and obesity, which are growing in all regions of the world. It is currently estimated that at least 2.28 billion adults and children are overweight. This explosive mix has been referred to as the double burden of malnutrition.


The irony is that in the world there is enough food to feed 10 billion people. But the food system is under pressure from many stresses, among them: population and income growth, unsustainable agricultural expansion and production which erodes soil productivity and threatens forests, and increasing demand for animal-sourced products (IPCC chapter 5 on food security). To evaluate food security policies and programmes, we should look at food systems from the perspectives of those left behind. But policymaking narratives have often failed to include access to affordable food for low income urban and rural consumers (Cecilia Tacoli, Bill Vorley, 2015). The global debate has usually prioritised agricultural production and access to global value chains for smallholders and other producers instead of focusing on consumption, access to affordable food and sustainable agriculture.


To evaluate food security policies and programmes, we should look at food systems from the perspectives of those left behind.

As suggested by SDG 2 targets and by the literature on the topic, the adoption of sustainable agriculture and access to affordable food is critical to the achievement of other goals. Lessons from previous programmes and research suggest that the promotion of sustainable agriculture is key for a number of SDGs and indicators, including SDG 13 (to take urgent action to tackle climate change) and SDG 15 (to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems). Access to affordable food is key for achieving SDG 1 (to end poverty in all its form everywhere); SDG 3 (to ensure healthy lives and promote well-​being for all at all ages); and SDG 11 (to make cities and human settlements inclusive, resilient and sustainable).


The good news is that the statisticians have developed useful indicators to track food prices, the presence of subsidies favouring export and the adoption of sustainable agriculture. However, while the two indicators related to consumption have an international methodology and data, the indicator tracking adoption for sustainable agriculture is still classified as tier II, which means that despite the presence of an internationally recognised methodology, data currently does not exist (SDG indicator 2.4.1).


What can evaluation teach us?


This lack of monitoring data shouldn’t leave us in despair, in fact, that’s where evaluation can help through a holistic assessment of food systems and their impacts on other SDGs by investigating the foundations of sustainable development (see figure 1).


Figure 1: The foundations of sustainable development












SDG evaluation looking at food security from the perspective of people living in poverty and exclusion can help shed light on a number of goals, and identify lessons to promote sustainable practices for food production and affordable access to food.

Evaluation can fill the monitoring gap by triangulating and debating different sources of evidence. Unlike monitoring, which relies on a limited number of indicators, evaluation can look more in-depth at the coherence of policies and programmes aiming to encourage affordable sustainable agriculture. It can also draw on the knowledge of sector experts and local communities. Furthermore, to be faithful to the 2030 Agenda principles, SDG evaluation should be an opportunity to give voice to local communities who can use it as an opportunity to demand their rights to food and agroecology. SDG evaluation looking at food security from the perspective of people living in poverty and exclusion can help shed light on a number of goals, and identify lessons to promote sustainable practices for food production and affordable access to food. Most importantly a participatory evaluation can be a learning opportunity where ministries and organizations working on different issues can all learn together how to manage trade-offs between sectors and build synergies for a more sustainable and equitable future.


 

Stefano D’Errico is head of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). He is the lead author of the guidebook, Evaluation to connect national priorities with the SDGs: a guide for evaluation commissioners and managers. Follow Stefano on Twitter or contact him via email at stefano.derrico@iied.org. If you are interested to know more about food security, follow the new blog series recently launched by IIED.