Role of Developmental
The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the global community promises to usher in a new beginning in the pursuit of development - a new paradigm of development that is characterised by sustainability and equity across local to global contexts. The transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the SDGs is not merely representative of a shift in goalposts but acknowledges within its construct, the complexities of a more interconnected world that is influenced by new vulnerabilities and informed by new knowledge on inter-linkages between ecological, economic and social systems at all levels.
This acknowledgment of complexity raises the question of whether the traditional monitoring and evaluation methods will be able to support the implementation of the SDGs or new methods and techniques will have to be evolved and deployed. While the evaluation methods deployed for the MDGs had a predominant focus on quantitative monitoring, the evaluation of the SDGs calls for a more nuanced approach that is capable of contextualising and considering qualitative aspects while not diluting the focus on quantitatively defined level of progress.
Given that we are still in the initial years of the SDGs’ implementation period, it is important that we adopt an evaluation framework that is more formative than summative. How we continuously learn from our first steps to design, redesign and adapt our strategies in an agile manner will prove critical to the achievement of the SDGs.
A summative approach has its focus on quantifying the level of achievement and is done at the end of a specified period of implementation whereas a formative approach deploys evaluation concurrent to the period of implementation and provides information through feedback loops that can be used for improving performance and achievement in a dynamic system. The approach of developmental evaluation however goes a step further and seeks to understand the context and cause of achievement or its lack thereof. Developmental evaluation is an approach that is adapted to complex situations, in dynamic environments, on innovative, interdependent subjects and which have decentralised decision-making and control centres (Michael Patton, 2006).
evaluation therefore presents itself as a most appropriate evaluation
approach for adoption in the context of the SDGs. The SDGs by their very
definition, straddle ecological, economic and social and political systems
with complex interactions between these characterised by feedback loops,
synergies and tradeoffs. While researchers are uncovering new knowledge and
understanding of these interactions, we cannot claim that we fully
understand and are able to predict how these dynamic systems will behave and
interact. This contributes to the manifestation of complexity and
uncertainty in the SDGs ecosystem. The diversity of contexts between and
even within the local, national, regional and global levels further adds to
the complexity and the need for localising the evaluation approach.
The developmental evaluation approach calls for an embedding of the evaluation team within the implementation space so that the ‘learning’ can happen in proximity of and concurrent to the ‘action’. This enables the evaluation team to be able to observe closely and establish patterns and causal linkages, but then also to be able to inform in real time for dynamic decision-making. This decentralised approach therefore calls for capacities for developmental evaluation to be built amongst local stakeholders.
A good beginning has already been made in that the SDGs were evolved through extensive consultative processes that engaged with a diverse array of stakeholders at all levels. This has ensured that there is already an appreciable level of awareness and ownership of the SDGs across a large spectrum of stakeholders. Innovative approaches have been piloted for demystifying and locally contextualising the goals for catalysing public awareness and grassroots action. This foundation will now have to be built upon by creating platforms and opportunities for stakeholders to reflect through participatory processes on their actions and its effectiveness and relevance against the backdrop of the global goals and their localized sub-context.
As with the SDGs, developmental evaluation methods too will need to be co-created with the stakeholders at the centre of the implementation. Such developmental evaluation exercises will help sustain the focus of stakeholders on the ultimate goals while providing the opportunity constantly appraise and adjust their strategies. Additionally, it will allow for stakeholders to identify, explore and take cognizance of the influence factors in the ecosystem that are having a bearing on their actions and the achievement of targets so that these can be better managed. As the implementation strategies for the SDGs in any context needs to be alive to the changes it is influencing and therefore be adaptable, so too the evaluation method employed must also itself be evaluated for its ability to inform strategy with critical inputs for improving efficiency. This will help stakeholders to arrive at an appropriate and effective evaluation strategy.
At a subsequent stage it will be important to network these communities of evaluators at various levels so that cross-learning is promoted. Such networks will help keep the dialogue on the SDGs animated and attuned to the stakeholder priorities, experiences and learning. These networks will help gain insights and evidence in areas of inquiry such as what works, why, under what circumstances, and for whom. Such knowledge will have great potential to improve the effectiveness of the SDG oriented action at all levels.
While this article builds a case for the adoption of the developmental evaluation approach for the SDGs, yet it must be understood that there is no single evaluation approach that can do justice to the scope and complexity of the SDGs challenge. It is as much important to have robust empirical analysis to be able to quantify and track progress as it is to be able to analyse and learn from experiences and deep-dive into the contexts, causal and influence loops for uncovering qualitative insights and inform strategy development and realignment. It may therefore be required to have a multi-tiered approach that borrows elements from various different evaluation approaches and methodologies in accordance to the specific contexts and needs. Developmental evaluation can be one of the key contributors to such a composite system, especially helping with respect to unpacking complexity and navigating uncertainty. ■