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How Do We Evaluate Progress Towards the Sustainable Development Goals?

What can we do to effectively evaluate progress towards the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? This was one of the principal questions asked at the recent conference hosted in Guanajuato, Mexico by three international evaluation associations: the International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS), the Latin American and Caribbean Monitoring, Evaluation, and Systematization Network (ReLAC), and the Latin American and Caribbean Monitoring and Evaluation Network (REDLACME).

Throughout the three-day conference, which brought together approximately 500 evaluators and evaluation commissioners from 47 different countries, I gathered seven recurring themes posed as answers to this one question.

  1. We need to get better at evaluating more complex interventions.

    As Marvin Taylor-Dormond of the Asian Development Bank put it, we need to “move to the higher plain.” Since the SDGs address complex social and environmental problems, the solutions require complex and multi-stakeholder interventions. This means that evaluations need to be contribution (not attribution) focused. Additionally, evaluations need to be commissioned at the policy and cross-organizational levels rather than only focused at the project or program levels. Jyotsna Puri of Green Climate Fund and Joseph Dickman of Climate Investment Funds posited that this could be done by evaluating the scale of changes, the sustainability of changes, and whether or not changes have occurred at a systems level. An alignment of actions and actors across sectors and the use of findings to make iterative changes can accelerate transformational changes such as what we’re aiming for in the SDGs.
  2. Governments need to be committed to evaluation use.

    With countries prioritizing which SDGs are most urgent for their own contexts and taking on their own approaches to SDG interventions, governments need to play a proactive role in establishing how and when they will use evaluation. Mexico’s National Policy and Social Development Evaluation Council (CONEVAL) provides an example of how an independent agency can be established to manage data and evaluation of a country’s socioeconomic situation. Additionally, Twende Mbele shows us how countries across the African continent are joining forces to improve performance and accountability of their respective governments. However, the lack of such an entity should not be an excuse for governments not to engage in evaluation. All governments should be able to start small and build their own commitments to evaluation.
  3. We need to develop evaluation capacity globally for SDG evaluation.

    Given the expansiveness of the SDGs, the complexity of the social and environmental issues addressed, and the often fragile environments in which the interventions are taking place, evaluators need a range of skills both technical and human-centered. Additionally, the demand for evaluation needs to be further developed so that potential evaluation commissioners more fully understand its benefits and uses. Centers for Learning on Evaluation and Results (CLEAR), an initiative of the World Bank, and the Claremont Evaluation Center in New York currently have programs that strengthen evaluation capacities at local and regional levels, particularly with leaders and decision-makers. This is a good start, but given the wide range of thematic areas within the SDGs, there are many more global stakeholders to bring on board for evaluation use.
  4. Sharing evaluation learnings across regions can be tremendously helpful, particularly when South-South discussions occur.

    Understanding local context is critical for both effective SDG interventions and effective evaluation of those interventions. Tools such as the recently published Evaluation Standards for Latin America and the Caribbean is one example of how countries have come together to identify best evaluation practices for their region.  Additionally, as evaluators globally continue to strengthen their skills, forums that promote cross-regional learnings are important, especially when bringing together evaluators from the Global South. Evaluation networks and associations play an important role in facilitating those opportunities. A mapping of international evaluation associations can be found from EvalPartners.
  5. Participatory and inclusive evaluation is crucial.

    In order to live up to the standard set by the SDGs of “leaving no one behind” evaluation needs to help stakeholders obtain a clear understanding of target populations. This requires disaggregating data to include relevant vulnerable groups and integrating program or policy participants’ voices through participatory evaluation. Michele Tarsilla, Dagny Skarwan, Juan Carlos Sanz, and Lucy Asmar were just a few of the evaluators that I was fortunate to hear share their experiences in participatory evaluation in Africa, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and South Florida, respectively. Key takeaways from these discussions include asking participants what their objectives are and recognizing that culturally appropriate evaluation goes beyond translating the language of a survey to understanding appropriate ways to ask questions.
  6. Evaluators need to continue to share what works in fragile and conflict environments.

    The conference provided an opportunity for many evaluation practitioners to share their experiences working in areas of fragility and/or conflict. Oxfam shared their work in outcomes harvesting, CDA Collaborative’s Michelle Garred encouraged evaluators to engage in conflict sensitivity by anticipating the unintended outcomes and planning for them in evaluations, and Hur Hassnain introduced the everyday peace indicators.
  7. Evaluation needs to continue to be promoted as a tool for learning and decision-making.

    Evaluation is making the move globally from accountability to learning and we can do more to help facilitate that transition. We can compare our evaluations in order to learn about new approaches that might be tried in our own contexts.  We can review past evaluations for areas of improvement particularly in integrating gender and vulnerable groups. We can also continue to engage all types of SDG stakeholders throughout the entire evaluation process – from design to implementation and use of the findings. As Peruvian-based consultant Emma Lucia Rotondo stated, “[Monitoring and Evaluation] should transcend the administrative sphere of bureaucratic interest and become products of public good for social learning.”

These are just a few of my takeaways from the extremely worthwhile discussions during the conference in Guanajuato, Mexico. In my own work with clients, I see many opportunities for organizations of all types (NGOs, foundations, private sector, government) to make and measure their own commitments to the SDGs. Much of the work we do involves helping organizations articulate clear objectives and determine appropriate and feasible ways to measure progress towards those objectives.

What is your take on how we can effectively evaluate progress towards the SDGs? Are you satisfied with your own evaluation plan for SDG objectives? Let’s continue the conversation on this important topic. Reach out to me at or via twitter @LisaFrantzen.

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