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Evaluation Should Motivate Transformative Change: For the betterment of people and the planet

Posted on: March 12, 2021

Written by Vinod Thomas and Xubei Luo, authors of Multilateral Banks and the Development Process: Vital Links in the Results Chain, available in open acess under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND licence


In the face of large and disruptive events worldwide, from pandemics to climate change, evaluation should serve to encourage deep societal responses rather than just tinkering on the edges of policymaking. But staying in the comfort zones afforded by traditional analytical approaches to do things right has limited the reach and impact of evaluations of informing transformative change to do the right things.  Multilateral Banks and the Development Process: Vital Links in the Results Chain provides a way of confronting new and often unexpected policy challenges and draw hitherto under-emphasized but vital lessons.

Improving lives and livelihoods while protecting the fragile environment calls for transformative changes, not only in policymaking but also people’s mindsets. But making deep-seated changes run up against inertia as well as special interests that argue of a status quo. Furthermore, big reforms also carry upfront risks, such as those caused by dislocation or a new way of doing things, that fragile settings can least afford.

The way forward in these circumstances is for evaluations to prioritize and focus on the most important areas, build, and apply rigorous methods of analysis, and focus on the results from the change.  Specifically, one way is to keep in mind the results chain wherein the aggregate economy-wide concerns, such as improving the income distribution, link to specific household aspirations; and sometimes specific sector or project level issues, such as strengthening agricultural productivity and incomes, add up to economy-wide or societal possibilities.

After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Crucial links in the chain connect development efforts to development results.  The pandemic is not under control anywhere unless it is controlled everywhere. Action on climate change by one country is effective only if others too join in. Building safety nets at the federal or central level works only if the provincial, state, or local levels display capacity for implementation.

At the country-wide and global levels, the world economic crisis in 2009 caused the global economy to shrink for the first time since the Second World War. The lessons of the crisis 12 years ago also remain useful now, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed 120 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 (1), reversed the gains in lowering inequality achieved since the global crisis (2), and wiped out a decade of hard-won progress in education and health (3). Evaluations need to connect the implications of such massive shifts in fortunes to the results at the micro levels and influences on the way of doing business.

As the world is devising plans in response to the pandemic for relief, rebuild and recovery, it is vital to focus on not only the urgent but also the important, building back better and greener. A growing threat to lives, livelihoods and indeed planetary wellbeing is environmental destruction, climate change and the rising risk of natural disasters. More than 130 million people in China and roughly 40 million in Vietnam live along the coast and on low-lying islands. Of the world’s 25 megacities, 14 are on the coast and 7 are within a few hours’ drive. The number of people exposed to storms and earthquakes in large cities could double to 1.5 billion by 2050. According to a recent World Bank estimate, each year, in low- and middle-income countries, natural disasters cost about $18 billion through damage to power generation and transport infrastructure alone and at least $390 billion due to wider disruptions for households and firms (4). 

A specific shift in mindset that evaluation can foster is to stress preparedness as much as response. Despite the recurrence of natural disasters, governments and international aid organizations do not systematically plan for preventing them or mitigating their effects. Even countries regularly hit by natural catastrophes seldom consider the effects of their rising incidence, damage, and cost. Post-disaster reconstruction projects have not taken enough precautions to address the risk in some areas hit repeatedly by natural disasters. Improving preparedness and reducing disaster risks can not only avoiding losses, but also support growth and benefits by promoting more investment and generate co-benefits as a result of the ‘spill-over’ from the social, economic and environmental aspects(5).

Distributing supplies by helicopter and building temporary homes can make headlines in post-disaster situations. Useful as they are in addressing urgent needs, however, their contribution to long-term results is limited. Evaluations of the responses to natural disasters show the tradeoffs between focusing on short-term needs and pursuing long-term objectives. Even in emergencies, actions should have an eye on the future.

Furthermore, one-off responses limit the capacity to react in future crises. Too often it is impossible to provide urgent post-disaster care because critical-care facilities are no longer functioning, or people cannot reach service facilities. Without prevention systems, lifelines for potable water and first aid during calamities cannot be ensured, adding to desperation and breakdowns in order, even in well-off countries. The lack of sanitation and sewage systems can create conditions for water-borne diseases to spread and cholera to become epidemic. In the absence of social protection systems, disaster-affected households cannot receive timely direct assistance in the disaster recovery effort.

Lack of maintenance, also a consequence of a myopic view, has reduced the sustainability of structures rebuilt by post-disaster projects. Whenever massive reconstruction is needed following a disaster, the pressure for haste is high. But haste can result in incomplete reconstruction and account for much of the longer-term GDP cost of a disaster.

Timely and innovative evaluations can help nations to build better resilience against mounting risks. Governments and the international development community should be able to draw on retrospective and prospective evaluative lessons to support transformative changes at critical junctures and help improve the wellbeing of the people and the planet.

1.Updated estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on global poverty: Looking back at 2020 and the outlook for 2021 (worldbank.org)
2. How COVID-19 Will Increase Inequality in Emerging Markets and Developing Economies – IMF Blog
3. September 21, 2020: COVID-19 response, new research on human capital, and looking ahead to our Annual Meetings (worldbank.org)
4. Climate Change Overview (worldbank.org)
5. Unlocking the 'triple dividend' of resilience: why investing in DRM pays off | Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

The views expressed here are the authors’ and do not reflect those of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, their Executive Directors, or the countries they represent.