Averting a 'train wreck' - Taking stock of environmental consequences of development interventions

Suppiramaniam Nanthikesan
Lead Evaluation Officer
Blog Date:

Summary: IFAD was one of the pioneers in the UN system to recognize the need to evaluate the intended and unintended environmental consequences of development interventions. This blog piece analyses the key elements of the system developed in IFAD to sustain this effort, and to keep it going strong for the past decade. Among these, the piece highlights that the evaluation of environmental consequences of development interventions is relevant and useful to the extent that organizations are committed to mainstreaming such analysis in their programmes. 

It is widely recognised that urgent action is needed to minimise and reverse the damage that human actions, including development activities, have caused to the environment.  As such, all development actors need to take stock of the intended and unintended environmental consequences of their development interventions. In any development organization, this should be a priority shared by all involved –management, programming units, evaluation units and governing bodies.

Across the UN system, efforts are under way to develop common programming safeguards to prevent environmental harm. Parallel efforts among evaluation units to assess the environmental consequences of development actions are very much needed. While agencies with clear environmental mandates already conduct evaluations to assess the intended and unintended environmental consequences of their actions, the same cannot be said for entities without an environmental mandate, among whom systematic efforts in this regard are not common.  

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), mandated to improve food security and alleviate poverty in the rural agricultural sector, is one of the few exceptions. Over the past 10 years, the Independent Office of Evaluation (IOE) has gradually institutionalised environmental and social considerations in all its evaluations. Today, its reports are required to assess the performance of projects along a prescribed set of evaluation criteria. These include how well the interventions promoted environmental and natural resources management and strengthened adaptation to climate change.

How did IFAD get there?

Motivation: Like many fundamental changes in the development arena, visionary leadership and financial support from donors were instrumental in IFAD undertaking this step well ahead of other UN agencies and International Financial Institutions. On the one hand, environmental agencies, such as the Global Environment Facility, and donors, such as the United Kingdom, provided grants for IFAD to test how best to integrate environmental considerations in its projects and, eventually, how to mainstream the practice. On the other, IFAD’s senior management recognized the impact that environmental factors, particularly climate change, have on the livelihoods of the rural poor, and understood the importance of addressing them through rural development solutions. The leadership in IOE shared this recognition, and began to mainstream environmental consequences as an evaluand in all its evaluations.

The system: While the specific pathways may vary from one organization to another, three key guiding principles become evident. First, the mainstreaming the evaluation of environmental consequences should be systemic, not an ad hoc choice of individual evaluation managers. Second, a system does not magically appear in one swoop, but evolves over time to best address organizational needs. Third, this system is likely to be robust and sustained if accounting for environmental consequences is a shared concern among management, programming units, evaluation units and governing bodies – in short, evaluation units cannot achieve sustained solutions by themselves.

In IOE, this system that ensures integration of environmental consequences has five interlocking elements (figure 1):

  1. Make this an organizational priority: Mainstreaming environmental (and social) considerations in programmes was declared a corporate priority with increasing emphasis, as reflected in successive IFAD strategies 2007-2010, 2011-2015, and 2016-2025.
  2. Embody this as a requirement in the Evaluation Policy and provide guidance in the Evaluation Manual: This corporate priority was mirrored in the evaluation policy (2011-2020), which stipulated that IOE shall prepare an evaluation manual that sets out the methodology and processes to assess the results of IFAD policies, strategies and operations (projects). The evaluation manual integrated environmental consequences into its evaluation criteria. The manual also provides detailed guidance for all evaluations to assess the environmental consequences.
  3. Allocate capacity and resources to evaluations to assess environmental effects: While large evaluations (for example, Country Strategy and Portfolio Evaluations) have been able to acquire the resources necessary to evaluate environmental consequences, this has proven a challenge for evaluations with much smaller budgets (such as the Project Performance Evaluations).
  4. Provide quality assurance: Internal peer reviews are carried out to assess the quality of all evaluations, and to provide feedback. Coordinated by the IOE Deputy Director, this quality assurance process focuses also on the coverage of environmental consequences.
  5. Link related evaluation findings to organizational learning and accountability: Each year, the performance of all projects evaluated is analysed and findings presented to the Executive Board as part of IOE's Annual Report on Results and Impact (ARRI).  In addition, management responses to evaluation recommendations are tracked, including those related to environmental consequences, and progress in implementation reported to the Board.

[KEY: EC = Environmental Consequences (intended and unintended)

Challenges and Way Forward

IFAD and IOE have institutionalized all these elements, which are expected to reinforce each other, and thereby offer resilience to organizational changes. Clearly, no system is perfect. IOE continues to face a number of challenges in its path-breaking effort to mainstream evaluation of environmental consequences of IFAD interventions. For instance, the depth of coverage of environmental effects varies across evaluations. As pointed out earlier, not all evaluations can afford the capacities and time required to accomplish the task. Another challenge is the proliferation of mandatory evaluation criteria, which considerably adds to the workload of the small office.

The elements of this ‘system’ continue to evolve in IFAD and IOE.  For instance, IFAD's commitments continue to ratchet up the importance assigned to mainstreaming environmental considerations in its interventions; and the evaluation policy and manual are in the process of being updated with the understanding that the criteria will remain the same and guidance on assessing environmental consequences be strengthened. These changes are expected to strengthen the existing efforts to mainstream evaluating environmental consequences of IFAD interventions. 

The elements of IOE’s system may not always be applicable to other organizations. The specifics associated with each element may vary across organizations – for instance, mechanisms for quality assurance, or platforms for learning and accountability. In short, there is no blueprint, no one-size-fits-all path to follow. The hope is that IFAD's experience can serve as a compass to point to possible pathways for others who are embarking on this important endeavour.