Evaluating Environment in International Development: New Open Access Edition

Juha I. Uitto
GEF Independent Evaluation Office (GEF IEO)
Blog Date:

We live in a rapidly changing world although we don’t always notice it as our lives unfold in the midst of these changes. Only when you think back, even only a few years, to a specific time and you compare how life was then, do you notice how different it is now. I had this epiphany when I worked on the new revised edition of Evaluating Environment in International Development. The book was originally published in 2014—only seven years ago—so I was somewhat surprised and distinctly pleased when the publisher approached me for an update. At the time of its publishing, the book had been quite unique in its specific focus on how evaluation of international development programs incorporated the environment. Since then, the need for evaluating the results and effectiveness of environmental interventions has only grown.

As I started updating the work, I realized how much had happened in the intervening years. Today there is hardly anyone who doesn’t recognize global environmental degradation as a terrifying problem affecting our future and the future of coming generations. Climate change, in the words of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, has become the defining issue of our time. Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist, is now a recognized leader of a movement calling for urgent action to halt climate change, perhaps reflecting the fact that a large share of kids in Sweden and elsewhere suffer from what has been termed climate anxiety. The effects of climate change are increasingly undeniable, with unprecedented wildfires raging from Australia to the Pantanal, from Siberia to California; and fierce hurricanes and typhoons battering coastlines of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.

While the human and financial costs of these disasters skyrocket, we are losing more biodiversity than ever since the mass extinctions before humans inhabited the planet. Climate change contributes to this devastation, but the root causes of biodiversity loss are in human activity that destroys habitats through deforestation, agricultural expansion, extensive animal husbandry, mining and natural resource extraction, and urbanization. These same forces that have brought us in ever closer communion with non-human animals, have brought us the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a zoonotic virus that has spilled over to humans. We also face a third environmental crisis, that of pollution and waste that threatens both human and ecosystem health, not least the living ocean. We need to know how best to tackle these existential problems informed by evaluative evidence.

The good news is that there has been an awakening, of sorts. Many important milestones have been reached since the publication of the original book. The Paris Climate Agreement has been ratified by a vast majority of countries in the world. The Sendai Framework was created to galvanize action for disaster risk reduction, acknowledging that climate change is one of the main drivers. And then there are the Sustainable Development Goals that recognize that development must balance the social, environmental, and economic to produce positive outcomes for the people, planet and prosperity. These are all great initiatives but without implementation, without true commitment by all sectors of society, they will add up to too little too late. We see positive signs of real change. Countries have set targets for reaching carbon neutrality at specific dates: the United States in 2050, China a decade later. Enlightened business leaders have understood that there are no profits to be made on a devastated planet. Renewable energy is becoming increasingly competitive and major car makers have set timetables to phase out the internal combustion engine.

Earlier this year, the Dasgupta Review was released by the UK Government, making a strong case for changing how we measure success. Economic calculations must start to account fully for the costs of environmental degradation. Before this happens, there is little hope that change will be more than a greenwash. For the first time in its 30-year history, UNDP’s Human Development Index included planetary pressures in its calculations, clearly showing how the countries that measure at the highest levels of human development do so at the cost of unsustainable use of natural resources.

This all demonstrates how the environmental agenda is also a social justice agenda. The rich countries continue to overstretch the planetary boundaries denying the poorer countries opportunities. It is also the poorest people, including in the rich countries, that are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts and suffer most from pollution and environmental degradation. These are the people—and their ranks include disproportionally minorities and women—whose health, lives and livelihoods are most at risk.

The importance and appreciation of evaluation continue to increase, for there is a recognition that we must better understand what policies, strategies, programs and projects are effective in addressing these pressing challenges. We only have limited time to move towards a more sustainable path before the window closes, before climate change and environmental degradation lead to major societal destabilization on a global scale. We must ensure that we learn from the past efforts what has worked, for whom, under what circumstances. One size does not fit all, clearly, and global “best practices” are elusive. All interventions take place in specific contexts where social, economic, historical, geographical, cultural, and institutional factors interact in complex ways. Successful approaches to policymaking, programming, and evaluation must be sensitive to context and gauge the impacts, both intended and unintended, on different groups of people as well as the environment.

Evaluating Environment in International Development

The second edition of Evaluating Environment in International Development brings together contributions from 22 evaluation thinkers and practitioners who reflect on their experiences from work with major international organizations, civil society, private sector and academia. They share their accumulated wisdom in 16 chapters that cover topics from the conceptual to the practical, based lessons from the field. There is no preferred approach or methodology; on the contrary, the complex challenges and varied situations require a broad range of approaches to evaluation, from quantitative and quasi-experimental, including the use of remote sensing and geospatial techniques, to qualitative. The cases covered range from program evaluation to evaluating policy and normative work. Examples highlighted come from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. To be accessible to as many readers as possible, especially those from these regions and younger readers, the book is available as an open access publication free of charge.

It is my sincere hope that the book will provide food for thought about how to utilize evaluation even more as an important tool for better policy development and programming. And I hope it will help inspire new ideas for improved evaluation practice that can help us tackle the pressing problems of environment and development.