Evaluation must rise to the challenge of pandemic in the nexus of nature and humanity

In her 2020 Earth Day blog the GEF CEO Naoko Ishii emphasized that the COVID-19 crisis is fundamentally an environmental crisis. I couldn’t agree more. Sure, at the face of it, this is first a health crisis, a pandemic with tragic consequences to people who get infected, especially those who perish or who see loved ones perish. Economies of families, communities, companies, states and countries are stressed, even destroyed. It’ll take months and years to recover from these effects. However short-sighted it may be, I can understand why people and businesses—and by extension politicians—clamor to get the economy re-opened as soon as possible. But fundamentally, this is an environmental crisis and if we do not change our behavior, if we do not learn from this experience, these pandemic crises will become a recurrent phenomenon. We as evaluators must also learn lessons.

The virus, SARS-CoV-2 that causes the disease COVID-19 is zoonotic, meaning it has its origins in animals. As human activities have continued to expand further into previously undisturbed natural domains and as our interactions with domestic and wild animals have become increasingly close, we have given ample new opportunities for pathogens to spill over from non-human animals to humans. The root causes are the same that drive climate change, species loss and all environmental degradation: economic growth, quest for more resources and space for humanity. There are currently 7.5 billion humans on the planet and our numbers are going to expand by 2 billion more in the coming few decades. Inequality has grown to intolerable levels, while consumption continues to grow at unsustainable rates. There is an urgent need to revisit how we define development and how we treat natural environment. The pandemic that has hit pause on economic activity has also provided us an opportunity to rethink our values and what kind of development we want when we press start again. For this we need information about possible models.

Evaluation has the specific role of bringing forth knowledge and understanding of what works under what circumstances based on past experiences. At a basic level, this is looking at past programs and projects with regard to how we have dealt with sudden outbreaks of health crises, such as SARS and Ebola, and other unexpected disasters. What strategies worked, where and why? What helped interventions adjust successfully so that they could continue supporting the people on the ground? The Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) is currently looking at such experiences in the GEF context and will soon be able to bring forth some lessons for consideration.

At a higher level, evaluation must be able to provide evidence of how actions in the development sphere affect the environment and vice versa. We must be able to demonstrate the close interlinkages between social and economic development and the environment in light of evidence from the real world. In this task evaluators must base their work on scientific knowledge as well as analysis of concrete examples from the field. This is not an approach that comes easily to all evaluators who have been used to looking at discrete interventions in isolation through their internal logic. Instead, we now need to place these interventions in the broader landscape and analyze how they interact with the broader natural and human systems. We need to be on the lookout for unanticipated results and unintended consequences, not just those foreseen in the project’s or program’s own theory of change.

To remain relevant in the increasingly complex and interconnected world, it is absolutely essential for evaluation as a profession and as a practice to engage in the discourse at the nexus of human and natural systems. That is where we as a community can contribute, with our practical knowledge anchored in research, to a transformation towards a more sustainable development path.


Compliments, Juha, for a

Compliments, Juha, for a great blog that is completely relevant to the moment and the crisis. The issue of reduced habitat and increased mobility is even more problematic than you state, as it not only concerns diseases moving from animals to humans, but diseases moving from animals to animals as well. The infamous white nose syndrome in bats in the north-east of the US which has already killed off millions of them, has probably been introduced to the bats in a touristic cave in Massachusetts which attracted many tourists from Europe - the white nose syndrome is endemic in Europe and European bats have resistance against it.
The pandemic should be used as a tipping point to stop "business as usual" and start to behave responsibly towards our planet and its life and species. The great danger is that we will just continue business as usual, because "now is not the time to experiment with our future"... the justification that we received after the financial crisis in 2008 for why green technology was put on the back burner...
This is the time that the world should learn from the many experiments that have been undertaken by the environment/development agencies like GEF, CIF, GCF and the many initiatives to explore the roadway to a more sustainable world! Please continue to contribute to this.

Thank you, Rob, for drawing

Thank you, Rob, for drawing attention to this important and disturbing factor. I've recently read about such animal-to-animal infections in Kenya where at least giraffes and wild dogs (infected apparently by domestic canines) have had serious epidemics.

The critical concern that I

The critical concern that I have with evaluation is the issue of standards that go beyond metrics. For example in the process of self-evaluation for accreditation, the base line (as opposed to bottom line) is how well does a program or institution succeed in meeting its fundamental mission off goals. All of the planning and assessment has to be built around a common consensus regarding those goals. In the context of what you are saying here, there is a need for a unifying vision regarding the relationship between the natural environment and human systems that is presently generally lacking. For example, the general sense of potential epidemics is typically phrased in terms of reservoirs of bacteria or viruses that exist at the edges of the interface between the wilderness and civilization. This allows us to think in terms of a simple dichotomy between the developed world and the rest of the world. Yet the actual distribution of potentially disruptive micro-organisms is much broader. The existence anti-biotic resistant strains of bacteria is an example that has been known for some time. They represent part of the ecosystem that is often overlooked because it is considered pathological - rather being seen as strains of organisms that intersect with humans in a variety of ways through a variety of forms of transmission. There are also reservoirs of deadly pathogens that inhabit parts developed world - such as the hantaviruses that are endemic in the Americas, parts of Europe and parts of Asia. We live in the midst of these organisms. They can permeate our environments and often our bodies. So there is no logical basis for drawing an impermeable boundary between what is the natural system and what is the human system. So I believe the core mission of development programs in general must be a commitment to creating viable systems that merge developmental goals into developmental pyramids - akin to Abraham Maslow's pyramid - in which the foundation is a healthy biosphere; that can support a sense of security (both in terms of necessary resources and freedom from exploitation and conflict); that can in turn support the development of healthy communities; which produced healthy economies; that provide a basis for greater individual and cultural development. This perspective provides for the pursuit of self-sustaining development in which the actual quality life for all people takes precedent over the quantity of economic activity. Needless to say, this involves a very different way of thinking than economic projections, actuarial tables or accounting do. But the havoc the current American administration is creating, by trying to rush the pace of economic activity while simultaneously downplaying its cost in lives, should give us pause to think about how warped economic logic has become. That, in turn, should be enough reason for us to reconsider what we actually have in mind when we discuss evaluation as an abstract concept.

Dr. Jones:

Dr. Jones:
I fully agree with the science behind your comment. I don't however think that we necessarily need a commonly accepted baseline in this case--or, rather, such a "baseline" can be the scientific knowledge that we have. We are not evaluating against the internal logic of the intervention--itself being subject to evaluation--but against a wider goal of whether the intervention (be it a policy, program, project) is relevant (i.e., is it correctly positioned in the human-natural system and addressing the right problems and are the system boundaries defined in the right manner), is it effective and having an impact (i.e., is it making a noticeable difference in the problem we want to solve or is it just tinkering with symptoms) and are the impacts sustainable (or has the intervention contributed to more resilient adaptive systems), Eventually, we must aim for transformational interventions that change the unsustainable trajectory we're on. Of course, not every little project can (or should try to) be transformative, but all interventions can be judged on whether they were designed and implemented with the big picture in mind.
I sincerely think, Ed, that evaluation can play a much more crucial role than just providing a technical service checking whether a project did what it set out to do (that's what monitoring is for). We must be able to contribute to the larger debate by evaluating the worth, merit and effectiveness of any intervention, not by the standards set for it by its proponents, but by the standards that the world demands.

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