Integrating Environmental and Social Impact into Evaluations

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Blog co-author: Juha I. Uitto, Director, GEF Independent Evaluation Office (GEF IEO)


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the attendant Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) all recognize the close interlinkages of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. The pandemic that we’re living through demonstrates this in a concrete and drastic manner. Not only has the pandemic caused a health crisis, it has wreaked havoc on the global economy and revealed huge social clefts in societies. Moreover, the corona virus causing the pandemic is zoonotic and its emergence has been facilitated by the unsustainable exploitation of the natural environment by human society. It has also demonstrated in no uncertain terms that we humans are still part of the natural world, and that human health and ecosystem health are closely intertwined.

In 2019, the United Nations Evaluation Group (UNEG) established a Working Group on Integrating Environmental and Social Impact into Evaluations Its objective is to establish a common UN-wide approach, norms and standards for appropriately incorporating environmental and social considerations into all evaluations, in line with the UN system-wide effort to move towards a common approach to environmental and social standards for UN programming.

The Working Group first conducted a stocktaking of the policies and guidance of UNEG members in support of evaluating the environment and social considerations. The study consisted of a collection and review of evaluation policies and guidance documents of UNEG members, and a survey that was administered to the evaluation offices. A total of 40 documents from 39 agencies were collected and analyzed, and 29 full sets of survey responses from agencies were received.

So what did we find? The importance placed on social and environmental considerations depends on the extent to which the agencies define their mandates to cover these areas. Having said that, both areas are generally seen as important. In all, 70% of the agencies feel that their work is highly engaged with social aspects and 45% think so about the environment. Overall, social considerations have a higher profile than those of the environment, but almost all agencies also report medium- or high-level engagement with the latter.

In keeping with the importance of these considerations, almost 60% of agencies reported having environmental or social safeguard policies, which need to be applied during the preparation of projects or programs, which then provide an entry point for evaluations to address these issues.

The agencies of course have their unique mandates, which can be highly specialized requiring appropriate evaluation methods. To meet their needs, almost all agencies have developed their own evaluation guidelines, tailored to the specifics of the work they undertake. One might assume that such guidance would adequately cover the social and environmental considerations from their perspective, but this is often not the case. In fact, based on survey results, 68% of responding evaluation offices feel that social considerations have not been well addressed, and as many as 84% feel this to be the case for environmental aspects. The survey results show a highly consistent perception among UNEG members that there is a need for additional guidance, particularly in the area of the environment. However, in terms of the precise areas that should be included, a less clear picture emerges.

Although social considerations are much more widely covered in existing guidance than environmental ones are, there are still gaps. Gender receives the strongest attention, a situation to which UNEG is said to have made an important contribution through its document “Integrating Human Rights and Gender Equality in Evaluation: Towards UNEG Guidance” . Human rights, the other major thrust of UNEG’s work, are also present, but tend to be bundled with gender and are often not addressed in as much detail.  Other social considerations have received much less attention. Examples of areas that would require more consideration and clarity in how they can be covered in evaluations include vulnerability; poverty (interestingly, given that poverty is such a central mandate for the UN); indigenous peoples; and disability (an area in which UNEG is now investing).

Guidance on the environment was found to be limited and inadequate for both current and emerging needs, a fact that should not surprise anyone. This was confirmed by both the document review and the survey. Specific areas that were identified as priorities where guidance would be needed included: (not unexpectedly) climate change (which now often tends to be the primary environmental concern on people’s minds); environmental impacts of development projects and how to minimize environmental footprints of interventions; and environmental risks. These latter are obviously central issues for mainstreaming environment into development processes as well as evaluation.

On a very positive note, a broad range of agencies realize that their activities may have unanticipated environmental effects. This in fact should be the basic assumption, as it seems safe to say that anything we do will have some environmental impact. There is also a heightened awareness of the interactions between social and environmental factors, clearly driven by the SDGs’ explicit emphasis on these interlinkages.

There’s also a clear recognition that individual agencies are not best positioned to produce guidance on all aspects. UNEG’s work on gender and human rights is generally very well regarded and has been widely used, so agencies see it as a clear model for further work in the environmental and other social areas as well. The advantages of developing guidance through UNEG include its institutional neutrality; the guidance can also be more detailed in specific areas than most agencies would be able to produce; and it can address common needs identified by a broad range of agencies.

The Working Group continues its work. It currently has members from 13 agencies, coordinated by the GEF, jointly with UNEP and UNIDO. We plan to develop tiered guidance for UNEG members to integrate environmental and social impact into their evaluations building upon good practices identified in current agency-specific guidelines and evaluations that have successfully applied a holistic perspective. It is worth noting that our target is particularly evaluations where the evaluand is not an environmental program or a specific social issue. The purpose is thus to achieve mainstreaming of environmental and social dimensions into all evaluations in the spirit of sustainable development.

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