Sustainability as Evaluative Minefield; on Systems Perspectives and the IDEAS General Assembly 2015

It is a great pleasure to return to Climate-Eval and contribute a blog on an issue that should be music in your ears! As President of the International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS) I am involved in the preparations of the Global Assembly 2015 which will take place in Bangkok, Thailand, October 26-30, 2015. This conference has “evaluating sustainable development” as its theme and is based on the recognition that the development paradigm is shifting towards integrating environmental concerns, such as climate change, into development.

As you no doubt are aware, the concept of environmental, social and economic sustainability is already quite old; it was formulated by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. It was reconfirmed at the Earth Summit in 1991 in Rio and at the second Earth Summit in 2002 in Johannesburg, but did not play much of a role in the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. They mainly focused on social and economic development, with just one of the goals devoting attention to some environmental issues. However, we’ve seen that if environmental resources are taken for granted, their degradation comes back to haunt us and will undermine the sustainability of social and economic advances. In September of this year the Millennium Development Goals will be succeeded by the Sustainable Development Goals, which integrate environmental sustainability into their formulations.

The new goals follow some important principles of the international discussion on climate change. Like climate change, they are truly global in coverage. Just as we cannot solve climate change without taking into account what all countries are doing, so will the Sustainable Development Goals be aspirational for all countries, developed, developing, land-locked, small island development states, countries with economies in transition and so on. This is a radical notion in development, but something we are more familiar with in climate change negotiations. Secondly, the new goals have been formulated after broad consultative processes, in which governments, civil society and private sector representatives have been involved. The resulting goals are holistic, integrative and aim for development that will be sustainable for future generations.

This means that sustainability needs to be rooted in all three domains: environmental, social and economic. This is not just taking the environment into account, but also recognizing that development needs to be inclusive and equitable. Some social development initiatives may not enable the poor and women to take charge of their own lives. Some economic development initiatives may not survive further globalization of product chains, or may be based on short term gains that cannot be maintained over time. Some environmental development may provide short term gains but lead to overuse of resources and environmental degradation in the longer run.

The challenges that we face as evaluation professionals are astounding. Sustainability used to mean that a project would need to demonstrate that the benefits it generated would continue after the project’s end. From relatively simple checks in evaluations, sustainability has changed into a conceptual minefield, necessitating a systems perspective (here another example) on how the environment, social dynamics and economic activity interact and re-inforce or weaken each other. As a profession we need to be ready and have the tools available to integrate these systems perspectives in our evaluations.


Alternative energy in landscape

Renewable energy projects often depart from a systems approach, in implementation and evaluation.


As evaluators working on climate change you are in a privileged position. Many of you have been evaluating from a systems perspective already for decades. Looking at how climate change mitigation and adaptation have been influenced by social and economic dynamics, and how environmental concerns and problems can be better balanced with social and economic development, has been part and parcel of many of your evaluations: sometimes at community level (where especially adaptation issues have played an important role), sometimes at national or regional level (where mitigation and sustainable management of environmental resources have crept up time and again).


The IDEAS logoThis means that as President of IDEAS I am very happy to send out a special appeal to members of Climate-Eval to join us at the Global Assembly 2015 and share your experiences, knowledge and expertise with evaluators from other sectors, and with government representatives working on monitoring and evaluation policies and systems in their respective countries. The IDEAS Global Assembly will be held co-jointly with the 4th National Evaluation Capacity (NEC) conference, organized by UNDP. Governments will focus on evaluation policies and systems in the NEC conference and will discuss how to integrate the sustainable development goals in their planning; IDEAS will focus on the professional challenges of evaluating sustainability. Joint keynote addresses and several important joint sessions will ensure cross-fertilization.

The Global Assembly 2015 is currently taking shape and we hope to present a special website in the near future with details about the programme, logistics, registration and so on. Generous donors have enabled us to sponsor IDEAS members’ from the Global South to participate in the Assembly, on the basis of a presentation that they would make in one of the thematic streams. The Call for Abstracts provides further details.

Evaluating sustainable development is going to require a lot of inspiration and we aim for a Global Assembly that will provide inspiration for the years to come. As members of Climate-Eval you will most certainly have been confronted with sustainability challenges in the evaluations you have done. You may have seen unsustainable practices at a large scale; you may also have seen very positive achievements of local communities ensuring a sustainable balance within an ecosystem, interacting with the national economy in harmony. IDEAS invites you to share these experiences and insights with colleagues at the Global Assembly 2015 in Bangkok, 26-30 October 2015.


Think through how you could present your experiences. Send in an abstract for the Global Assembly and contribute – even if it is a small piece of evidence or just one analytical tool to consider – to the global discussion amongst evaluators on how to deal with these challenges. Send in your proposal before June 15 to IDEAS’ Board Secretary Cristina Magro. We look forward to receiving your abstract!

Rob D. van den Berg, President, IDEAS


Comments and suggestions on this blog are welcome.


Photo credits: "Alternative Energies" by Jürgen from Sandesneben, Germany - Flickr.


Two comments:

Two comments:
1. Integrated strategic approaches are needed if we are to deliver optimal futures for well-being. See

2. We need evidence-based Monitoring Evaluation and Reporting systems to become an integral part of the way governments fulfill their responsibilities. For a case study example of an evaluation system informing evidence-based adaptive management, see the Monitoring and Reporting System for Tasmania's National Parks and Reserves at

You seem to be confusing self

You seem to be confusing self-sustaining with sustainability. A project or its achievements might be self-sustaining. But sustainability has meant ecologically survivable (with social, economic, and environmental components) since the early 1970's and has been in print since the early 1980's. The simple test: If everyone did it, and it would still be good for the Planet, then it might get a sustainability star. I've been having great discussions with colleagues about how to measure and score sustainability for at least 40 years. By the time Brundtland, the MDG, and others came along, we were at Sustainability 3.0 at least. Young folks can't seem to find any of this older literature (and therefore assume it doesn't exist) if it doesn't come up on the first two pages of a Google search...

In evaluation, a helpful

In evaluation, a helpful systems perspective can be found in the writings of Bob Williams, 2014 American Evaluation Association recipient of the Lazarsfeld Theory Award for his contribution to systems approaches in evaluation. See his book Wicked Solutions: A Systems Approach To Complex Problems (sample here -

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