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What does evaluation say about the achievement of the SDGs?

Oscar A. Garcia

By: Oscar A. Garcia
Director, UNDP/IEO

June 2022

What will the development agenda look like, post 2030? We are rapidly approaching the time when decisions will be made about the transition beyond the Sustainable Development Goals. This is a turning point in the international development agenda, in which there is an opportunity for the evaluation community to provide decision makers with the evidence that they need to make decisions for the world beyond 2030.

When the international community made the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the SDGs, the MDGs were not fully evaluated, either in terms of progress towards them or their impact. The potential for learning from this great endeavour was lost.

The evaluation community has an important role to play in ensuring that the potential for learning from the SDG experience is harnessed, and the reward paid forwards. UNDP’s Independent Evaluation Office is part of a coalition that will undertake syntheses of evaluative evidence of SDG achievements and impact, organized around the five pillars of people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. Some 17 UN Agencies are on board, and the door is open for partners and stakeholders from across our extensive community.

The world is quite different to how it was when the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed in 2015. The COVID-19 pandemic and the multiple, overlapping crises that the world faces are squeezing development space, and compromising solidarity and humanitarian sentiment. As space shrinks, we must increasingly do more with less and push deeper into innovation to conserve resources and nurture latent capacity. As a result, the need for strong, credible evaluation grows, as does the need to harness innovation and new technologies to maintain and expand the evidence available to us.

The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development is about a shift in thinking, and this also applies to how it should be evaluated. We have the tools and resources to facilitate a switch to a genuinely transformative approach to ways of understanding the challenges of our time. One of these tools is the synthesis of evaluative evidence.

We also have the benefit of well-established partnerships. Increasingly we are working together through networks like the UN Evaluation Group, EvalNet and the Evaluation Cooperation Group, among others. Each network and office bring their knowledge, resources, innovations and ideas, and the groups effectively act as the voice of the community, collating and synthesizing members’ contributions.

New technologies and innovations – especially in the realm of machine learning and artificial intelligence – are pushing boundaries in the depth to which we can mine the vast archives of evaluative evidence, the efficiency with which we can use this information and subsequently, the accuracy of the results. One good example is the IEO’s Artificial Intelligence for Development Analytics platform – AIDA for short – which stands right at the cutting edge of new technologies and holds immense potential for improved results.

Evaluating SDG achievements and lessons learned is an ambitious project, but it is no castle in the sand. With sufficient commitment and the full power of the methods and technologies at our disposal, we can achieve our target of assessing the significance for the SDGs and presenting the syntheses to decision makers in a timely manner.

What this task requires from us is to step up and take decisive, collective action. For evaluation to be timely, credible and useful, we should not sit back and watch from a safe distance while important decisions are made. The needs of people in the developing world are increasing, and evaluation can constructively contribute to finding better ways to deliver development results.

The evaluation community has a responsibility to up its game, and must work in solidarity to achieve our shared goals. We may not have an opportunity like this again. Let’s take it.