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Can evaluations contribute to transformational development in the LAC region?

Oscar A. Garcia

By: Oscar A. Garcia

Director UNDP/IEO

August 18, 2020

Impact of COVID-19 pandemic in the LAC region

COVID-19 is truly changing the way we live and has massively impacted health systems, poverty levels, employment, access to education and economies, and social structures globally, and is clearly going to impact the pursuit of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda for years to come.1 2

Many Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) countries have been heavily hit by the pandemic and have taken several steps backwards in terms of development as governments, societies and economies struggle with the impact of the crisis. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has forecasted that this will be the LAC region’s greatest economic crisis, with the World Bank estimating a 9% drop in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2020. Unfortunately, in many countries, the COVID-19 crisis is not the cause of the decline but an accelerant, highlighting pre-existing health, education, social, and economic failures in the region, and illustrating that, despite high GDP growth in the last decade, many gains have not translated into sustainable development for all. 3 Unfortunately, in many countries, the COVID-19 crisis is not the cause of the decline but an accelerant, highlighting pre-existing health, education, social, and economic failures in the region, and illustrating that, despite high GDP growth in the last decade, many gains have not translated into sustainable development for all.

Reprioritization of the SDGs

The global pandemic came at a time the world was grappling with how to change its approach to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure their achievement. It was recognized in 2019 that the achievement of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda within the next 10 years4 is, in many cases, impossible unless a transformational development approach is put in place.

The looming LAC economic crisis will have enormous implications on overall progress towards SDG achievement in the region. Many countries will have to rethink their development pathways and reprioritize their SDGs. Across the region, poverty reduction (SDG 1) will remain paramount, as well as addressing the loss of jobs and livelihoods (SDG 8) in the informal sector, which comprises up to 70% of employment in many countries. The implications for and impacts on hunger (SDG 2) will become ever more important as jobs and livelihoods are lost. Health systems are on the brink, and weaknesses once suspected are now well-known in developed and developing countries, making Health (SDG 3) an even greater priority for many countries.

The pandemic is also highlighting the need for an integrated fiscal approach – especially as many countries are implementing large social protection schemes with direct cash transfers to the population to alleviate the impact of the crisis. It is highly important to consider the fiscal space of these governments and the need for more progressive tax systems, to address structural inequalities across the region (SDG 10). Finally, sustainability must be central as weaknesses of past approaches become increasingly evident, especially as we move towards an enhanced Green Economy Agenda.

Transformative Evaluation

Along with this reprioritization of SDGs and the recognition of how fragile the sustainability of development gains has been for many, it has become increasingly evident that any change must be inclusive and quick. Not just change, but transformational change is needed across all areas, rather than the previous incremental approach to development. The digital revolution of the last 10 years has transformed our lives and economies – and so must transformational development be used as a tool to address the current challenges across the region.

The role of evaluation within transformational development goes beyond simply validating monitored progress towards SDG achievement. Monitoring alone will not ensure the achievement of SDGs, and we must move away from a mere analysis of what has worked and what has not, a binary approach which recognizes only contribution and attribution.

While development work needs to be assessed, failures highlighted, and successes championed, evaluators need to ask, “Why are we not making gains?”. This question is really what characterizes evaluative thinking and is central to evaluation of the SDGs. We, as evaluators, must ensure we have strong analytical frameworks that help us recognize why we are not making more rapid progress towards achieving the SDGs. The identification of the drivers and constraints that affect SDG achievement in the LAC region is the responsibility of an evaluator. Evaluation with the question of “WHY” is essential for identifying the factors that need to be addressed to ensure transformative change, thereby leading to transformative approaches and more entrenched sustainable development.

Enhancing National Evaluation Systems

As we move forward, it is crucial that the evaluation of SDGs is led by countries and governments, in the same way the SDGs were led, agreed and adopted globally. The Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) of UNDP has built partnerships and recently joined the Global Evaluation Initiative (GEI), with the World Bank and others, as part of its commitment to strengthening national evaluation capacities globally and regionally. The mission of this first-ever global evaluation partnership is to strengthen national evaluation systems that themselves can answer the question “WHY?”.

The strong evaluative culture within many LAC countries, supported by national evaluation systems, needs to adjust for the realignment of the SDGs, their evaluation, and the pursuit of transformational development across the region. It is the shared responsibility of all the key actors in the region to support efforts that would build and improve these national evaluation systems.

LAC governments can further strengthen and enhance their evaluation systems. This in turn would improve the quality of governmental decision-making, making sure that decisions are informed by evidence. This would not only address embedded developmental issues and the impact of COVID-19, but also put countries, governments and communities on track to build back better. Evaluation will ensure we learn from the past to build for the future.

Published for the CLEAR LAC 360° Dialogue blog series. Spanish version available here