COVID-19 projects and programs need careful oversight
Governments and organizations, including multilateral development banks, are funding tens of billions of dollars in development projects and programs to help countries respond to COVID-19. The evaluation and monitoring process should not be bypassed.
COVID-19 caught development practitioners around the world off guard and evaluators are no exception. Globally, evaluators – those who examine the efficacy and results of development projects and programs – are struggling with the many new challenges. The unfolding crisis requires urgent responses from development and humanitarian institutions and governments, and as a result, new initiatives are being approved and implemented rapidly worldwide.
In this time of urgency, independent evaluation is faced with two risks. One is to be sidelined while organizations respond to the COVID-19 crisis with the view that there is no time for evaluation now and that it will come later. The other risk is the temptation to be part of the whole effort and get fully involved with the organization’s operations and management in preparing COVID-19 responses, rather than retaining independence.
The challenge for independent evaluation in times of crisis is to navigate between these two risks and find the right balance. The best way for independent evaluation to remain useful, effective and relevant in times of crisis is to continue playing its role in both its functions of accountability and learning, without compromising its independence.
Governments and organizations, including multilateral development banks, are funding tens of billions of dollars in development projects and programs to help countries respond to COVID-19. For these efforts to be effective they must be processed quickly. In this context, evaluation could be considered irrelevant or even worse, an impediment to effectiveness.
This however, would be counterintuitive. Considering the magnitude and importance of the funds invested, accountability is needed more than ever to ensure these funds are well spent and the initiatives are fully effective.
Similarly, it is important in times of crisis to rely on lessons learned from past crises, and to get ready to learn new lessons. Although this crisis is unprecedented, independent evaluation units have an important role to play in providing independent, credible, evaluative evidence that can inform responses to this COVID-19 crisis.
This is an opportunity to learn from what worked and what did not work in similar times of crisis and for evaluators to participate in the design process by bringing relevant evaluation lessons to light.
Governments and organizations, including multilateral development banks, are funding tens of billions of dollars in development projects and programs to help countries respond to COVID-19.
While teams designing COVID-19 responses could benefit from the evaluator’s insights, evaluator’s involvement in the process carries a risk. If the evaluators are not sufficiently detached, they could lose objectivity and truly independent evaluation would be compromised. This risk of being too involved, to the detriment of independent evaluation and thus of the accountability of the institutions, is common to all independent evaluation units.
The onus to ensure accountability and learning in this changed scenario, thereby remains with the evaluators. In this time of crisis, independent evaluation must ensure its relevance and usefulness not “despite its usual function of independent evaluation” but “because of it.”
How can evaluators do this? They can start by adapting their way of doing business to ensure independent evaluation brings value, with evidence-based insights and an eye on accountability, without slowing down the process at a time when the others are trying to make it nimble.
First, evaluators would benefit from clarifying the function of independent evaluation and the role it intends to play in crisis response to be useful while maintaining its independence and neutrality.
Second, independent evaluation could add value by providing just-in-time evaluative lessons relevant to projects being designed to help develop informed interventions. Evaluation is too often perceived as a function that comes at the later stage of project, program or initiatives’ cycle. Learning from past experiences is critical for the success of new interventions, more so when so much is at stake. Evaluators can address this need by making evaluation lessons from past crises quickly available.
To make these lessons more readily available and more meaningful, ADB’s Independent Evaluation Department is working on an innovative initiative named EVA. Now in its pilot phase, EVA is an artificial intelligence engine to churn out real time lessons with few clicks. When fully operational, EVA will scan thousands of evaluation documents, and identify useful lessons in a dashboard categorized around country, sector, theme, modality and year, which is just not possible to capture meaningfully by manual effort. The tool will augment independent evaluation’s effectiveness in presenting lessons, by an order of magnitude.
Third, independent evaluation has an important accountability role by providing feedback on the evaluability of the projects and results frameworks/indicators. Evaluators can help crisis response teams identify appropriate indicators for proper monitoring and evaluation which is crucial to measure outcome.
When participating in the early stages of the COVID-19 response interventions, independent evaluation can contribute to both its functions of accountability and learning. By timely planning and adapting to the changed scenario, independent evaluation can ensure the relevance of its functions without compromising on its independence.