What’s the Value of a Project Evaluation If It is Not Influential?

Greater influence leads to better project outcomes. Photo: ADB
Greater influence leads to better project outcomes. Photo: ADB

By Véronique Salze-Lozac’h

For quality evaluations of international development projects and programs to lead to better results, they need to be influential.

An important aspect of the work of international development organizations is to independently and systematically evaluate their projects, programs and policies. This is done to make sure they are providing effective services and value to their member state clients and the millions of people who benefit from development work.

But what is the best way to do that?

Experts from across the world, at the recent 2019 Asian Evaluation Week, held in Kunming, in the People’s Republic of China, had a lively discussion on this topic. At the center of the debate was the argument that although quality evaluations hold development organizations accountable for the results they promise to deliver, the expectation that the quality of evaluations alone will help countries achieve development effectiveness is a bit far-fetched. For quality evaluations to lead to better results, they need to be influential.

Evaluation influence is about ensuring evaluation knowledge is valued and utilized to bring about positive change. If we consider the purpose of evaluation is betterment of society, then it can make an impact only if it manages to influence the stakeholders to undergo changes at various levels as required — from changing their attitude or ways of working, to the change in the decisions or practices of organizations.

Experts say evaluation influence is multi-dimensional. It is most effective when it becomes newly learned information that will be used in various contexts by experts and policy makers in the future.

In all cases, if advocacy or persuasion does not lead to better results, the purpose of evaluation is not fully served. What is most important is how evaluation knowledge is used to influence decision making and policies.

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A recent evaluation in Nepal, conducted by ADB’s Independent Evaluation Department, pointed out the project’s shortcomings in the selection criteria of subprojects and the lack of surveys in its design and monitoring framework to track project outcomes. A subsequent project incorporated these lessons to enhance impact. This is one example of how evaluation knowledge is utilized to bring about positive change.

To be able to influence, evaluators need to send the right message to the right audience at the right time. For that to happen, they need to understand and segment their audiences — who they are, what they do, and what they need. After identifying the profile of the audience, messages have to be tailored accordingly in an easily usable format. Evaluators need to make certain that information collected and lessons learned from evaluation are packaged into knowledge products that are easily accessible, comprehensible and usable.

Engagement with stakeholders and collaboration with partners and networks are equally important to leverage knowledge. When sharing knowledge, timing and topic are of utmost importance. Delivering knowledge covering topics that are of interest to stakeholders and beneficiaries will ensure that they will internalize the learning and feed the recommendations into their work. The Asian Evaluation Week is one such platform that promotes South-South knowledge sharing on the experiences and latest thinking in evaluation.

Poverty in Asia and the Pacific has been significantly reduced, and many countries have moved on to the middle-income category, but newly emerging development challenges such as climate crisis, conflict and insecurity, and disease outbreaks and health security are putting the poverty gains at the risk of being reversed. The region may not meet any of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 if these challenges are not tackled immediately.

These new challenges cannot be addressed adequately through the traditional ways of doing business. This is where evaluation learning comes in handy. Evidence-based quality evaluation can help countries understand the nature and depth of challenges in the region and what results have been achieved through projects and programs so far. It can tell what has worked and what has not and provide guidance on how development organizations can better support inclusive and environmentally sustainable growth. In a nutshell, it can help countries and their partners make sound and informed decisions to improve development effectiveness and achieve results.