Countries increasingly see the value of investing in development programs that promise social and environmental outcomes beyond what economic growth can deliver. But good ideas on paper do not automatically turn into good results on the ground. One way to guide policy and investments is by doing program evaluations that shed light on their true benefits and costs.
If done well, evaluations can also bring a certain degree of objectivity to decision-making. To the extent the lessons heeded, there would be a better chance that investments and policies are based on development effectiveness rather than politics and special interests. There are three ways in which evaluation results make a difference.
First, conducting assessments of investments, such as a social protection initiative, allows them to be expanded on the basis of the results obtained. Careful evaluations in some social areas have given policymakers grounds to expand or wind down a program. Assessments of conditional cash transfers have provided a basis to expand these programs in Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
Evaluations of the Philippine government’s conditional cash transfer program find that it produced strong socio-economic results that include increasing enrollment rates among children aged 3-11, encouraging poor women to use maternal and child health services, and promising improvement in the employability of the poor. Evaluation results have given a basis for the program’s expansion along with those of Brazil and Mexico.
Second, evaluations bring out complementary factors necessary for development success. For example, road projects can improve inclusion if they are linked with programs addressing education and health care. A study on Bangladesh pointed to the gains from rural roads maintenance, but the benefits missed the very poor. Investment in related areas such as education, health and financial literacy proved critical. Rural electrification will not only light communities, but can transform lives if education and income opportunities are promoted.
Education investment increases access to schooling and if done well, also improves learning outcomes. That then needs to be coupled with labor market reforms to support job creation, especially for the lower income strata. These include job matching and information systems, and policies that support labor mobility and flexibility. Thailand’s Tonkla Archeep addressed joblessness due to the global economic downturn that started in 2008. This program combined a skills development and training program with that of unemployment insurance. The program extended financial support to several companies to postpone layoffs.
Third, there are emerging avenues of action on the environment and climate change, where past experience may not provide a sufficient guide for the future. For infrastructure investments to have lasting value, they might confront climate change, but to guide this, prospective or forward looking assessments are needed. Fossil fuels need to give way to solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal and biomass, and fossil fuel subsidies need to be slashed. In addition to climate-smart agriculture, a top priority is to stop deforestation and protect the precious biodiversity to avoid irreversible losses.
This is also the chance to deal with the unacceptable levels of city pollution and congestion as in Beijing or Delhi. Fifteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in Asia. Fuel and engine efficiency can be tackled, as in the Korean city of Busan by charging higher licensing fees for trucks that do not comply with emission standards. City-operated bicycle shares, low-emission car rentals, and sidewalk widening can make cities more livable.
It also pays to evaluate options to address urban congestion. Intelligent transport systems, as in Seoul, inform passengers of the best routes for their commute. In the People’s Republic of China, Guanzhou’s bus rapid transit may be saving 30 million passenger hours a year. Multi-modal public transport around hub stations, as in Chennai and Bengaluru in India, can reduce congestion and pollution. A glaring problem is municipal waste, which will require investments in disposal capacity such as conversion of waste to energy, anaerobic digestion, recycling and reduced waste disposal.