In her 2020 Earth Day blog the GEF CEO Naoko Ishii emphasized that the COVID-19 crisis is fundamentally an environmental crisis. I couldn’t agree more. Sure, at the face of it, this is first a health crisis, a pandemic with tragic consequences to people who get infected, especially those who perish or who see loved ones perish. Economies of families, communities, companies, states and countries are stressed, even destroyed. It’ll take months and years to recover from these effects. However short-sighted it may be, I can understand why people and businesses—and by extension politicians—clamor to get the economy re-opened as soon as possible. But fundamentally, this is an environmental crisis and if we do not change our behavior, if we do not learn from this experience, these pandemic crises will become a recurrent phenomenon. We as evaluators must also learn lessons.
The virus, SARS-CoV-2 that causes the disease COVID-19 is zoonotic, meaning it has its origins in animals. As human activities have continued to expand further into previously undisturbed natural domains and as our interactions with domestic and wild animals have become increasingly close, we have given ample new opportunities for pathogens to spill over from non-human animals to humans. The root causes are the same that drive climate change, species loss and all environmental degradation: economic growth, quest for more resources and space for humanity. There are currently 7.5 billion humans on the planet and our numbers are going to expand by 2 billion more in the coming few decades. Inequality has grown to intolerable levels, while consumption continues to grow at unsustainable rates. There is an urgent need to revisit how we define development and how we treat natural environment. The pandemic that has hit pause on economic activity has also provided us an opportunity to rethink our values and what kind of development we want when we press start again. For this we need information about possible models.
Evaluation has the specific role of bringing forth knowledge and understanding of what works under what circumstances based on past experiences. At a basic level, this is looking at past programs and projects with regard to how we have dealt with sudden outbreaks of health crises, such as SARS and Ebola, and other unexpected disasters. What strategies worked, where and why? What helped interventions adjust successfully so that they could continue supporting the people on the ground? The Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) is currently looking at such experiences in the GEF context and will soon be able to bring forth some lessons for consideration.
At a higher level, evaluation must be able to provide evidence of how actions in the development sphere affect the environment and vice versa. We must be able to demonstrate the close interlinkages between social and economic development and the environment in light of evidence from the real world. In this task evaluators must base their work on scientific knowledge as well as analysis of concrete examples from the field. This is not an approach that comes easily to all evaluators who have been used to looking at discrete interventions in isolation through their internal logic. Instead, we now need to place these interventions in the broader landscape and analyze how they interact with the broader natural and human systems. We need to be on the lookout for unanticipated results and unintended consequences, not just those foreseen in the project’s or program’s own theory of change.
To remain relevant in the increasingly complex and interconnected world, it is absolutely essential for evaluation as a profession and as a practice to engage in the discourse at the nexus of human and natural systems. That is where we as a community can contribute, with our practical knowledge anchored in research, to a transformation towards a more sustainable development path.