Dia-blogging: New opportunities – Evaluation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Riitta Oksanen is the President of the EES. She works as a senior advisor at the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Development Evaluation Unit. In this post Riitta diablogues with André Martinuzzi who is founding director of the Institute for Managing Sustainability at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (www.sustainability.eu). During the last 15 years he has co-ordinated several projects in the EU Framework Programme, on behalf of six different EU DGs, Eurostat and the UN Development Programme. His main areas of research are corporate sustainability, sustainable development policies, evaluation, and knowledge brokerage. Since 2014 he co-ordinates the EES Thematic Working Group on “Evaluation of Sustainability”.

Riitta: The 2030 agenda includes a commitment to evaluate the sustainable development goals, SDGs. This is in addition to the progress monitoring activities, and new compared to what was done for the MDGs. What do you think are the most important implications of this new commitment?

André: The SDGs are a major step forward as they form a global reference framework for national policies, public and sectorial programmes, industries and companies. Together with effective implementation and evaluation processes they offer for the first time a global multi-level governance system addressing the major societal challenges of the Anthropocene. For policy makers and programme managers they provide a standardization and operationalization of such previously rather vague terms as sustainable development, well-being or societal progress. For managers they provide an indicator system that has the potential to link the micro level of individual corporations with the macro level of the economy, the society and the environment. In doing so, they can boost corporate responsibility and orient business activities to areas where solutions are needed. For evaluators the SDGs make life a lot easier: they offer a global referential framework and an indicator system for evaluating the outcomes and impacts of policies, programmes and projects to the most important issue areas of our time.

Riitta: You describe the complexity in the comprehensive SDGs framework in a very positive way! The SDGs do provide an opportunity for new ways of working. One thing is obvious: For success we will need strong partnerships. In your view, looking though the evaluation lens, what are the most important partnerships, and what are the new partnerships, that we need? What can we do to encourage these partnerships?

André: We need to better bridge between the different sub-communities, such as evaluation (understood as ex-post programme assessments), policy appraisals and impact assessment (mostly understood as ex-ante policy assessments), monitoring (mostly indicator based work of national statistical offices) and the business sector (auditors and reporting experts). All of these communities deal with similar challenges regarding evaluation as well as regarding SDGs. If we manage to better link up the different communities and cover the different phases of the policy cycle, we may establish much better management systems, and improve policy learning and the utilization of evaluation results.

Certainly, we need to better link up with the business sector, as it is a key player in reaching the SDGs. My team currently co-ordinates a major EU project (www.GLOBAL-VALUE.eu) dealing with corporate impact assessment and management, and we found it quite astonishing, that the broad diversity of knowledge of the evaluation community about measuring impacts is currently not applied in management. We therefore also need partnerships between management scholars and scientists involved in the debate about impact-oriented CSR (corporate social responsibility).

Riitta: The SDGs are important for all countries. When thinking about European issues in this context, what are the most important ones? How should European evaluation evolve to meet these challenges?

André: The SDGs are not a renewed version of the MDGs, but a global vision for a good life of people in all countries. Although the various goals might be of different importance for developing countries and for industrialized countries, the SDGs form an integral framework for all countries and encourage partnerships between countries, sectors and societal groups. The challenges for evaluators dealing with SDGs are rather similar all around the world: looking at systems and dynamics (and not only at single interventions), considering different impact areas (environment, society and economy) and the trade-offs between them, adopting an appropriate time horizon and geographical scope (for not forgetting external effects), applying appropriate problem framings and allowing for re-framings if necessary, and explaining the choices, assumptions and uncertainties determining the results of an evaluation. We also need to engage early on with users of evaluations so that the evaluations focus on issues that best fit their needs. These principles have been summarized on the Bellagio STAMP (Bellagio SusTainability Assessment and Measurement Principles, see https://www.iisd.org/pdf/2009/brochure_bellagiostamp.pdf) in 2012 and used in a broad variety of cases since then. For making most of the SDGs we need more meta-analyses and syntheses of evaluation results addressing these issues.

Riitta: I agree on the similarity of challenges. This brings with it a huge opportunity of learning and building capacity through working together. What do you think, how can we best use the opportunities at the Maastricht EES Conference to promote SDG-evaluation?

André: The Thematic Working Group (TWG) on Evaluating Sustainable Development will run a thematic track at the Maastricht EES Conference with eight presentations and an interactive world-café session in which we will draft a joint action plan for the future work of this TWG. For the ones who can not make it to our track, I will be around the whole conference and will gladly welcome new members who are interested in the SDGs. Just send me an email and we will arrange a meeting. In addition, the “Presidential Fishbowl” will address the SDGs as well.

Riitta: Many thanks André – I look forward to continuing this important discussion!

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