Unlocking the Transformative Impact of Evidence: The South Asia Launch of the Global Evaluation Initiative

Women colors

Unlocking the Transformative Impact of Evidence: The South Asia Launch of the Global Evaluation Initiative

“Evidence could change the way we function in very, very significant ways,” said Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee during his keynote address at the South Asia launch of the Global Evaluation Initiative (GEI). 

The virtual event brought together representatives of government and independent evaluators and civil society from across the region, together with the founding partners of GEI, the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) of the World Bank Group and the Independent Evaluation Office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), to discuss the importance of monitoring and evaluation as the critical ingredients for evidence-informed policies.  

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) can deliver invaluable evidence on what is working and what is not. They can be a powerful compass, helping governments learn from experience and use the lessons to adjust course, scale or target public policies more effectively. Evidence-informed policies have an especially important role to play now in tackling the pandemic and building back better.

Banerjee noted, however, that the Covid-19 crisis had highlighted critical gaps in M&E capacities which risked leaving policymakers with blind spots. Evidence is needed to inform vital decisions, such as where to focus vaccination programs.  “Very few countries know where already-infected populations are concentrated,” Banerjee said, “which would make those populations a low priority for vaccination.” 

There was strong demand for support to build up M&E capacities before the pandemic, as countries recognized their importance in designing and implementing policies to reach national development goals, and to track their progress.  Many countries now find themselves more vulnerable to the multiple impacts of the pandemic as a result of global M&E gaps.“On the other hand,” Banerjee added,” the world has the tools available to generate the data needed for informed policymaking.” To address what has become an urgent priority, GEI will link the growing demand for M&E skills and capacities with the supply.

Closing the monitoring and evaluation gaps

An extensive body of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) knowledge already exists, but it is scattered among myriad organizations and often hard to access. GEI aims to provide a platform to bring these actors together to make their expertise and knowledge more easily and widely accessible and to strengthen M&E capacities worldwide to generate evidence for more effective development policies, particularly in lower-income and fragile economies. 

In South Asia, the stakes could not be higher, with the combined impacts of the pandemic expected to drive between 78 and 82 million people into extreme poverty. Evidence will be a vital guide for making the difficult decisions that policymakers are confronted with today.

“GEI is a bold first step to try and tackle the gap in global M&E capacity. But we cannot do it alone. We need many actors to join hands together on this agenda,” said Alison Evans, IEG Director-General. “We are trying to build out an ecosystem around evidence, which means not only focusing on governments but also on all other partners.”

Finding opportunities amid challenges

While the pandemic has highlighted data gaps, there was also broad agreement among event participants that it has also emphasized the value of data. Much of the discussion focused on how to leverage the opportunity this presented, and the potential role of GEI in helping the many stakeholders seize this moment.

In Pakistan, COVID-19 had spurred more government interest in evidence and even persuaded authorities to redirect funding based on data about the pandemic’s impact, according to Shabnum Sarfraz, the Social Sector member of the Planning Commission for the Government of Pakistan. “These are exciting times because there really is a lot of appetite for relevant M&E data, especially after COVID-19,” Sarfraz said. “We established a COVID-19 secretariat for cross-sectoral impact assessment. We used evidence to repurpose funds.”

Accelerating the cycle of gathering evidence was critical to engage policymakers, according to Dr. Sekhar Bonu, Director General of the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office for the Government of India. “Policymakers can’t wait for one and a half years,” Bonu said. “The cycle of data collection and insights needs to be compressed. We need to learn how to use technology to speed up our M&E.”

Asif Saleh, Executive Director of BRAC Bangladesh, the original organization from which has grown one of the world’s largest non-governmental organizations, agreed that greater speed is needed to engage policy makers effectively. In addition, the cost of evaluations must decrease, and evaluators should leverage knowledge from local actors and from civil society organizations such as BRAC, rather than rely exclusively on national governments. “GEI should not be a one-way knowledge transfer. There are local knowledge systems they can learn from,” Saleh said.

For Dr. Mallika R. Samaranayake, founding member and past president of the Sri Lanka Evaluation Association, a voluntary organization for professional evaluation in Sri Lanka, the relevance of evidence is as important as speed. Along with accountability, it is vital that evidence helps answer the questions that policymakers are grappling with. “The collection and use of M&E data must be less threatening, more practical, more relevant,” Samaranayake said.

A focus on local solutions

GEI aims to focus on country-led initiatives and support the development of local skills, by catalyzing the capacities of a range of local stakeholders that can play a role in building M&E capacity and can adapt global knowledge to their local context. These include universities, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, voluntary organizations for professional evaluation, private businesses, and individual evaluators.

“Each country will have to carve out its own new path to overcome the current crisis; to do this, more disaggregated data may be necessary, more granular information to understand what is working and what isn’t,” said Oscar A. Garcia, UNDP IEO Director. UNDP and its Independent Evaluation Office are committed to the Global Evaluation Initiative, he said, and to strengthening engagement with national governments and other evaluation stakeholders to further support the development of national evaluation capacities. “We need monitoring and evaluation to meet immediate challenges,” Garcia added, “and to put us back on track to the Sustainable Development Goals.”

In the conclusion to his keynote address, Banerjee outlined the potential for closing the data gap: “A small amount of additional resources, lots of coordination, lots of forward-thinking about where the evidence is needed, and we could really have a transformed world.”