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Evaluating complexity

A new briefing from IIED and EVAL SDGs sets out five lessons for evaluating the SDGs drawing on a “complex systems” approach. 

The complex inter-connections of sustainable development must be recognised in the approach to evaluation, photo: Rural-Light via flickr.com, creative commons licence.

The inter-connected nature of sustainable development can be usefully viewed through a “complex systems” lens, according to the latest briefing from IIED and EVAL SDGs, which offers five lessons to guide national policy makers and planners implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The “complex systems” lens is appropriate because it considers development as a holistic, integrated, multifaceted and context-sensitive process that has diverse means and ends, the briefing argues.

Drawing on the experiences of evaluating the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the briefing suggests that to avoid problems later, it is worth bearing in mind five key points when setting national evaluation priorities:

·         Think beyond individual policies, programmes and projects – this means evaluating more than one specific policy intervention and tracking outcomes across interconnected sectors (eg the impacts of energy efficiency for smallholder farmers).

·         Examine macro forces influencing success and failure – such as political, economic, ideological, environmental, socio-cultural and technological circumstances (eg changes in technology).

·         Take into account multiple definitions and measures of ‘success’ – simple targets and goals may not reflect the full impact or outcome, and sustainability by its very nature requires a long-term perspective.

·         Recognise the importance of culture – cultural beliefs, values and behaviours evolve over time and affect how society views and approaches change.

·         Shift towards evaluative thinking and adaptive management – this requires a flexible approach, allowing for continuous cycles of experimentation and evidence-informed learning.

The briefing authors argue that considering these five points will strengthen national approaches to evaluation, but the final point is the most powerful.

The final and fourth briefing will consider how evaluative thinking and adaptive management can be used to shape national evaluation systems.

Other briefings in the series focus on evaluation as an ingredient for success in the SDGs and Counting critically.