A partnership of research institutions
from around the world supporting
change for a sustainable future

Evaluative thinking key to realising SDGs

Reflecting on how we reason, plan and act is crucial for tackling the inter-connected challenges inherent in the Sustainable Development Goals, a new briefing from IIED and EVAL SDGs argues.

Asking questions is crucial to the critical thinking needed to tackle the SDGs, photo: Benjamin Reay via flickr.com, creative commons licence.

Monitoring and evaluation have been recognised as essential elements of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but alone, they will not help deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to a new briefing from IIED and EVAL SDGs.

Realising the SDGs by reflecting on the way(s) we reason, plan and act: the importance of evaluative thinking emphasises the need for critical thinking to tackle the complex inter-connected problems identified in the SDG agenda.

Policy makers, parliamentarians, and others involved in implementation must develop a capacity for evaluative thinking if they are to make good use of the data collected as part of the national follow-up review frameworks and mechanisms coordinated through the UN High-Level Political Forum.

Suspending judgement

Evaluative thinking, the briefing argues, means suspending judgement and developing the capacity to question assumptions and claims, recognise different perspectives and look at different possible solutions.

This goes beyond evaluation – and it is something that all of us can and must do.

The lead author, Thomas Schwandt, Professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, explained:

“Evaluative thinking is a way of viewing the world, an on-going process of critical reflection and appraisal. It requires a commitment to continuous learning and a willingness and ability to modify your views in the light of new evidence.”

He added that it was particularly important where claims are being made about the effectiveness of interventions, strategies, projects and policies.

“Policy makers need to be able to step back and challenge the evidence. What does it really show? Are assumptions being made? Do I need to consider another point of view?”

Adaptive management

Evaluative thinking can support an “adaptive” approach to management, allowing decision makers to reflect and experiment in response to changing evidence.

This is particularly helpful give the reality of sustainable development challenges, where change is constant, uncertain and often unpredictable. Off-the-shelf solutions do not apply.

Project-thinking can inhibit evaluative thinking, the paper warns, because there is a tendency to see the intervention as self-contained, rather than as a catalyst for ongoing and long-term change.

Evaluative thinkers are able to experiment with innovations and take risks because they understand that plans need to be adapted to meet changing needs.

Cultivating a climate of openness

The briefing argues that building capacity for evaluative thinking is different from building evaluation capacity – and it is a skill that should not just be fostered in experts, but in all citizens.

Allowing for reflection within evaluation processes can however facilitate evaluative thinking, and such processes should be included in the project or strategy’s design.

Organisations can also support evaluative thinking by cultivating a climate of openness to questioning and different perspectives, valuing challenge and genuine dialogue, supporting inquiry, reflection and learning, and by basing decisions on evidence, having considered the relevance and quality.

As such evaluative thinking is not only relevant throughout the planning, design, implementation and evaluation processes needed to achieve the SDGs, but it is indispensable for navigating complex, ‘wicked’ problems that define the very nature of sustainable development.



Realising the SDGs by reflecting on the way(s) we reason, plan and act: the importance of evaluative thinking

Five considerations for national evaluation agendas informed by the SDGs

Counting critically: SDG ‘follow-up and review’ needs interlinked indicators, monitoring and evaluation

Evaluation: a crucial ingredient for SDG success