Countries across Asia face an array of challenges—linked to the region’s fast growth over the past decades—that require a new generation of policy initiatives. To enhance the design and effectiveness of these policies it is crucial that they are informed by solid evidence. Evaluation, the systematic assessment of the design and implementation of projects programs and policies can provide this evidence, is vital for tackling issues like climate change, worsening environmental degradation, and widening inequality. For this reason, it is important that governments of the region invest in developing their capacities to generate and absorb evaluative work.
Evaluative evidence has documented the case for investing in broader based development, more than just economic growth. This does not mean giving up on the quest for rapid growth, but rather promoting a pattern of high growth that is also environmentally sustainable and inclusive. A growing body of evaluative findings, built on work by the international donor and research communities, can be used to inform the right policies to pursue such a growth trajectory in the region.
An example of influential evaluations is the work that has been done on social protection programs, which provided the grounds for policymakers to understand their advantages. Evaluations of cash transfers extended to poor families, on the condition that these meet health and education goals, led to these programs being scaled up in the Philippines, Mexico, and Brazil. Upon these solid bases, the programs have also demonstrated the value of continuity of successful policies across administrations. The Philippines’ program was started in 2008 by the Arroyo administration and was extended by the the Aquino government, despite differences between the two administrations. And today it continues under President Rodrigo Duterte, who allotted the equivalent of RMB 11.6 billion ($1.78 billion) to the 4.4 million-beneficiary program in the 2018 budget.
More generally, international finance institutions such as ADB, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund evaluate the projects and programs they finance and therefore have accumulated a wealth of knowledge on what works, what doesn’t and why in the region. While they do so to strengthen accountability—they are, after all, using public funds—and generate lessons that can be used in their future programs, their knowledge results from working in partnership with governments of the region. In other words, this is knowledge that can be used to enhance not only donor supported interventions but national policies as well. This is why it is critical that these institutions and regional governments strengthen their collaboration in the area of evaluation, results management and policy design. Finance is not enough, so knowledge transfer for better design and assessment of the interventions is fundamental, especially as Asian countries become more sophisticated and able to manage their own development process in accordance to their needs and in line with international standards.
Governments and lawmakers of Asia’s developing countries, however, often lack the skills, resources and experience to absorb the available knowledge to carry out effective evaluations of government programs on their own. The availability of good evidence is useless if policymakers do not have the skills and support to make effective use of often complex evaluation findings. Work is fortunately being done to remedy this. The Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), together with development partners, runs a Shanghai-based training program for mid-level and senior officials from Asia to build capacity to monitor and evaluate the use of public funds. Malaysia has had an independent evaluation instance to support policy since 2014. Over the last two years, an annual international gathering of experts on evaluation and policy making, hosted by the PRC’s Asian Finance and Development Institute and ADB, has been successful in generating best practices and sharing lessons learned. These are all still beginnings, but the trend is encouraging.
In sum, governments have played a central role in most of Asia’s economic success stories by designing smart policies that have led to impressive rates of growth. At this time, tackling the region’s challenging development agenda will require fresh thinking in many areas of policy reform. Insights from evidence-based evaluations can feed into this process, especially knowledge that addresses the region’s intractable and emerging problems. An intense wave of learning and reform followed the Asian financial crisis 20 years ago: a new wave will now be needed to achieve the strong, environmentally sustainable and inclusive growth that Asian governments are rightly striving for.