Countries increasingly see the value of investing in development programmes that promise social outcomes beyond what economic growth can deliver. But good ideas on paper do not automatically turn into good results on the ground. One way to guide policy and investments is through programme evaluations that shed light on their true benefits and costs.

If done well, evaluations can bring a certain degree of objectivity to decision making. To the extent the lessons are heeded, there would be a better chance that investments and policies are based on development effectiveness rather than politics and special interests.

The importance of effective evaluations is the focus of the Fourth International Conference on National Evaluation Capacities and the 2015 International Development Evaluation Association Global Assembly now being held in Bangkok.

There are three ways in which evaluation results make a difference.

First, conducting assessments of investments, such as a social protection initiative, allows them to be expanded on the basis of the results obtained. Careful evaluations in some social areas have given policymakers grounds to expand or wind down a programme. Assessments of conditional cash transfers have provided a basis to expand these programmes in Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Evaluations of the Philippine government's conditional cash transfer programme found it produced strong socio-economic results, including increasing enrollment rates among children 3-11 years of age, encouraging poor women to use maternal and child health services, and improvements to the employability of the poor. Evaluation results have given a basis for the programme's expansion, along with those of Brazil and Mexico.

Second, evaluations bring out complementary factors necessary for development success. For example, road projects can improve inclusion if they are linked with programmes addressing education and healthcare. A study on Bangladesh pointed to gains from rural roads maintenance, but the benefits missed the very poor. Investment in related areas such as education, health and financial literacy proved critical. Rural electrification will not only light communities, but can transform lives if education and income opportunities are promoted.

Education investment increases access to schooling and if done well, also improves learning outcomes. That must be coupled with labour market reforms to support job creation, especially for the lower income strata. These include job matching and information systems, and policies supporting labour mobility and flexibility. Thailand's Tonkla Archeep addressed joblessness due to the global economic downturn that started in 2008. The programme combined a skills development and training programme with that of unemployment insurance. The programme extended financial support to several companies to postpone layoffs.

Third, there are emerging avenues of action such as climate change, where past experience may not provide a sufficient guide for the future. For infrastructure investments to have lasting value, they might confront climate change, but must give way to renewable sources of energy supply -- solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal and biomass -- and fossil fuel subsidies must be reformed. China will launch a national cap and trade scheme in 2017, and India recently levied a carbon tax on fossil fuels.

This is also a chance to deal with unacceptable levels of city pollution and congestion, as in Beijing and Delhi. Fifteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in Asia. Fuel and engine efficiency can be tackled, as in Busan, Korea, by charging higher licensing fees for trucks that do not comply with emission standards. City-operated bicycle shares, low-emission car rentals, and pavement widening can make cities more liveable.

It also pays to evaluate options addressing urban congestion. Intelligent transport systems, as in Seoul, inform passengers of the best routes for their commute. China's Guangzhou bus rapid transit may be saving 30 million passenger hours a year. Multi-modal public transport around hub stations, as in Chennai and Bengaluru, can reduce congestion and pollution.

A glaring problem is municipal waste, which will require investments in disposal capacity such as conversion of waste to energy, anaerobic digestion, recycling and reduced waste disposal.

Vinod Thomas is director general, Independent Evaluation, Asian Development Bank.


  • Thomas, Vinod
    Visiting professor at National University of Singapore and Asian Institute of Management.