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Raising Development Impact through Evaluation

Sustainable Development Goals: Aspirations, Role of Parliaments and the Potential of Evaluation – Marvin Taylor-Dormond

Speech | 17 September 2018

Keynote Address of Marvin Taylor-Dormond, Director General, Independent Evaluation Department, ADB during the EvalColombo 2018 “Responsible Parliament: Embracing Evaluation for Agenda 2030”, 17-19 September 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Honorable Ananda Kumarasiri, Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, Sri Lanka.

Honorable Kabir Hashim, Minister of Highways and Road Development, Sri Lanka; Chair of the Global Parliamentarians Forum for Evaluation (GPFE).

Honorable members of the different world parliaments. Dear friends, colleagues, and organizers of this event.

Evaluation friends and colleagues from national and international organizations and partners in governments and civil society.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

A pleasant good morning to all in beautiful Sri Lanka!


In 2015, the world embraced a new development paradigm, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a concerted call to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity for all. Countries and institutions across the world have committed to the aspirations of attaining the 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs with the main precept of “leaving no one behind”.

This endeavor reminds us of President JFK’s inspirational call on the space race of the 1960s. He said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win...”

Much in the same way, the SDGs are serving as a binding pledge of nations on the most pressing sustainability issues today - people, planet and prosperity.   The   SDGs provide a   focal point for channeling and uniting efforts as well as knowledge for finding solutions to these problems. Being timebound also adds urgency to matters of sustaining development and encourages fortitude to face these challenges head-on.

Scale of the unfinished development agenda

Scale of the unfinished development agenda we are facing. The scale of problems that the SDGs are trying to resolve remains daunting. Despite advances in economies and structural transformations leading to accelerated growth in the last decades, poverty remains pervasive across the globe. Working to end extreme poverty is far from over with 767 million people worldwide still living under $1.90/day, mostly in Africa and Asia. Just here in Asia, 326 million people are still mired in poverty. And where poverty reduction has been achieved over the last three decades, progress has been uneven. Inequality has widened, in many instances undermining continuing initiatives on poverty alleviation and future growth.

Meanwhile, past indifference or even negligence towards the environment in pursuing unbridled development is coming to head. Essential ecosystem services are under threat, complicating the sustainability of future growth and progress.  Adding to these complications are the increasing occurrences and severity of climate-related disasters. The spate of flooding around Asia especially here in Sri Lanka in the past months, wildfires in the US and Europe, are just recent examples of events adversely affecting people and economies. Although impacts of natural disasters know no bounds – affecting the rich and poor alike, the greater burden of climate change is on the poor who are the hardest hit while deriving the least benefit from the developments leading to the climate crisis.

Role of parliamentarians in SDGs

Now, what is the role of parliamentarians in this extraordinary SDG endeavor. SDGs are in essence worldwide goals but the tangible actions and progress will be at the country and local level. Such progress will demand partnership and leadership at the country level. Let me highlight the Sri Lanka example of what strong partnerships can achieve when parliamentarians, government and civil society work together to come up with a solution, such as in the case of the Disaster Management Act in 2005 following the devastating 2004 tsunami, which led to an enabling national policy and system on disaster management. This is the sort of unity that achieving the SDGs will demand.

Parliamentarians are an indispensable leading catalyst in making headway to achieving the SDGs. Parliamentarians are expected to provide leadership in crafting national policies and programs, in driving development and translating these into enabling legislation that supports effective governments. And further to this, parliamentarians have oversight and fiduciary authority over governments to build a transparent and trusting bridge between the state and its citizens. In short, parliamentarians command the highest responsibility in aligning multiple visions and objectives at the national level. These roles and responsibilities are essential for turning the SDG aspirations into concrete and doable outcomes, while balancing the tradeoffs among the 17 goals and ensuring their effective linkages.

How program evaluation helps parliamentarians fulfill their role

The question then is, to what extent and in what way can program evaluation help parliamentarians fulfill this high and complex mission? We all agree an important tool increasingly being recognized by policy-makers to help them craft their decisions is program evaluation. Evaluation, as Michael Scriven has put it, is the systematic process of objectively measuring the merit or quality, worth or value and the significance of policies, strategies, programs and projects. It helps us assess their contribution against benchmarks or counterfactuals such as intended outcomes or alternative solutions. A good evaluation backed by solid evidence can support sound and informed decisions. Evaluation enhances good governance and facilitates accountability, transparency and above all, learning, while also empowering citizens through feedback and dialogue. As Carol Weiss said, “evaluation has real consequences: it challenges old ideas, provides new perspectives and helps to re-order the policy agenda.”

Given its role, evaluation has been recognized as a crucial component of the march towards the SDGs at the national and global level. The aspiration is that decisions concerning the SDGs in the next 12 years towards 2030 must be informed by rigorous, country-led evaluations and supported by high quality, accessible, timely and reliable evidence. To make sound and effective policy decisions, parliamentarians and other policy makers need to know what works, what doesn’t and why. And evaluation can help answer these questions.

Now, let me be clear. I am not here advocating for parliamentarians and other policy makers to use evidence as the sole source of reference for their decisions. As has been observed, policies and programs are “the creatures of political decisions” and therefore many more elements beyond evidence must be contemplated in arriving at these decisions. But political processes can be enhanced by encouraging evaluators and parliamentarians to forge a strong partnership. A partnership that encourages evaluators to include the dynamics of the political process, deliver timely and relevant assessments, and that motivate parliamentarians to make good use of the evidence produced by sound evaluation. A partnership that can also help build an informed dialogue between MDBs such as ADB as well other international actors in the development arena, and parliamentarians.

In sum, countries around the world have decided to march in the next 12 years to tackle the most daunting development problems affecting humanity today. Parliamentarians and evaluators can work hand-in-hand in ensuring that these aspirations materialize.

Call for partnership of parliamentarians and evaluators

And so, in the context of the Global Parliamentarians Forum for Evaluation, I call today for a 2030 EVAL-4PAR (Evaluation for Parliamentarians), the partnership that I am referring to. And as a contribution to this effort I leave you with 5 exhortations, both for parliamentarians and evaluators.

  1. For evaluators: Be humble while being invited to being part of the decision-making process. The political process is dynamically complex and evaluators must recognize these dynamics. The decision-making process requires more than information and evidence, and understanding these complexities will enhance the ability of evaluators to strategically position their work and be influential.
  2. For parliamentarians: Be thorough while crafting your decisions. We live in the 21st century and while everyone should respect the parliamentarians’ responsibility in balancing multiple and diverse interests, pressures and conflicts, it is a must that parliamentarians make use of evidence, including that provided by evaluation, to arrive at prudent and smart decisions. Evidence from objective evaluations shed light on policies and programs that are good and should be sustained; and that are bad and should be removed or changed for the common good.
  3. For evaluators: Be relevant and timely in your provision of evaluation to parliamentarians and decision makers. Evaluators can become excessively focused on providing detailed information, which may be interesting but not necessarily relevant for policy makers, and in turn risking not to deliver it on a timely and useful basis. A key to quality and usefulness in evaluation lies to a great extent on being relevant, clear and timely. Remember, as Quinn Patton has said that “people, not organizations use evaluation information.”
  4. For parliamentarians: Go beyond your own needs for information for law purposes. Put evaluation at the heart of government policy and decision making. Legislate to develop national evaluation systems and promote the use of evaluation knowledge and learning for government oversight purposes. The Independent Evaluation Department of ADB has just concluded the Asian Evaluation Week in the People’s Republic of China, an event that has discussed the development of government performance-based management systems, founded on evaluation practices. Government officials and Parliamentarians from Sri Lanka and many more countries were there and can testify, that the conclusions are encouraging and the experiences replicable and motivational.

    In the same sense, I am pleased to learn that Sri Lanka’s National Evaluation Policy, which was 15 years in the making, has recently been approved by the Cabinet. Likewise, that plans are moving forward to establish a National Evaluation Framework and that the Parliament is considering measures towards consolidating this framework.

  5. Finally, for both parliamentarians and evaluators: Be bold. Our efforts today must be as ambitious as the objectives outlined by the 17 SDGs. We have accepted the challenge of the SDGs not because they are easy, but because they are hard tasks that need to be completed, because it is a responsibility that cannot be postponed and a mission that we intend to win for the sake of those left behind – the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalized.

Let me close with a Sri Lankan proverb that says “He who has studied himself is his own master”. Evaluation can help our countries to be masters of our own development fate, by studying the result of our policies, programs and institutional processes. And strengthening the synergies between parliamentarian and evaluators can only help us achieve this high aspiration. I, therefore, trust that this conference stimulates our thinking, our search for ideas of collaboration and more importantly, our determination to forge a strong partnership.

Thank you and have a good day everyone.

Bohoma istuti!

Romba Nandri!