Speech by Marvin Taylor-Dormond, Director-General, Independent Evaluation Department, ADB, at the 2021 Asian Evaluation Week “Transformational Evaluation: Moving from Uncertainties to Resilience”, 6 September 2021

Mr. Zhu Zhongming, Vice Minister, Ministry of Finance, People’s Republic of China,

Mr. Li Kouqing, President of the Asia-Pacific Finance and Development Institute and Shanghai National Accounting Institute,

Mr. Bambang Susantono, Vice President of ADB,

And colleagues from around the region and the world.

Many of you have made a huge effort to join us today despite the continuing crisis caused by the pandemic and the varying time zones. We are deeply appreciative and offer you our most grateful welcome!

This is my last AEW in my present capacities. I trust that you will continue to invite me in the future. I want to express my deep appreciation to our partner, the Ministry of Finance of PRC, the AFDI, and especially to my very good friend, Dr. Li Kouqing and his fantastic team, Dr. Min Zhao and Mr. Scott Liu, who together with my also extraordinary team, led this year by Ms. Sonia Sandhu and Ms. Mary Anne Chaneco – and in the past by Ms. Veronique Salze-Lozac'h, Ms. Farzana Ahmed, and Ms. Maya Vijayaraghavan, with Saleha Waseem and Francoise Alonzo-Calalay in charge of Communications; have been the engine behind this now emblematic annual event. Thank you also to ADB for the unconditional support to this initiative. And of course, to all of you, the participants who have turned this into such a special professional gathering.

Flux, the unity of opposites and transformative change

Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus viewed the world as in an ever-constant change or “flux”. These changes, he believed, were part of what he called the “unity of opposites”, where dualities are in constant play and struggle. This view is similar to the Chinese culture’s yin and yang - opposite or contrary forces that are complementary, interconnected, and interdependent of each other.

For nearly two years now, we have been precisely in a great state of flux, brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic continues to unfold, we are witnessing the dynamics between pain and hope, belief and science, cooperation and individualism, health and economics, uncertainty and resilience.

This crisis has immersed our lives in a world full of uncertainties: uncertainties on our ability to control the pandemic, on our capacity to mitigate negative economic and social impacts, and on our directions going forward. Furthermore, the looming climate change crisis is adding more fuel to this world of uncertainties. The latest 2021 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) voiced dire warnings: climate change impacts are widespread and intensifying.

What these uncertainties clearly reveal to us is that we are traversing a path of transformative change. In other words, a change that is deep, systemic and sustained over the long-term, and that ultimately will have an irreversible impact on our lives.

As an old Chinese proverb goes, “All things change, and we must change with them”. The change is taking place across institutions, governments, private sector and individuals. But while it is hard to oppose the dual forces of the flux, and we must embrace these widespread changes, our instinct of preservation is also demanding that we come out of this transformation more resilient, more able to endure future shocks, and more knowledgeable of the factors that have led us to the current state of affairs.

Transformational evaluation

Here is where I come to our choice of theme for this year’s Asian Evaluation Week – “Transformational Evaluation: Moving from Uncertainties to Resilience”. Let us ask ourselves: In the midst of these radical and irreversible changes, and our quest for stronger resilience, is there a role for evaluation? The answer in my view is certainly, YES!

In these times of transformational change and search for resilience, evaluation as a trans-discipline, in the words of Michael Scriven, the philosopher of evaluation, can play a critical role: a) by committing to make a contribution in real time, when it is needed; b) at the same time, by maintaining a focus on long-term results; and c) finally, by documenting and distilling the lessons from actions that our organizations and societies are implementing now to navigate through these difficult times, so that we can come out of this crisis more knowledgeable and better prepared for the next.

The need to provide inputs in times of change is evident. There is a premium on learning and adapting quickly during crises and more so in an unprecedented one such as the COVID-19 crisis. On the other hand, the importance of maintaining a long-term focus is also clear. During crises, organizations tend to concentrate on the urgency at hand and place long-term concerns in the back burner, but evaluation can help in keeping attention on the important results ahead and not only on the urgent demands of today.

Finally, concerning the distillation of lessons, because we know that these events will happen again, it is wise to accumulate, interpret, preserve, and share the lessons of the change process we are going through to enhance institutional, governmental and societal resilience.

The demands on evaluation and development professionals

Now, while possible, to be able to make this contribution, evaluation not only has to strive to respond effectively to the transformation process but submit itself to a transformation as well.  I refer to a transformation of our practice, characterized by moving beyond our traditional summative assessments to placing greater emphasis on the formative nature of real time work; by improving our traditional  methods to collect data, gather evidence and analyze it; by developing a passion for productively accompanying our organizations through the drama of change, blending accountability and learning, instead of passively acting as observers, focusing on our own world and working at our own pace; by being truly strategic in the choice of themes for evaluation in the interest of institutional change; and by spending more time in engaging with stakeholders local and international, while preserving our independence, to improve the quality and utility of our evaluation work. 

This is precisely what we, in IED, have been doing at ADB during the crisis:

We have proactively been providing timely formative evaluation assessments on initiatives that ADB is implementing to help countries address the pandemic through real-time evaluation (RTE); improving methods for the collection of information and data on the ground; introducing artificial intelligence to mine our evaluation lessons; dedicating immense time to develop trust with stakeholders; choosing strategic topics for evaluation that everyone in the organization cares about;  ensuring continuity in delivering knowledge and capacity development during the crisis; and leveraging partnerships such as with the Global Evaluation Initiative, the Global Development Learning Network and the Global Alliance for Real Time Evaluation, to enhance evaluation capacities. 

Conclusion and exhortation to being transformational

This, colleagues and friends, is the call to our discipline at this challenging time: To contribute to the transformation that the world is going through; and at the same time, to transform ourselves to become more capable of making this contribution. Let us do this with sincerity. When sincerity manifests, Confucius said, “It affects others. Affecting others, they are changed by it. Changed by it, they are transformed”.

I strongly urge our professional experts and development practitioners in general, to heed this call and use the turbulence of our time to think beyond traditional approaches and strive to contribute to the irreversible transformation taking place around us, and to constantly advance our capacity to learn to be more resilient in the future.

I can tell you, based on the experience of my team, that not only it is right to do so, but it is also deeply rewarding.

I trust that this week of reflection helps us all to accept this call and that we leave this event with a renewed commitment to be true agents of change and valuable sources of knowledge to enhance institutional and organizational resilience around us.

Thank you!

Xie Xie Ni