Evaluation in the Age of Climate Change

Between Greta Thunberg’s Time ‘Person of the Year’ awards, and almost concurrent end to a do-nothing UN climate talks in Madrid (to borrow from our US Congress lexicon), two things were reinforced, again, these past weeks: the urgency of climate change, and our inability to address it, at least from on-high.

Remarkably, however, for an industry that is rooted in evidence, which examines disparities in health and well being across time and space (and especially among groups and sub-groups), and which holds dear an ethical mantra of ‘do no harm,’ Evaluation has done little to either mainstream the role of climate in our own practice, nor to ameliorate the industry’s impact (because, while disparate and far flung, we are an industry).

I think of my own, multiple trans-continental flights—emitting more carbon in one than the average American family does in a year—and shudder to think of the grand total across our small company, let alone for evaluations, then development more broadly. 

There are of course many reasons for this lack of independent action, and reflective of why climate change is a challenge to address across the board: future, uncertain outcomes and the indirect link between our individual actions (or daily work requirements) and massive, meteorological events, among many. But, this is more reason why we need to act as an industry and consider more sweeping best practices. Some of these may already dovetail with industry goals, it’s worth noting, including the capacity development of in-situ, local partners. 

Local partners bring local knowledge, insights and context, and as an industry we have made only limited strides in empowering local ownership and leadership of research and evaluation. We can double down on this effort to simultaneously learn from new, robust local partners, while simultaneously reducing emissions that contribute to the challenges we are studying.

Separate of our own actions, climate change should be central to what we report, and thus central to our profession. While there is much work on resilience, appropriately, “shocks” will soon become but recurring weather events, and should be seen less as outliers and more as the new climate which people inhabit. And if a project falls outside the explicit domain of Resilience, the role and relevance of climate is too frequently overlooked. I have partaken in multiple projects, including those related to refugee resilience, agricultural transformations, and ICT for smallholder farmers, for example, that failed to consider the effects of climate change in their design and evaluation, including in countries the UNDP and others have ranked as among the most vulnerable to climate change anywhere in the world. This is a massive oversight.

Without asserting any political stridency, we can already weave climate considerations into the Relevance and Sustainability sections of these evaluations, as we do gender, child protection, and other priority considerations (and again these overlap, considerably at times). Without accounting for how a project, or “intervention,” can adapt to changing conditions on the ground, or disparate effects, we again limit our understanding and learning. Simultaneously we perpetuate the technocratic over the adaptive, contextual and sustainable gains we strive for.

Climate should and can be mainstreamed. These thoughts are nascent, but I look forward to joining others within the industry to work to a more climate-focused practice, both within and across our small business, and climate-aware research and evaluations that, as we all strive for as professionals, maximize learning and make for better, more effective programs. 

Please contact me directly to discuss a future AEA panel, or industry-focused working group on climate, if you are moved to. Causal has taken this question seriously, and has made some strides within, but we look forward to collaborating and learning from other leaders to advance a more climate progressive practice.

To paraphrase Thunberg, we are among the lucky ones (link). Let’s use that to make serious strides in 2020 to better our profession, and better our work.

-Matt Klick

Director of Research and Learning