Integrating Environmental and Socioeconomic Domains for Sustainability

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The world is facing a triple environmental crisis of climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem loss, and pollution. Inequality between and within countries is on the rise. While many formerly developing countries now have moved to the middle-income category, many others have fallen into fragility and vulnerability. Tensions and wars proliferate: the number of armed conflicts around the world is now at their highest level in three decades. The current refugee crisis is a hot political issue all over the world.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize the equal importance of the social, economic, and environmental dimensions. However, current trends show that progress is highly uneven and that most of the universal goals will not be achieved by the target date of 2030. All these challenges are tightly interwoven. Therefore, the theme of the 4th Conference on Evaluating Environment and Development is integrating environmental and socioeconomic domains for sustainability.

On the environmental front, there has been a proliferation of treaties and funds, mostly focusing on climate change – the Green Climate Fund, the Climate Investment Funds, and the Adaptation Fund, just to name a few. At the COP28, in December 2023, the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund was seen as a major breakthrough. While the GEF has long been the only one focusing on ecosystem management, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework Fund has recently been added to its purview. There are also new international agreements developed on plastic waste and biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. These important developments hide the fact that financial flows still favor activities that are harmful to the global environment. IMF estimates that fossil fuel subsidies alone amounted to a mind-boggling $5.9 trillion in 2020, while total financing for the global environment from both public and private sources is estimated at $632 billion during the same timeframe.

For organizations like the GEF, it is not enough to focus strictly on conservation. There has been a realization that we must address the root causes of environmental degradation. This insight has led to the development of a set of programs that focus on critical issues, such as food systems and sustainable cities in an integrated manner. There is also a new emphasis on policy coherence, so that the strides made in the environmental arena are not undone by policies and actions in other areas. This problem has led to the paradoxical situation that while many projects succeed in reaching their objectives, the environmental macro trends are still declining.

This all has implications for evaluation. Lots of progress has been made and the environment is increasingly recognized as important by evaluators. However, much remains to be done. Evaluation is still largely focusing on individual projects without paying attention to the larger context in which they operate. Similarly, evaluations are still often ignoring the natural environment. The focus on individual projects also risks missing the unintended consequences of interventions, be it to the environment or to vulnerable groups, such as Indigenous peoples. If evaluation wants to contribute to sustainability transitions and remain relevant to the pressing contemporary problems, it must up its game and take a comprehensive look at both human and natural systems. Sustainable development happens at their nexus, if it is going to happen at all. I believe that conferences like this will help us move the needle in the right direction.

This conference brings together streams of sessions that deal with critical issues, building upon the science of integration and the importance of systems thinking. While there are sessions on the more traditional environmental issues – climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainable forestry and land use, biodiversity, chemicals and waste – we also focus on the drivers of (un)sustainability. We look into how fragility, conflict and vulnerability influence program performance and how evaluation must incorporate them. Behavior change is another important topic for evaluation where innovation is needed. Similarly, inclusion, appreciating Indigenous worldviews, and decolonizing evaluation are areas where we are happy to partner with our co-sponsors, including the International Evaluation Academy and the Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS). The Evaluation Initiative (GEI) brings us valuable perspectives from governments helping to mainstream the environment into evaluations. And I’m very pleased that we will have discussions on the role of the private sector and philanthropy, and environmental finance more broadly, as these actors are sorely needed.

It is my sincere hope – and conviction – that the conference will advance how evaluation can better and more effectively respond to the demands for sustainability in our interconnected world.

Disclaimer: The blog presents the views of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the official position of the GEF IEO.