Snippet: Global Risks and Evaluation

As the powerful gather in Davos this week, it is a good time to reflect on the WEF’s excellent Global Risks Report 2018. The report reminds us that as evaluators we have to engage with the larger context within which we attempt to contribute to the wellbeing of societies, nation-states, ecosystems and our planet.

Global Risks in Evaluation

The main global risks noted are familiar. Environmental (“We have been pushing our planet to the brink and the damage is becoming increasingly clear”) – pollution, biodiversity loss, strained agricultural systems, degradation of the global environment, global warming. Cybersecurity – disruptive, expensive, exposing vulnerabilities. Economic – automation and digitalization, rising protectionism, limited policy options for crises, national debts, unsustainable asset prices. And Geopolitical – tensions and conflicts over power, resources, inequalities, and more.

Like the SDGs, the report confirms that we do not know too well how to deal with interconnected systems and complex risks within the accelerating pace of change characteristic of our era. “When risk cascades through a complex system, the danger is not of incremental damage but of ‘runaway collapse’ or an abrupt transition to a new, suboptimal status quo.” And potential future shocks bring us quickly into new terrain: food supply stresses, artificial intelligence (AI) choking the Internet; precision extinction of species through e.g. drone fishing; inequalities through bioengineering; war without rules; increasing identity geopolitics, and more.

Those of us working regionally or globally have already over the past two decades been dealing with some these issues in our work. And Michael Quinn Patton’s Blue Marble initiative to encourage systematic approaches to global dynamics and transformative change is clearly very timely. But it is likely that we all need to think much more deeply about what the growing intersection of the SDGs, 4th Industrial Revolution, the digital economy, the knowledge economy, the human economy, and the various risks set out in the report means for our practice.

As evaluators:

How can we more vigorously seek out interconnected influencing factors that may lead to potentially negative consequences or impacts? For example, attend to issues around pollution and waste, power relations in society and the need for appropriate policies and infrastructure when dealing with interventions for economic benefit?

How significant are our efforts to “evaluate impact” when we consider neither the sustainability of positive impacts, nor the extent to which they help build resilient societies and ecosystems?

How can we be clearer about the value systems directing our judgments? For example, balance the underlying tensions and necessary trade-offs between decent work and economic advancement, or the potential disruptions by AI, when evaluating job creation programmes?

Do we care enough about the protection of our own sensitive data, or the way key organisations (e.g. the UN) deal with sensitive data that can be used for geopolitical gain by warring powers?

Do we evaluate so-called ‘training’, ‘capacity strengthening’ or ‘empowerment’ projects and programmes with a clear understanding of what the future might actually require from those groups, communities or societies?

If we do not, what does it mean for the value proposition of our practice?


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Zenda Ofir

Zenda Ofir is a South African evaluation specialist currently based in Switzerland. She is a former AfrEA President, IOCE Vice-President and AEA Board member. She has worked in around 40 countries, primarily in Africa and Asia, and provides evaluation advice to many multilateral and international organisations.


  1. What does training mean or empowerment mean to people who have no “claim rights” who have no power to make decisions about their own lives” who cannot make decisions, who are not literate let alone education. What capacity, skills development and capacity empowerment can one talk about to those who have no rights, no literacy no education.

    What are evaluations worth when those in power don not want to hear the truth even when evaluators say “Speaking truth to power”. What truth can evaluators speak when they have no power to speak the truth? Whose truth can evaluators speak when very often they are totally emasculated. Will “King Lion” ever accept that his den smells bad? What can evaluators and environmentalist do to make the “King Lion” understand and accept that the bad smell will never go away until the source of the smell is addressed. Evaluation the Forbidden Truth is the only Truth. Evaluators need to understand this if they have to find solutions going forward. Cry the Beloved Evaluators!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. A very relevant which transcribes once more the very importance of evaluation in development field. Thanks dear Professor Zenda!

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