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.
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.
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?
Zenda Ofir is an independent South African evaluator at present based near Geneva. She works primarily in Africa and Asia, and advises organisations around the world. She is a former AfrEA President, IOCE and IDEAS Vice-President, AEA Board member, Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, and at present Interim Council Chair of the new International Evaluation Academy.