Evaluating sustainable pathways to climate-resilient agriculture: recent experiences from an IFAD evaluation

© Brent Stirton/Getty Images for FAO, CIRAD, CIFOR, WCS

Evaluating sustainable pathways to climate-resilient agriculture: recent experiences from an IFAD evaluation

4 min.
The agrifood systems and climate change nexus

Climate threats such as floods, droughts and cyclones are increasing in frequency and intensity. The consequences affect the most marginalized in the agricultural sectors disproportionately, undermining agricultural efforts and exacerbating food insecurity and poverty in rural areas. At the same time, agrifood systems account for more than a third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, intensifying climate change (FAO, 2021).[1]

It is, therefore, necessary to ensure food security strengthened economic resilience of ecosystems and economic resilience of people concurrently to meet the targets of the 2030 Agenda. We need to go beyond “do-no-harm” agricultural solutions and seek win-win solutions that promote climatic, environmental and development resilience together.

The contribution of evaluation to durable and environmentally sustainable agricultural solutions

Evaluations are, in theory, best positioned to contribute to constructing a database of evidence-based win-win solutions. However, are they able to assess how agricultural efforts affect surrounding ecosystems and climatic factors, including GHG emissions, biodiversity and natural resource replenishment, to name but a few?

The inconvenient truth is that there is a significant paucity of evaluative experience in this area. A stocktaking exercise conducted in 2020 by the United Nations Evaluation Group[2] revealed that in most cases, evaluation focuses on human systems, while natural systems and sustainability have a limited presence. The review concluded that there was a critical need for comprehensive guidance on both social and environmental considerations, especially with regard to their interactions within the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework.[3]

The limited presence of natural systems and sustainability starts at project level: sustainability is often marginalized and addressed only superficially for many reasons, including budget and a lack of technical knowledge. This contributes to similarly insufficient evaluation practices, as these tend to mirror programme design.

At the same time, traditional evaluation cycles are inadequate amid the urgency of sustainability problems. Typically, evaluation spans about six years, with a midpoint and a final evaluation, while we need more timely and proactive assessment methods.

IFAD’s contribution

The International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) Independent Evaluation Unit and IFAD at large have led efforts in the United Nations system to integrate environmental considerations into evaluation. In 2010, IFAD prioritized climate change adaptation in rural development, mobilizing more than USD 500 million in climate funds over ten years. IFAD’s Evaluation Policy mandated that all project evaluations address environmental and climate change adaptation issues. Its Evaluation Manual included criteria for assessing these aspects, which were subject to the same quality assurance as all evaluations. Performance in these areas is reported to its governing bodies annually, ensuring accountability and continuous learning.

A recent thematic evaluation (2022) that evaluated IFAD’s support for smallholder farmers in adapting to climate change was an opportunity to take stock of these efforts. In assessing IFAD’s performance in building the climate resilience of smallholder farmers, the evaluation reviewed how 20 selected agricultural projects, covering 14 percent of IFAD’s portfolio of projects engaged in climate change adaptation, interacted with the surrounding ecosystems.

Methodologically, there was no precedent for assessing this human-ecosystem nexus. The Evaluation Office developed a rubric approach to assessing the consequences of IFAD projects on selected ecosystem dimensions ‒ such as water quality and management, and soil health ‒ and identified four typologies, as shown in the figure below.

Figure 1: Typologies developed by IFAD

Typologies of consequences on ecosystems developed by IFAD

Of the 20 case studies conducted, only six were “doing no harm” and none was restorative. Seventy percent were using some sustainable practices, though still harming the environment.

Figure 2: A rubric approach to assessing the ecosystem consequences of IFAD projects

Results of the assessment of 20 case studies by IFAD

This method proved effective in providing clear messages to decision-makers about how beneficial or problematic the effects were on natural systems. It is currently being adopted and expanded by Footprint Evaluation, an effort supported by the Global Evaluation Initiative, to include the social impact of development interventions, such as gender equality and women’s empowerment. An initial guideline aimed at supporting people who are planning, managing or conducting evaluations to include environmental sustainability is available.[4]

Reflections and conclusions

Incorporating environmental considerations into evaluations is a crucial first step, but ensuring each evaluation has the capacity and skills to credibly assess these effects is another challenge.

At the same time, while assessing and rating environmental aspects may seem time-consuming, the unprecedented urgency in 2024 demands a shift from traditional timelines to rapid-cycle, process and real-time evaluations. We must quickly assess potential future impacts and inform decision-makers immediately, rather than wait for complete evidence. In addition, agile and adaptive management at all levels is essential, rather than the usual prolonged responses to recommendations.