What Works? We Need To Know

By Andrew Bovarnick, Global Head of the UNDP Green Commodities Programme

Today, ISEAL launched Evidensia at the Global Sustainability Standards Symposium in The Hague. Evidensia is a new website that helps people access and interpret credible research on the sustainability impacts and effectiveness of supply chain initiatives and tools.

The world of development is full of grandiose ambitions, aspirations and language for how we are going to save the world, change the trajectory of poor countries, take people out of poverty, stop deforestation, change food systems and so on.  It’s inspiring.  And organizations reporting on their successes sound up to the task – reforming laws, strengthening institutions, promoting livelihoods, transforming supply chains, conserving forests.  We see new innovations all the time – the next new thing to overcome barriers and really make a difference – green bonds, impact investing, jurisdictional approaches, the list goes on.

Yet… we read in the news and from scientific investigations that biodiversity loss is increasing, carbon emissions and deforestation continue unabated.  This news generate debates over what really works – we hear that supply chains are the key to leveraging farmers, but often they have limited buying power so really, it’s government – but government action is insufficient so it’s the markets that must make the change and so on.  For anyone who has been around for long enough it seems like a pendulum swinging from back and forth.  Given the complexity and the enormity of the task at hand, why do so many practitioners and donors jump on the pendulum and are swung this way and that?  An articulate presentation, a local success story, or a logical argument can sway the direction of investments and institutions.

But to what extent are decisions on what to invest actually based on robust, rigorous evidence of what works, where and under what conditions? How often do we actually find a demonstrated effective intervention that had a causal effect that led to impact at scale or in different places?  And when impact has been made how often can we really equate it back to a specific intervention and not just external factors? And how often do we observe that the impact is sustained and not lost once the project ends or the next government comes into power? So much impact can be based on individual champions and when they go so does the result.  As that is the case there is even more reason to question how much an effective intervention is transferable to a place without such an individual champion.  In all of these cases we need more data to really understand what works and under what circumstances.

So I am looking forward to Evidensia, the new knowledge platform from ISEAL, WWF and Rainforest Alliance developed under the Good Growth Partnership, a Global Environment Facility funded initiative led by UNDP in partnership with Conservation International, UN Environment, WWF and the World Bank´s International Finance Corporation . It brings together credible research on the effects and impact of sustainability initiatives, to enable more informed decisions. Hosting evidence and information on a range of sustainability supply chain tools and approaches, including standards, company sourcing codes and jurisdictional approaches, I’m sure it will support us in deepening our understanding of what works where.

Evidensia is an alliance of three non-profit organisations (ISEAL Alliance, Rainforest Alliance and WWF) supported by the Global Environment Facility (the GEF) under the framework of the Good Growth Partnership.

The launch of Evidensia was held at the Madurodam building, in The Hague.

At UNDP’s Green Commodities Programme, our signature intervention is the National Commodity Platform – we now work in 12 countries covering 8 commodities. As we build our multi-stakeholder collaborations for systemic change, we need to present compelling evidence to foster trust amongst a range of partners, many of whom may be sceptical and wedded to their current ways of working. These are long-term partnerships with members that evolve and change, so we often need to reconfirm the evidence for impact, for example when governments transition. Evidensia holds out the prospect of supporting our arguments more effectively, which will speed up the improvements that are so urgently needed to combat climate change and biodiversity collapse.

A vehicle such as Evidensia is critical to underpin our development work. And more data driven research is needed to verify that compelling argument or convincing presentation that might just trigger a key partner into action.  Let us really learn from the past – and the present – in order to reinforce our efforts to change the future.

Vidya Rangan of ISEAL, and Simon Cooper of UNDP’s Green Commodities Programme.