Evaluating the United Nations with Gender

BY JIHYE LEE

Critiquing yourself is hard. And imagine if the evaluation is of a decades long effort to fulfill the goals of fighting poverty, inequality and climate change. It’s made ieven tougher because the crucial data and feedback come from the countries whose records aren’t stellar on those issues

In mid March, a number of organizations gathered at the United Nations to discuss methods of evaluating the process of reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, an agenda of 17 objectives to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by the year of 2030.

Titled, “Leaving No One Behind: Evaluating SDGs with an equity-focused and gender-responsive lens,” the discussion included representatives from organizations such as The United Nations Evaluation, Group International Organizations for Cooperation in Evaluation United Nations Children’s Fund, and various governments on how to bring about critical feedback for groups combatting gender inequality nationwide.

Among the 17 goals for sustainable development, this event focused on on the fifth one in particular. It reads, “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” specifically targeting ensuring universal gender equality to “economic resources, ownership and control over property, access to technology and information, as well as participation in politics and advocacy.”

“Our priorities lie in considering how to ensure that those who generally get left behind – vulnerable women, defenseless children, marginalized youth, the forgotten-elderly, the differently-abled, the socially-disadvantaged, the economically-deprived, the internally displaced, and the sexually-ostracized to name a few) are included in the SDGs – in development processes and in their evaluation,” Maithree Wickramasinghe, a professor at University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka and the founder and director of Gender Studies at the school, said in a keynote speech at the event.

She explained the need to conceptualize “governance” supportive of the goals, and emphasized setting the framework for policy-making decisions to be evaluated..

Those that are more handson with projects, however, say that evaluation undermines fieldwork.

“These goals were initially set to foresee a long-term objective of eradicating poverty across the world, but with new equations to turn our work into numbers, I believe find it rather discomforting to be graded by workers that are not present to witness the complete process of our outreach projects,” said Prerana Thakurdesai of Going-To-School, an NGO that works with children in impoverished villages in Delhi, India, through distributing free textbooks to raise awareness on the importance of education.

“You can’t measure by number how closer we’ve gotten to the goal without looking into the intricate procedure for workers to growing familiar to reaching out to the neighborhoods,” she said.

Prof. Wickramasinghe, however, had a more idealistic approach on the evaluation standards.

“It forecasts where domestic governance is likely heading for countries around the world in the absence of additional focus interventions as well as under alternative scenarios including major strengthening of governance] and the adoption of pro-poor policies,” Prof. Wickramasinghe said.

“The two concepts of equity and equality is used somewhat carelessly and arbitrarily in development discussions and debates,” she said.

For critics, the current format of the proposed development goals and their methodology of evaluation has brought about demands for a more objective point of view.

“The current format of the proposed SDGs and their targets has laid a policy framework; however, without thorough expert and scientific follow up on their operationalization the indicators may be ambiguous,” said Tomas Hak, a professor at Charles University Environment Center in Prague, who’s recently conducted a study upon the necessity of relevant indicators rather than internal evaluation within the UN.[ “Experts should focus on the ‘indicator-indicated fact’ relation to ensure the indicators’ relevance in order for clear, unambiguous messages to be conveyed to uses,” he said.]

The professor explained that above anything else, concrete, objective evidence is crucial, especially when critiquing an organization such as the United Nations.

“Let us all recall the first stage of a policy cycle – policy formulation. The final format of the goals and targets is, of course, a matter of political process,” said Hak. “For the sake of an efficient operationalization process – and success of the whole SDGs agenda – the political process should consider scientific knowledge and evidence already in early stages of the policy cycle.”

“Underdevelopment or underestimation of a key indicators feature – relevance – could lead to false assessments of the degree of target-achievement, and thereby erode the credibility of SDGs. Hence, we reiterate our main message: the indicator framework for SDGs needs more intense conceptual and methodological work rather than merely the production of new social, economic and environmental statistics.”

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