Lessons from FAO forestry evaluations: what is being learned and to what extent is this reflected in decision making?

Blog by Eoghan Molloy (Evaluation Specialist) and Serdar Bayryyev (Senior Evaluation Officer), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Forests are recognised as playing a key role in the Paris agreement, and their sustainable management is fundamental to achieving progress towards the SDGs (most specifically SDG 15 for life on land, and SDG 13 for climate action). Sustainable forest management is integral to the mission of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and has been since its creation in 1945. In today’s world, forests arguably are even more important to FAO’s mission given the context of climate change and the critical role that forests play in both climate change adaptation and mitigation. In evaluating FAOs work in sustainable forest management, the FAO Office of Evaluation has conducted a number of thematic, strategic and project evaluations covering the sector.

Recurring themes

An October 2017 workshop in Oslo hosted by the evaluation department of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation on the theme of evaluation and learning for international sustainable forest initiatives provided an excellent opportunity for common discussion on synthesis findings from forestry-related evaluations, as well as sharing experiences across different agencies and actors in the international forestry sector. Among the main issues identified in the discussions, the most highly repeated and most critical observations in FAO forestry evaluations relate to:

  • The need for a multi-sectoral, programmatic approach
  • Need for local ownership and engagement
  • An increased focus on forest livelihoods
  • Repeated calls for further engagement with the private sector
  • The need to translate knowledge into action

Regarding the need for a more holistic multi-sectoral approach, evaluations have highlighted FAO’s narrow focus on the work of traditional national forest agencies in the countries, while most often the key drivers of deforestation come from outside the sector – whether this relates to tenure issues, agricultural practices, livestock and grazing, or other issues. In this regard, several FAO forestry evaluations point to the need for theories of change to more explicitly acknowledge the assumptions underlying the causal linkages in results chains – and these are often very large and potentially undermining assumptions.

On a more positive note, recent evaluations point to an increase in focus on forest livelihoods engagement at the local level in programming. The 2012 FAO Forestry evaluation highlighted deficiencies in the consideration of social and livelihood aspects with respect to forestry-related programming. Today, projects like the Forest and Farm Facility give explicit focus to the development of forestry-related value chains and non-timber forest products, while exploring the interlinkages of the agriculture and forestry sectors at the farm level. However, other evaluations still point to a lack of scale of forest livelihood initiatives – mostly, forest livelihood projects tend to be small and fragmented. Many of these initiatives are conceptualised as pilot projects, but do not get scaled up, even where the approach is proven to be effective. Overall, while pilot projects are indeed necessary, this must be balanced with legitimate concerns regarding saleability, perhaps requiring governments or partners to provide more concrete commitments for scaling up where pilots prove successful.

Collaboration with the private sector is needed

Overall, forestry evaluations point to a lack of a holistic understanding of market and trade systems, and call for an increased participation of the private sector in projects and programmes in the forestry sector, as the private sector is ultimately a key constituent in efforts to reduce deforestation. Furthermore, evaluations underline the need to recognise the diversity of the private sector, which is often erroneously considered as a homogenous group. A move in this direction is evident in the design of Phase 3 of the FAO/EU FLEGT progamme which has placed stronger emphasis on private sector initiatives following the recommendations of the mid-term evaluation of that programme. 

Turning knowledge into action - how do we ensure continued uptake of evaluation lessons?

While there is a certain degree of progress in efforts to incorporate evaluation learnings into decision-making, FAO evaluations still highlight a disconnect between normative work and knowledge generation, and its application in the field. Nonetheless, we must take into account the complexities involved in each of the issues highlighted above, and acknowledge that change in these areas can take time. This is particularly true with regard to the adoption of an integrated multi-sectoral approach to sustainable forest management. FAO clearly recognises the need for such an integrated approach, as it is now a central theme of FAO’s strategic objectives (in particular FAO’s work on making agriculture, forestry and fisheries more productive and sustainable), and was the explicit focus of the 2016 State of the World’s Forests report. However, this requires a coordinated effort involving a multitude of stakeholders and the breaking down of sectoral silos – such a change cannot happen overnight.

So, what is the role of evaluations in influencing change and how can our evaluations in the forestry sector continue to guide change processes? The Norad workshop on Evaluation and Learning for International Sustainable Forest Initiatives in Oslo in October 2017 demonstrated that the challenges faced by FAO are also faced by other agencies and actors in the sector. However, as evaluations repeatedly highlight the same recurring issues, such repetition serves as a stark reminder of the continuous need for further improvement in forestry sector programming despite the complexities. Furthermore, where changes in decision-making are evident, the question arises as to whether these changes in programming can be attributable to our evaluations, or whether our evaluations are merely passive observers of this change. Certainly, if we wish for evaluations to become active agents of change in the forestry sector and to have a greater impact on programming and decision-making, efforts need to be made to ensure that evaluation reports are mandatory reading for project and programme formulators. At the same time, we must not underestimate the inherent value of the evaluation process itself and the valuable interactions between evaluators and programme implementers which can provide a space for self-reflection and self-criticism that may ultimately lead to transformational change.

The above blog post is based on a presentation delivered by Mr. Eoghan Molloy on behalf of the FAO Office of Evaluation at the Norad workshop on Evaluation and Learning for International Sustainable Forest Initiatives, 12 – 13 October 2017, Oslo, Norway.

For further information on the FAO Office of Evaluation and to access the full library of FAO evaluation reports, click here.  

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