“People, you got to fight for independence – it won’t just come for free…” this was not a call of a freedom fighter, but the former Director General of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Eisuke Suzuki, who led the effort to take ADB’s evaluation office from its reporting line to the President to the ADB Board.  I had joined ADB’s evaluation office in 1995 and was back after a short stint in the Strategy and Policy Department, well in time for “independence."

So, how did it compare, the before and after independence? A question that one of the Development Effectiveness Committee (DEC) chairs raised when I presented the Country Assistance Program Evaluation for Papua New Guinea: were you more critical when you knew the evaluation office was becoming independent, were you tougher on accountability than you would have been? Luckily, the DEC had discussed my earlier evaluation on Mongolia and had praised it for, among others, being as frank and candid as it was.  

Having worked in many organizations, I can tell the tale why independence is so important for accountability and learning. Whenever an institution has a corporate culture that rejects the idea something might go wrong (an attitude that never fails to surprise me, given that development work is risky and does not simply happen: otherwise development institutions like ours would have long gone out of business) it reacts adversely to the messengers of bad news. Unfortunately, the negative message is more often than not associated with accountability.

IEG was the forerunner of independence among the multilateral development banks – ADB looked towards it as the model when designing theirs in 2004 – and instituted a number of measures that are until today seen as gold standards: direct reporting to the Executive Board, who also makes the decision about appointing the Director General and approves the work program and budget.  Other measures include guidelines to prevent conflict of interest on one hand and repercussions on the career of staff that have issued candid evaluations on the other.  All of these measures safeguard candid reporting to hold the institution accountable.  In short: structural and intellectual independence is a necessary condition for accountability. 

During my more than 20 years as evaluator, I have never struggled to reconcile accountability and learning, which are the central two objectives of evaluation. They are for me two sides of the same coin: accounting for what happened during implementation when working towards achieving the plans set out in a project design is the source for learning about the replication of success and avoidance of unnecessary mistakes on that journey to realize expected outcomes.  In evaluation we do not aim to “learn in the abstract” or test theoretical concepts, but learn about what happened and why during the process of implementing a policy, strategy, program, or project.

Arriving in IEG in October 2011, I thought that independence, accountability and learning would not be a “hot topic” simply because IEG has been independent for so long.  But, the issue is well alive, especially as we raised the bar on rebalancing our function that is currently perceived to be primarily focused on accountability with the learning objectives of our profession.  Can we overcome the hurdle that independence seems to create to reach out for greater learning?  My many years of practice as evaluator tells me “yes” and IEG’s recent strides – an expansion of learning products in our work program, joint events with regions and sector boards to share evaluation findings as operational colleagues discuss new solutions, and piloting a range of media for sharing lessons, to name just a few – are proof that we can do so, and without compromising independence or our responsibility for accountability.