In his reminiscences on the origins of independent evaluation, Mervyn Weiner, the first to hold the title Director General of an independent evaluation unit, describes a Board meeting in the early 1970s. This was a period of major transformation as the World Bank shifted away from large infrastructure projects to focus on poverty. The Board was discussing a proposed program of investments in agriculture and rural development, when an Executive Director asked how they would know if the projects were worthwhile after they had been implemented.

On July 1, 1973, then World Bank president Robert McNamara announced a refinement to the nascent evaluation function that had been established three years earlier, creating a wholly independent unit, the Operations Evaluation Department (OED). The sole focus of the unit, the antecedent to the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), would be to evaluate completed projects to provide an objective assessment of their development effectiveness, contribute to learning from experience, and as an earlier circular noted, ‘give us a degree of conviction about the impact of what we are doing which we could obtain in no other way.’

Establishing an accountability and learning ecosystem

The independence of the evaluation function was a significant innovation aimed at insulating it from influence and guaranteeing its objectivity. It has since become the model for evaluation functions at development organizations of all types. At the time, the decision was part of a broader move toward laying the foundations for an accountability ecosystem designed to answer key questions about World Bank performance and results. This also included the gradual formalization of systems of self-evaluation.

One year after the establishment of OED, a monitoring and evaluation unit was created within the Agriculture and Rural Development Department, the first of its kind. Today, every World Bank project and every country program undergo a process of self-evaluation at completion, which is then validated by IEG. This combination of self-evaluation and independent evaluation is now understood to be an essential feature of effective corporate governance, and a key characteristic of an open and accountable institution.

Looking at the bigger picture

While not the only element, independent evaluation has played a vital role within this dynamic. It has helped shift the focus from outputs to outcomes, broaden the scope of assessments to account for the combined effects of lending and non-lending activities, and to look beyond projects to understand the overall impact on the development of client countries. To provide an ever more detailed and complete picture of the results of World Bank activities, the focus of independent evaluation has also steadily expanded to include corporate policies and strategies, and their contribution to development effectiveness.

This last fiscal year alone, as part of its varied work program, IEG has completed evaluations of the early responses to the health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, IFC Additionality in middle-income countries, World Bank use of the Low-Income Country Debt Sustainability Framework, and the country programs for Morocco and Mozambique. Along with providing an objective basis for assessing progress, these evaluations were timed to inform decision making and the design of future policies, programs, and strategies.

Systems for feedback, follow up, and country ownership

In tandem with the evolution of independent evaluation, processes have been established to institutionalize the way in which lessons and recommendations from evaluations are discussed, committed to, and followed up on. Discussions of IEG reports at the Board’s Committee on Development Effectiveness provide a platform for the Board, World Bank management and IEG to reflect on findings and their related recommendations, and how they might guide future directions and contribute to better outcomes for client countries.

This process is complemented by the Management Action Record, an annual report that spells out the progress achieved on IEG recommendations. The preparation of the report provides another platform for discussions among operational teams across the World Bank on the lessons derived from past performance and how they can be integrated to improve development effectiveness. These processes are testaments to the World Bank’s commitment to accountability for results and constant learning from experience.

From its very beginning, the independent evaluation function has also focused on helping client countries establish similar processes of their own. For the very same reasons that the World Bank has invested in them, the aim has been to support countries in building the necessary capacities for evaluation as vital for effective governance, policies informed by evidence, and the monitoring of progress towards development goals. In 2020, IEG joined with partners to launch the Global Evaluation Initiative to meet the growing demand for evaluation capacity development.

Adapting evaluation for the new World Bank playbook

As the World Bank now prepares to adapt to meet new challenges, its shareholders, including both governments and people, can be confident that well developed and transparent systems exist to gather evidence from the past to inform decisions on the way forward, track progress toward objectives, and adapt to changing circumstances as needed. Yet while independent evaluation emerged during a period of transformation and has become a central feature of the accountability and learning ecosystem, it has also adapted constantly to address new questions and meet new needs.

IEG will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with a series of discussions on the evolution of independent evaluation and how it might now adapt to support the development of the new World Bank playbook.  New approaches will be needed to assess progress toward Global Public Goods, while maintaining a steady focus on the development goals of country clients. With overlapping crises threatening to derail progress, support for building client country capacities for decisions informed by evidence will become increasingly important.

Save the date for a first event on September 14 in the Preston Auditorium! We look forward to your thoughts on harnessing the lessons from the past to inform future directions.



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