Introducing footprint evaluation

Patricia Rogers's picture 30th October 2020 by Patricia Rogers

Given the numerous interconnected environmental crises the world faces – including climate change, deforestation, biodiversity, air, water and soil quality – there is an urgent need to include consideration of environmental impacts into all evaluations. 

However current evaluation practice and training of evaluators do not usually include attention to environmental impacts unless these are stated objectives, nor do evaluation teams usually include both people with expertise in systematic evaluative investigation and reporting, as well as expertise in natural systems.

The consequence of this is that decision making in government, non-government and private sector organisations do not take into account the potential and actual environmental impacts of planned interventions (projects, programs, policies) and there is little accountability for these impacts. For example, a recent report found that in 2019 the world’s largest investment banks provided more than $2.6tn (£1.9tn) of financing linked to the destruction of ecosystems and wildlife.

Enter footprint evaluation

Footprint evaluation focuses on evaluating the ‘footprint’ that human systems make on natural systems. Importantly, it includes evaluating the potential and actual environmental impacts of interventions that do not have explicit environmental objectives.

For example, a new justice policy with mandated minimum custodial sentences which leads to increased numbers of prisoners, and construction of new prisons to accommodate them, has the potential to lead to negative environmental impacts, depending on how and where these are built. These impacts could include a loss of habitat for wildlife and reduced biodiversity, increased water run-off and pollution due to hard surfaces, increased emissions from construction and use of concrete, and increased emissions from increased use of private transport by staff and visitors. In contrast, a program that seeks to reduce incarceration, by changing sentencing requirements or reducing re-offending, could potentially avoid these negative impacts.

Footprint evaluation complements other work being done to improve the ability of evaluation and evaluators to address environmental sustainability issues. For example, Blue Marble Evaluation, developed by Michael Quinn Patton, focuses on evaluating global initiatives aimed at transforming systems towards a more sustainable world. Others are looking at ways of transforming evaluation practice in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, which include environmental goals, including the papers by Gerald Singh and others which Zenda Ofir has summarised here.

Footprint evaluation focuses on a specific challenge: how to mainstream consideration of environmental impacts into non-environmental projects.

What next?

BetterEvaluation is leading an international collaboration to explore methods and processes that might be used and what could support or hinder applying them. 

We will be trialling a new model for building and sharing knowledge about better evaluation practice, involving a combination of applied case studies and reflection with individual and organisational thought partners.

As part of this collaboration, we have developed a new thematic area on the BetterEvaluation knowledge platform to share resources and emerging insights. You can check out an early version of the new page here – and if you’d like to stay up to date with this project you can sign up here.

View the new footprint thematic page

Footprint evaluation

Footprint evaluation focuses on the ‘footprint’ that human systems make on natural systems. This requires attention to the nexus between human systems and natural systems. Footprint evaluation is grounded in the premise that all evaluations should include consideration of environmental sustainability, even when this is not a stated goal of the intervention. Read more.

A special thanks to this page's contributors
Director, ARCeconomics.
Vancouver Island, Canada.
Founder and Owner, Real Evaluation LLC (now based in Seattle).
Seattle, United States of America.
South Africa.
Founder and former-CEO, BetterEvaluation.
BetterEvaluation Knowledge Platform Manager, BetterEvaluation.
Melbourne, Australia.


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