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. This is so that decision-making can take into account the potential and actual impacts of planned interventions (projects, programs, policies) on the environment. 

Why footprint evaluation is needed

The world is faced with numerous environmental crises with potential for global catastrophe, including climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and deforestation.  In order to address, mitigate and avoid these, it is essential that decision-making takes into account the potential and actual environmental impacts of planned interventions, and that evaluations of interventions provide this information.  However, although the OECD-DAC evaluation criteria including 'significant environmental impacts' in the scope of impact evaluation,  most evaluation usually fails to do so, and specialist environmental evaluation often focuses on narrow technical questions rather than using evaluation concepts, processes and methods to answer evaluative questions in ways that can support improved decision-making.

Improving evaluations to be able to include ‘footprint evaluation’ will require a combination of supply (more people who can do this), demand (more people asking for this in evaluations) and enabling environments (setting up systems to provide incentives, opportunities and capacities to do this). 

Other relevant approaches and interventions

Footprint evaluation complements other cross-cutting initiatives in evaluation which address related issues – including Blue Marble Evaluation, which focuses on evaluating global systems change initiatives, and Transforming Evaluation, which looks at a range of ways evaluation needs to be transformed to support the transformations needed to reach SDGs.  

Footprint evaluation can also leverage and connect with other work being done in the environmental evaluation space, such as the Environmental Social Governance indicators in impact investing.

Learning how to evaluate the potential or actual footprint of an intervention

We are exploring footprint evaluation in terms of three learning questions:

  1. How can evaluators include consideration of natural systems/environmental sustainability in all evaluations?  This will involve identifying methods, processes and conceptual models that can be used to address technical and organisational challenges.

  2. What will help and hinder evaluators to do this?  This may include leveraging existing resources, processes, imperatives and incentives, and addressing constraints, barriers and opposing forces.

  3. How can evaluators, and those who plan and manage evaluations,  be better able to address natural systems in evaluation? This will examine the different types of capacity strengthening activities and resources that will be needed to support these efforts.

We are also trialling a new model for building and sharing knowledge about better evaluation practice.  Instead of building knowledge (or producing a guide) and then training people to follow the procedures, this will involve working with and reflecting on innovative practice and supporting peer learning for adaptation and translation to new settings. We will be working through a series of case studies - retrospective 'thought experiments' of what might have been done in a number of completed evaluations, and concurrent evaluations where an experienced evaluator participant observer will document what is done by the evaluation innovator who is adding the environmental sustainability lens to the evaluation. We will also be engaging with individual and organisational thought partners throughout.

This thematic page is a work in progress and we will be sharing more resources and examples here.  Please feel free to use the comments section below to add suggestions for resources or other organisations and events relevant to footprint evaluation.



Memorial Day Week: Sustainability-Ready Evaluation by Andy Rowe: In this AEA365 bolog, Andy Rowe argues that human system interventions have direct effects on the natural system; ignoring these direct effects causes evaluation to have a systematic and positive bias.

Discussion papers

Sustainability‐Ready Evaluation: A Call to Action: To facilitate the development of sustainability‐ready evaluation, this paper by Andy Rowe provides an initial checklist and references to useful resources.

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


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