From monitoring goals to systems-informed evaluation: Insights from SDG14

This briefing paper from IIED argues that if the world is going to make significant progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, development actors will need to think and work in new ways, including in evaluation.

Crucially, it contends that complex systems-informed approaches can make a major contribution.

With reference to SDG14 (life below water), this briefing offers two examples: (i) exploring interactions between SDG targets and (ii) shifting attention from projects and programmes to systems. Such approaches can help all development actors — including monitoring, evaluation and learning specialists — to create boundary-spanning development and evaluation plans, identify leverage points, priorities and trade-offs, and reveal new ways to accelerate progress.

This resource and the following information was contributed by Alice Macfarlan.

Authors and their affiliation

Zenda Ofir is a Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, former president of the African Evaluation Association (AfrEA), IDEAS vice-president and honorary professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Gerald Singh is Nippon Foundation Senior Nereus Fellow.

Emilie Beauchamp is the MEL advisor (climate & environment) in IIED’s Strategy and Learning Group.

Dorothy Lucks is co-chair of EVALSDGs, IOCE board secretary, EvalPartners Executive Committee member and executive director of SDF Global.

Stefano D’Errico is the monitoring evaluation and learning lead at IIED.

Kassem El-Saddick is vice-chair of EVALSDGs and a member of the Evaluators Middle East and North Africa network (EvalMENA).

Key features

This brief focuses on the example of SDG14: Life under water to outline how systems informed evaluation can contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The authors highlight two complex systems-informed approaches that can be used in the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of efforts to achieve SDG14:

1. Working with the interactions between the SDGs to improve planning, monitoring and evaluation
2. Shifting (at least some) attention from projects and programmes to systems

The main messages of the brief include:

  • "Development actors will maximise their chances of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 14 (life
    below water) if they integrate complex systems theory into their planning, implementation and evaluation processes.
  • By mapping and evaluating the way SDG14 interacts with other development goals, decision makers will be better placed to prioritise, make trade-offs, manage risks and enable synergistic effects. 
  • Development actors planning and evaluating progress in achieving SDG14 should think less in terms of specific projects and programmes, and more in terms of the systems they are trying to influence. 
  • The large-scale transformational change needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals will require alignment between change agents who share a systems perspective."

How have you used or intend on using this resource?

While targeted at those working towards the achievement of SDGs, this document will be useful for anyone looking for a brief overview of systems-thinking and how to address complex, global and local issues. In particular, the document offers examples and discussion of how systems thinking can help to identify key priorities for action, determine trade-offs to define priorities and help manage risk, identify leverage points, and enable synergistic effects.

Why would you recommend it to other people?

Apart from being a just a useful overview of how complex systems thinking can be used to help achieve the SDGs, this brief is also a call to arms for development and evaluation practitioners to "'scale deep'  — experiment with new approaches that respect different values and contexts, yet are sufficiently aligned to deliver mutually reinforcing effects". Though the authors acknowledge that this won't be without effort, they argue that "this more expanded vision of planning and evaluation could be one of the keys to unlocking truly transformational change", and I feel this is a message that's really worth sharing.


Ofir, Z., Singh, G., Beauchamp, E. Lucks, D. D'Errico, S. and El-Saddik, K. (2016). From monitoring goals to systems-informed evaluation: insights from SDG14. IIED Briefing, March 2019. IIED. Retrieved from: