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VOICES - ‘Just good evidence is not enough,’ says GCF’s evaluation head

The head of GCF’s newly established Independent Evaluation Unit believes knowledge sharing is essential, but not enough, to change people’s behaviour. Jyotsna Puri (Jo for short) provides her views on how to make knowledge a power for positive change.

“We now have excellent data and good technology to provide the evidence on which to base effective action to deal with climate change and other challenges,” said Ms Puri. “But we also now realise that just sharing knowledge is not enough. We need to go the ‘final mile’ in making people change their behaviour.” 

In a wide-ranging interview, Ms Puri highlighted the inadequacy of previous thinking that assumed it was sufficient to merely present the scientific evidence for climate action. “That’s passé,” she said. “We incorrectly thought that people would look at the evidence and say ‘Voila!’ I need to change behaviour. Nowhere has this naive approach been more underscored than in the inadequacy of action around climate change. To achieve real change, we need to move beyond the evidence to encourage people to take action that is both positive and long-lasting.”

Ms Puri’s interest in behavioural insights informs her current focus as head of the Independent Evaluation Unit in drawing together the twin streams of evidence-based knowledge and shared knowledge to ensure GCF is accountable for the climate finance it disburses. The independent unit was formed earlier this year to achieve two main goals.

One is to undertake high-quality and credible evidence-based evaluations of key GCF result areas. These include identifying and measuring the transformative impact of GCF activities and the extent to which GCF has contributed to catalysing a paradigm shift towards low-emission, climate-resilient pathways. The other is to enhance GCF’s ability to learn from its activities.

Ms Puri’s office works independently from the GCF Secretariat, which carries out the day to day activities of the Fund, and reports directly to the GCF Board. The independent unit is currently preparing one of its first major pieces of work, an evaluation of GCF’s readiness support programme, which enhances developing countries’ ownership of climate finance and helps prepare them to engage with GCF.

Ms Puri said the GCF Board has displayed excellent vision in establishing the independent unit at an early stage of GCF’s evolution. She added the inclusion of learning and accountability in the independent unit’s mandate displayed state of the art thinking. This follows a belief that evidence and learning are not one-off activities, and need to be built into the culture of an organization from the start. That is why evaluating performance and encouraging organisational learning lie at the heart of the Independent Evaluation Unit’s work.

Ms Puri dismissed past thinking that organisational evaluation and learning were incompatible as being outmoded. “Twenty years ago, evaluations of organisations consisted of consultants flying in and flying out – without learning much,” she said. “This is because learning requires continuous engagement, and engagement that is customized right from the beginning. Past models of ‘consultants only’ based evaluations, that were merely managed by evaluation offices, threw out institutional memory and learning. This is changing rapidly, and most respectable evaluation offices now undertake a lot of these studies internally - so that we can learn and build a culture based on providing advice.”

The other question of how to use accumulated organisational knowledge to drive transformational change addressing the climate challenge has been at the forefront of Ms Puri’s mind since she joined GCF a little under half a year ago to set up the independent unit.

Plans to create transformational change are not written on a blank script. While GCF’s use of climate finance to encourage change in developing countries provides a rich vein of organisational learning opportunities, there is also much to gain from studying the experiences of others working outside of climate change. These include organisations, such as those engaged in developmental health, as well as from pioneering ideas in psychology, economics and behavioural science.

“GCF is implicitly but squarely in the business of behavioural science, because it is constantly thinking about how to bring about deep, large scale, systemic change in climate action,” said Ms Puri. “This means that all those leading GCF activities, including GCF partners and stakeholders, need to think about how finances are being translated into on-the-ground action that is either mitigating climate change or adapting to it.” 

“Transformational change only occurs if it takes place at the grassroots. It’s incredible how much a lack of action at this level, or failure to go the ‘last mile,’ has acted as a blind spot for most multilateral agencies. Agencies that are implementing GCF-funded projects should think about how to encourage this sort of action. This will help ensure these climate change projects are truly transformative. We need to consider what has worked, and what has not worked.”

Ms Puri cited examples of community-driven development in post-conflict areas where attempts to introduce long-lasting behavioural change have mostly failed. Evidence has shown that while funds designed to reconnect riven social ties led to the building of schools and banks, persistent ethnic and religious differences meant behaviours pulling apart communities were left unresolved.

Until good quality evidence became available, most aid agencies thought community-driven development was the panacea for restoring social cohesion. “Now we know this form of development certainly has its uses, but it is not an effective way to reduce post-conflict social strife,” she said. “I hope we can learn, and learn fast, about what works for climate change action. Otherwise, just imagine the waste of resources.” 

In driving transformational change, there are also already lessons to be learnt from the general omission to date of clearly identifying trade offs between adopting pro-environmental behaviour and supporting people’s livelihoods, added Ms Puri.

Casting ahead to the future, the independent unit’s head said she wants to do more GCF “story telling.” Describing to others how GCF is engaging across the planet to progress climate action will alleviate GCF’s relatively low-key global presence, while also highlighting what is working and what is not working in its distribution of climate finance.

The prospect of generating change has been a major driver of Ms Puri’s own career change. Before moving to the GCF headquarters in Songdo, South Korea, she worked in New Delhi as deputy executive director of the International Initiative of Impact Evaluation (3ie), an international organization which produces evidence to advise how to make international aid more effective. 

The chance to contribute to GCF’s global mandate of transitioning the globe to low-emission and climate-resilient development induced Ms Puri, who holds a doctorate in agriculture and resource economics, to come and work with the Fund. 

“Nothing like this (the GCF) has been done before, at least in my lifetime,” she said. “This is exciting. It is stimulating to think we have the opportunity to think and do things differently, so we can all be better off. I am deeply privileged to be here and to have this chance!”