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Maximizing project impacts through effective alignment with national SDG priorities
Part 1

John Penrose,
International Development Correspondent,

The announcement of the launch of SDGToolkit, a cloud-based SaaS for project design and portfolio management was provided in the article, "Advance notice on the SDGToolkit 2021".

Because of the large range of capabilities of this service, it has become necessary to produce a series of articles to do justice to the full range of its provisions.

Before deliving into the service provisions my exposure to the development team has resulted in a realization that the philosophy or approach by is markedly different from alternative systems. This is significant enough to justify this article as an introduction to the series.

Reading through recently issued articles and documentation, the issue of dovetailing project designs into national SDG imperatives is becoming more apparent as an important challenge.

This specific issue is covered by the OECD-DAC (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development-Development Assistance Committee) evaluation criterion of "coherence" which also includes avoiding duplication of effort by carrying out activities covered by other projects. On the other hand, SDGToolkit embeds all of the OQSI (Open Quality Standards Initiative) recommendations and in this case the criterion of "coherence" is more focused on a quality standards approach to ensuring the relevance and reliability of information and datasets used in decision analysis by project teams and portfolio managers. This includes the consideration of the implications of policies for efficient project implementation.

There is, therefore, a difference in perception and how coherence is applied, which will become more evident in this article.

In general terms, the OQSI approach is more proactive than most norms, in the sense that it recommends analytical procedures that involve a reiterative validation of data and information, through calculations and what is called negative logic; no information is accepted at face value.

The SDGToolkit is a has a particular emphasis on the design of projects.
SDGToolkit's Integrated Development Environment
Getting project designs right before committing funds is essential to avoid costly mistakes. The World Bank has estimated that agricultural projects have an average failure rate of around 40%. The UN reported in 2019 the gaps in performance in the global SDG project portfolio as rising inequality, declining sustainability and temperatures still rising. There is, therefore, a need to secure significant improvements in project design to raise their effectiveness and efficiency in addressing national priorities.

The SDGToolkit applies a strategic approach to design based on SDGToolkit's Due Diligence Design Procedure (3DP). This consists of a series of procedural steps to support decision analysis throughout the project cycle. The very first step in this procedure is the GCA-Global Constraints Analysis which has the specific objective of dovetailing project objectives and designs into national SDG objectives. The issue of avoiding duplication of effort with other projects, a part of OECD's version of coherence, is handled by SDGToolkit as part of subsequent 3DP procedures which will be covered in a following review article.

Macro and micro coherence

SDGToolkit describe their cloud-based provision as an Integrated Development Environment and this has two senses. One is that this system collects all of the information and analytical resources necessary to analyse and identify national sustainable agricultural economic development priorities. Since this analysis is a project team effort, this enhances their ability to shape their project design to address the specific identified national needs. This should result in a more effective investment in the development of feasible and successful projects.

The design steps within the due diligence procedure are divided into four groups as shown in the diagram on the right. Setup and operations are coordinated by a cloud-based oversight system that provides access to an on-demand real time monitoring and evaluation (RTME) system that provides analysis and reporting on any aspect of any record on any aspect of a project cycle for any project in a portfolio.

All of the data collected in any design or operational phase is recorded in a Project Memory, a database configured as an Accumulog, a cumulative immutable database.

The agricultural economic development environment

SDGToolkit provides resources to integrate into a single data source, cumulative information on the macroeconomic as well as the microeconomic project level imperatives. This is, however, not how this process is managed conventionally. Usually national economic development and SDG strategies are developed as a result of different ministries and, in the case of low income countries, international development organization studies, analyses and reporting.

For example, in the case of the World Bank, reports range from country focus reports including descriptions of strategic priorities and directions for lending activities. Economic and sector work reports contain in-depth background studies. Project documents including information on loan/credit related documents are released to the public according to the World Bank project cycles. These can also include legal agreements. Other reports include documents and research reports such as working papers and an informal series of work produced by departments within the World Bank Group.

In 2010, the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) of the World Bank (WB), in a report on an analysis of thousands of projects in the WB portfolio, identified the problem of atomization of records resulting from multiple departments, and sometimes organizations, contributing to the preparation of project documentation. The decade-long follow up to this IEG report, by the OQSI, a division of the George Boole Foundation, on the evolution of the international economic development project environment, identified the same issue with respect to national economic and sector work which is used to establish national strategies. The practical problem is that usually, practitioners tasked with project designs have no working relationships with those who elaborate national economic and sector analyses, strategies and policies such as macroeconomic objectives and monetary policy.

In the field of agricultural projects this is a significant state of affairs because the information required for strategic analyses, relevant to agriculture and rural communities, require a different level of detail than is commonly applied in national strategy documents. So-called, "official data" is collected for specific reasons which are not always focused on the specifics of relevance to project design. As a result there is often a lack of coherence between national strategy report details and the level of detail required by project designers.

A lack of macro and micro coherence

During the run up to the 2019 Sustainable Development Report, a Sci Dev article reported in April, 2019, that Dr. Jean-Paul Moatti, Director of IRD, a member of the expert group undertaking the Agenda 2030 evaluation, stated reported that in some cases, SDGs were going in the right direction, but not anymore. That is typically the case for inequality, sustainability and climate change mitigations. It appeared that one of the reasons we were going in the right direction was the economic crisis. Because we have not been able to really decorrelate economic growth from its negative social and environmental impacts, as soon as economic growth goes back on track, the SDGs start to go backwards, the ones going in the right direction stop.

However, it is notable that in the editing process this report did not present the state of affairs in such stark terms. However, this does not hide the fact that there are serious questions concerning the nature and relevance of macroeconomic policies, which are increasingly dominated by monetarism, and the needs of agriculture, industry and services in meeting SDG objectives.
This results in centralized government decisions on macroeconomic policies becoming established as a rigid legally-based framework while communities and projects are expected to work within the parameters imposed by such policies. This constitutional structure results in feedback to policy makers being attenuated and many opportunities to alter policies to raise agricultural sustainability are lost (see box on the left). Therefore the alignment of projects with policies as conceived in the OECD-DAC interpretation of coherence is not always an easy task. Indeed, the only way to resolve this issue is to either have national policy makers and project personnel working together or, apply the OQSI proposal to encourage national and project planners to make use of the same validated agricultural sector or project process models. Unfortunately, Agenda 2030 has no sector-specific SDGs so there is no common agricultural sector or project reference models to integrate national and project level planning.

This is why, in the context of their definition of coherence, the OQSI recommend the use of a set of specific ATs for project teams to conduct sector analyses to identify action priorities based on a detailed evaluation of national gaps and needs identified and quantified using the Global Constraints Analysis procedures. This system allows project teams to measure the impacts of policy conditions on project options as well as to provide a basis for proposing policy modifications where appropriate.

Kaufman's Organizational Elements Analysis

More than a decade before the launch of SDGs, Roger Kaufman had developed the very same concept in what he called the objectives of "Mother's Rule" (2003) as well as a series of analytical procedures to trace necessary actions from within economic units or projects through to local, community and national impacts of appropriate processes. This system known as Organizational Elements Analysis (1988), is based on a specific discipline for identifying gaps and needs. Gaps cannot be processes but rather they are deficits in a state of some indicator, such real income, or levels of availability of a needed good or service. If current processes are included as types of gap then the common mistake is to assume that more of an existing process is needed to remove the gap when, as is often the case, it is the very processes that are creating the deficits in provisions. By including processes as gaps this ends up defining the solution as more of the same processes. It is necessary to organize gaps and needs analysis as a baseline initiation point for the identification and design of alternative more effective and efficient processes as solutions. This does not detract from the fact that current processes might be adequate but this discipline tests whether or not this is the case. The removal of assumptions is a foundation of the 3DP system. A case in point is that it is becoming apparent that the macroeconomic policy frameworks which constitute an important determinant of economic processes are negatively correlated to critical SDGs so the natural analysis should be to quantify SDG gaps and then enquire as to the degree to which existing policy processes contribute to the gaps identified.

The role of negative logic in validating "official" data and assumed "strengths" and "opportunities""
SDGToolkit's IDE is placing it ahead of most SDG agricultural project cycle management systems as a result of its increasingly comprehensive design support based on sustainable macroeconomic and sustainable microeconomic analysis coherence

There has been a trend amongst national and union statistical agencies, such as EUROSTAT, to encourage users of statistical series to make use of official data collected for a range of reasons by government together with national statistical series for general use. This has resulted in the development of data warehouses and a range if analytical applications. This has given rise to inaccuracies and misleading correlations. This because although nominally "relevant" variables are available in these datasets, the data was often collected for a specific purpose and is of little utility for more detailed applications. For example, much of the economic performance data collected accounts statistics for taxation purposes is often intentionally distorted by respondents to avoid specific types of liability, such as tax. As a result many such "official" data series are unreliable.

Turning to such strategic evaluation procedures as SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) these can be rendered less effective by strengths and opportunities being confused for processes that a team consider to be carried out well, before identifying the cause of gaps. Like the Theory of Change (TOC) analysis, SWOT analysis is highly dependent upon the size and practical experience of groups carrying out the analysis.

The complexity of the agricultural challenges under climate change and in the SDG environment, require a detailed guidance concerning all of the factors that need to be considered. It is rare for teams to identify all requirements. Specialized human resources are expensive and as a result teams have a tendency to be limited in size resulting in limitations of a team's shared experience. Besides identifying critical factors, it is also necessary to provide teams with the required analytical procedures to complete each step. SDGToolkit provides both of these types of support in the form of the 3DP to ensure that all factors are given due consideration as well as placing into the hands of project teams a large range of appropriate ATs to do the job to a very high standard.

To avoid presumptive interpretations or over-reliance on "official" data and the "word" of experts, all of the 3DP procedure submits all factors to a rigorous assessment to find out if they in fact contribute to, or help reduce, gaps as well as to identify the most promising actions to close aspects of gaps attributable to the factors under consideration. This "negative logic" has the result of generating very objective and balanced appreciation and understanding of the relative effectiveness and efficiency of project options and to avoid over-ambitious or under-ambitious proposals, both of which will have lower than potential sustainable development impacts.

ATs come with the package

Users of SDGToolkit do not have to bother with an AT-store and downloads. The service adds all new ATs to the library for users at no additional cost. Each each one fully integrated into the IDE and dialogs are updated to include the new AT menu items.

Currently, there are over 80 ATs and there is a list of proposed ATs of around 200 items under development at SEEL-Systems Engineering Economics Lab which as a specialized unit, the Analytical Tools Development Centre, created in 2020 to service SDGToolkit requirements. This unit is a source of leading-edge innovations in digital logic applied to agricutural decision analysis.

Posted: 20210803
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