Changes in the global community in the past decade have brought about improvements in the standards of living for some countries and for some segments of the population in many other countries of the developing world. Primary and secondary school enrollment, notably among women, has risen considerably. Increased numbers of people have access to health and sanitation services, infant mortality has declined and life expectancy, social well-being and average per capita incomes have increased.
These positive trends are not, however, shared among all developing countries, nor even among all the population of the industrialized nations. At the global level, a significant number of the inhabitants of our planet continue to be chronically poor; nearly 35% of the adult population are still illiterate, two thirds of whom are women; 30% of school age children do not complete primary school; over 40% in the developing countries are without basic services. In most countries of sub-Saharan Africa, per capita income has dropped to the level of the 1970s. Despite the billions of dollars spent on development assistance in Africa, the success stories are limited. The failures of many development efforts to take root in countries across the globe have led to calls and actions to reassess past development activities in order to learn from their mistakes and weaknesses and correct for them accordingly in future projects.
At the same time there is a growing sense of crisis with respect to development strategies that has provoked many traditional donors to question the concept of "resource transfers". It is reflected in reduced commitment to providing international assistance to developing countries and a call for measurable evidence of development impact from programmes.
In the climate of doubt and lack of confidence about the role and results of international assistance, the value and effectiveness of traditional development programmes is seriously questioned. These doubts become more critical as donor countries face mounting domestic demands for economic support from their own disadvantaged. Development organizations, bilateral as well as multilateral, face a major challenge to demonstrate that official development assistance (ODA) to support projects and programmes in developing countries can be an effective instrument to eliminate poverty and promote self-sustaining development. This in turn directly challenges the function of evaluation to contribute to the formulation of responses to fundamental questions about the impact of technical cooperation activities and their contribution to sustainable development.
As a major actor in international development, UNDP is part of this debate and must address the issue of how to make its own contribution more relevant and effective. A large part of the support to UNDP is for strengthening the human, institutional and economic infrastructure among its partner countries to enable them to sustain their development efforts. However, as a result of its multiplicity of roles within the United Nations system, UNDP also has a diverse clientele, often with contradictory demands. In the face of this complexity, UNDP has an urgent requirement to re-examine not only its own approaches to evaluation but the critical role of evaluation itself. This must be done as part of a broader process of institutional adjustment which involves the organization to deliver better quality services to its multiple clients. The evaluation function is challenged to generate data that allows for cumulative learning which, in turn, contribute to better designed programmes, improved management of the development products and a better assessment of their impact on the poor.
The shortcomings of numerous development activities in Africa has led the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to conduct projects aimed at reassessing and reorienting the strategies that have been applied. Case studies have been carried out to learn from specific project strategies applied. One of these projects, focused on drought-prone southern Africa, will review previous approaches to rural development, proposing alternatives based on participatory, sustainable methods tailored to the region.
Contrary to a frequently expressed pessimism, or an inclination to see aid as providing ad hoc emergency relief, aid is effective in promoting long-term development and compares well with the average for complex human endeavours. Among its successes are the green revolution in India; economic growth in Korea, Thailand, Brazil and Colombia; and in all low income countries a significant decline in infant mortality and a rise of 25% in life expectancy.