Toward evidence-informed policies for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

| August 4, 2015

So, 2015 has arrived and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are to be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But shouldn’t we stop and ask how we have done on the MDGs first? “How we have done” can be seen an outcome monitoring question: have the targets been reached? But since we have fallen far short on some targets, such as access to improved sanitation, we need to dig deeper and ask which policies have been successful in helping achieve the targets. To answer that question we should turn to evidence from systematic reviews because high-quality reviews offer us the best and soundest basis for informing our decisions.

I outline here some things we know from 3ie-funded and other reviews in recent years. This blog summarises systematic review findings from a few sectors. It is the tip of the iceberg, rather than a comprehensive summary.


Microfinance has not been the panacea for poverty reduction as was hoped. It can sometimes even be impoverishing. Attention has turned to asset transfers, particularly for the ultra-poor. But there is not yet a body of evidence on how effective these programmes are. Similarly, very large public works programmes, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in India and the Expanded Public Works Programme in South Africa are still to be sufficiently rigorously evaluated

Social protection

Cash transfers, both conditional and unconditional, have proved to be effective means of tackling poverty. Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) have also been shown to be effective in increasing school enrolments. Reviews have shown that CCTs are more effective when (1) the transfer is larger; (2) the transfer is less frequent; (3) it is for secondary rather than primary school; and (4) there is good monitoring and enforcement of the conditions for getting the transfer.



The review evidence suggests that programmes that are effective at getting children into school, such as CCTs and some health interventions, are not necessarily the same as the programmes needed to help them learn when they get there, such as learning materials, including computer assisted learning.


Water and sanitation

Access to improved water and sanitation reduces diarrhoea, which in turn lowers infant and child mortality. However, provision of water supply at the community level has no health benefits as the water gets re-contaminated before use. Point-of-use water treatment can reduce child diarrhoea by 40 to 60 per cent. But ensuring sustained proper use has remained a challenge. Improved sanitation has a similarly significant effect on diarrhoea. But both initial and sustained adoption of sanitation is sometimes difficult.

Environment and agriculture

Turning to the environment, payment for environmental services programmes are increasingly common in developing countries. But they have proved to be very cost ineffective. The vast majority of the land for which payments are made would have remained forested in the absence of the payments.

Farmer field schools reduce pesticide use, while maintaining or increasing yields and hence the income of participating farmers (though not their neighbours). But they have not been able to replicate these positive effects when taken to scale.

This brief overview of selected findings from systematic reviews clearly shows that there is a growing useful, high-quality synthesised evidence base. 3ie has been playing a key role in the introduction and development of methods for high-quality systematic reviews in development because reviews, not single studies, provide a sounder base for decisions on policies and programming. Governments and development agencies would do well to start using this evidence to inform their strategies and programmes to realise the improvements we know, from our MDG experience, are needed to achieve the SDGs.

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