Producing meaningful global impact numbers: Can the SDGs help?

by 24th Sep 2019
Members of a Village Savings and Loan Association in Guatemala Members of a Village Savings and Loan Association in Guatemala

By Jay Goulden and Sofia Sprechmann

Virtually all international NGOs count how many people their programmes help: CARE does, and in 2018, our programmes reached nearly 56 million people. But while these numbers help give some sense of the scale of our work, they don’t help either ourselves or others understand the real difference this work is making in the lives of poor and marginalised people. For that, we need to measure the change in the lives of the people for whom we work.

We refer to these as impacts – the significant and measurable changes in well-being, such as reduced poverty or food insecurity or experience of gender-based violence (GBV) – or outcomes – changes in individual behaviours or structures, such as small-scale farmers adopting climate-resilient agricultural practices, or women accessing financial services, or couples changing their attitudes on whether it is ever justified for a husband to beat his wife. A project can reach people, but not necessarily lead to measurable change: farmers may choose not to apply techniques they have learned, men or women may not change their attitudes, or children reached by a nutrition project may not overcome stunting or food insecurity.

Over the last five years, CARE has developed a system to understand the total impact that we are contributing to across the world. Developed in 2014, as we adopted a new Program Strategy, this system was initially set up to measure if we were meeting the global targets we had set ourselves. Since 2015, we have aligned our global impact measurement system for this Strategy with the SDG indicators. Rather than choosing our own measures of change, we have as far as possible adopted the indicators that others – governments, donors, and increasingly NGOs and the private sector – are using, as we collectively aim to accelerate progress towards the world of dignity, equality and sustainability that the global community outlined in the SDG Declaration.

CARE’s newly released SDG Impact Report outlines the contributions that CARE and our partners have made towards the SDGs over the last five years: positive change in the lives of 45.8 million people in 74 countries. 70% of these are women and girls, reflecting our focus on gender equality and women’s voice in all our work. The report draws on data from over 700 projects around the world, supported by governments, foundations, multilateral agencies, private sector donors, and individual supporters. We prefer to talk about our contribution to change, rather than claiming CARE’s work alone led to any given change (or “attribution”), because we recognise that that there are always many other stakeholders (communities, governments, NGOs, private sector, etc.) contributing to change in the dynamic and complex contexts in which we work.

The report summarises the main changes our work has contributed to, in relation to eight of the SDGs where we have data so far. For each goal, we outline the main SDG targets we contribute towards, our total impact and outcome numbers, and some examples of projects and the changes they have helped create. For those interested in further details, the report includes links to our publicly available external evaluation documents that are the basis for the figures in the report.

Some of the highlights of our contribution to SDGs are:

  • SDG 1: No Poverty – Enabling over 2.3 million women and men, girls and boys, in 16 countries, to get out of poverty or improve their access to basic services.
  • SDG 2: Zero Hunger – Helping nearly 5.9 million people to increase their food and nutrition security, across 23 countries.
  • SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being – Supporting close to 15.2 million women to exercise their rights to sexual, reproductive and maternal health, across 27 countries.
  • SDG 5: Gender Equality – Helping nearly 5.3 million women and girls to increase their levels of empowerment or equality, or to exercise their right to a life free from violence, across 57 countries.
  • SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth – Enabling nearly 6.1 million people to increase their economic empowerment, across 55 countries.
  • SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities – Providing quality humanitarian assistance for nearly 14.5 million disaster/crisis-affected women and men, girls and boys, in 41 countries.
  • SDG 13: Climate Action – Enabling, in a context of climate change, increased resilience or reduced vulnerability for nearly 5.1 million women and men, girls and boys, in 32 countries.
  • SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions – Supporting increased participation or positive influencing on policies, programmes and budgets for nearly 1.3 million women and men, girls and boys, in 35 countries.

As well as enabling CARE to report against the targets we set ourselves, there are three important benefits from aligning with the SDGs:

1. To influence

Having evidence that speaks to the priorities of others is critical for being able to use our work to support more systemic change, at greater scale. We can show governments and other stakeholders how the strategies promoted by CARE and our partners can lead to the changes that they also want to see in their countries. For example, women’s empowerment, better production and coordination with government can help reduce stunting and food insecurity in Bangladesh for those poor and extreme populations who are most at risk of being left behind. We can use such evidence to support the government’s new national nutrition plan.

2. To have a coherent global story

We no longer have to try to make sense of over 300 different measures of change across our food and nutrition security or GBV projects, say, but have a shared set of measures of change that projects in different contexts are contributing towards. Individual projects still have their own specific indicators, agreed with their donors, partners or governments, but they also can use common ways of telling the story of the change they are working towards as similar work in other countries. CARE can now present a global picture of our work and its impact.

3. To learn and improve

Perhaps most importantly, it also allows us to delve behind these global numbers, and understand better what types of strategies are working most effectively in different contexts to contribute to specific types of impacts. What works best to change attitudes to intimate partner violence or to reduce GBV, for example. Identifying this learning and applying that in ongoing and new programmes should lead to increased impact in the future.

Moving from a story of reach to one of both reach and impact has not been a simple or easy journey, but it is one we think has been well worthwhile, and is already helping increase the relevance and quality of our work. Aligning with the SDGs has provided the common narrative and framework to help us generate global numbers with real meaning and use. As the global community comes together in New York this week for the SDG summit to review progress towards these collective goals that we are all working towards, we would like to encourage others to do the same.

By Jay Goulden, Head of Knowledge Management and Learning for CARE International, and Sofia Sprechmann, Program Director for CARE International.

Jay Goulden

I joined CARE nearly 20 years ago, in 1999, and have worked managing and leading programs in the UK, Peru and Zambia, and now in the Programmes Team of the International Secretariat. Working from home in the UK, my current role is to support CARE’s teams around the world in generating, sharing and applying knowledge and learning. I coordinate CARE’s efforts to quantify and analyse our global evidence base, towards the global targets for impact we have set ourselves in CARE’s 2020 Program Strategy. But I’m particularly interested in drawing out the learning behind these impact numbers, so as to identify good practices and lessons to be incorporated into our global, regional and country programming strategies. Before working with CARE, I worked with social movements and local NGOs in Central America, and international development and conflict resolution NGOs in the UK.

Email: goulden@careinternational

Twitter: @JayGoulden