EPE Week: Anna Williams on The False Dichotomy Between “Environmental” and “Social”

Hi. I am Anna Williams, a Senior Associate at Ross & Associates Environmental Consulting in Seattle, Washington. I have devoted the past 20 years to solving complex environmental-social issues. I use the words “environmental-social” here intentionally: Fundamentally both “environmental” and “social” challenges – and their solutions – are the same.

An independent evaluation I conducted for the US Environmental Protection Agency illustrates this point in two ways. The evaluation focused on a global voluntary effort to eliminate lead from fuel, the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles. Ten years ago over 100 countries still added lead to their fuel: today only six still do and they will likely (finally) be “unleaded” by 2013.

Adding lead to fuel caused a preventable public health catastrophe, cutting short more than a million lives each year, roughly the same number as die from malaria. Eliminating lead saves not only lives, but also over $2 trillion annually. (See Tsai and Hatfield, “Global Benefits from the Phaseout of Leaded Fuel” Journal of Environmental Health. December 2011.)

The Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles utilizes strategies that apply across geographies and sectors. Its design strengths apply to other multi-stakeholder voluntary partnerships aimed at social change. (See: http://www.epa.gov/evaluate/pdf/pcfv-eval-design-principles.pdf) The lessons and insights were not environmental, per se.

For the past three years, I have evaluated policy advocacy efforts aimed at preventing global climate change. The data are compelling: climate change poses a profound human challenge which will worsen over time. Unless we rapidly curb global emissions of greenhouse gases, hundreds of millions of people will be affected by extreme weather events, reduced water supplies, failing crop yields, increased malnutrition, growing public health threats (e.g., vector-borne diseases), and economic instability. Those least responsible – and the most vulnerable – will be affected the most.

Thankfully, philanthropies, social service organizations, and public health agencies are coming to recognize these interconnections. They are starting to work together on prevention and adaptation. Evaluation across sectors, geographies, and traditions can play an important role in averting and addressing this global challenge.

Lesson learned: “Environmental” evaluation, including the issues, methods, and insights gained, is not “different.” We are all in this together and we can learn from each other.

Rad Resource: www.climate-eval.org, an online platform of the climate evaluation community of practice

Rad Resource: Climate and Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Rad Resource: Climate Change and Human Health from the World Health Organization

Rad Resource: Climate Change Department from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Environmental Program Evaluation Week with our colleagues in AEA’s Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our EPE TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

4 thoughts on “EPE Week: Anna Williams on The False Dichotomy Between “Environmental” and “Social””

  1. Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Government Order No. Not if you know how to restore all of this information from a backup copy. Placing fire extinguishers on every floor is another good fire prevention step to take along with one in the kitchen.

  2. Lovely contribution to the conversation Ana. Thank you for the putting down what you’ve obviously been thinking about a lot. I hope that many folks read your contribution. I’ll tweet it via the EEN twitter feed and post a link to the EEN linkedin group.

    That EE is not “different” from other types of evaluation is something I’ve thought about a bit and spent time looking in other places to understand how other areas (disciplines and subdisciplines) of work and study deal with these issues. A couple thoughts (and I can think of exceptions to each point I make here! darn the complexity): in disciplines that focus on instruction, dealing with convergent problems, like engineering or chemistry perhaps, where there may be a finite solution (a finish line) and evidence is gained through experimentation, drawing distinct boundaries between disciplines can be important. That is, you don’t want a chemical engineer designing your bridge or the civil engineer designing your clothing or medication…unless you are feeling particularly adventurous.

    However, where disciplines are about description and are intended to help humanity grapple with divergent problems, like the humanities for instance, where there is not a finite solution (infinite game, many solutions depending on context, no end point or finish line) because issues involve multiple value systems and their interactions, impermeable boundaries between disciplines (and ‘sub’ disciplines) are less important and perhaps totally impossible to ever accept. In most cases its both important to both recognize and acknowledge the uniqueness between (to get the deep issue specific knowledge and experience for instance) areas of specialization and also know, as you say, that we’re all a part of the same issues/challenges/system/civilization…

    Evaluation deals with both types of problems (convergent, divergent – EF Schumacher) and often at the same time. As such I think that environmental evaluation, as one instance amongst other evaluation sub-disciplines, is sometimes “different”, sometimes not and everywhere in between and often at the same time.

    Thanks again for the thoughts to get me thinking; I’d love to continue the conversation…I’m up 24/7 anyway with the new infant on the premises. See you in July in DC I hope at the EEN Forum Unconference July 17-19. Matt

    1. Hello Matt! I just saw your message here – not sure why I didn’t catch it earlier. Thanks for your thoughtful reply! Yes, I’ll be at EEN and will see you then. Hope you are getting some sleep these days!


  3. Interesting post! Excellent points about the need to look across sectors in developing solutions to complex, inter-related policy issues. A similar theme arose at a 2010 expert summit on issues affecting family caregivers and paid caregivers supporting older people and people with disabilities living at home. The discussions emphasized the advantages of addressing issues in a more coordinated fashion for all types of caregivers. Another major theme was the inter-relatedness of programs and services benefiting caregivers and those benefiting people receiving services.


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