Understanding agricultural, natural resource management and rural development interventions.

Blue North is increasingly involved in undertaking various types of program and project evaluations within the agricultural, natural resource management and rural development space. But just where does the need for understanding project impact and performance stem from?

Although many programs are obliged to undertake evaluations at different stages of project design, implementation and upon termination, evaluation is driven by a real need to understand and improve a certain situation. Evaluations are carried out to judge the worth, merit or quality of some object (termed the evaluand e.g. a project, a program or even a change in practice or policy). The evaluation is typically conducted using criteria such as relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, sustainability, and impact. It is important to note that evaluation approaches do not only deal with understanding the overall impact of a project. Different types of evaluations can serve different purposes in the project life cycle, for example design, implementation, economic and mid-term evaluations. Important benefits of project evaluation are firstly, that it provides accountability, and secondly, that it serves as an important basis for improvement, learning, and the provision of recommendations that can guide projects.

The fields of agriculture, natural resource management and rural development are inherently complex, effected by multiple processes and actors at different scales. Understanding and assessing programs and projects within these fields thus demands an approach that can deal with complexity. At Blue North, we find it useful to consider these interlinked areas as a complex system. As an illustration of this thinking, consider a food system, which is woven together as a supply chain that operates within broader economic, biophysical, and socio-political contexts. Such a system is both complex and adaptive, composed of many heterogeneous pieces whose interactions drive system behaviour in ways that cannot easily be understood from considering the components separately. Importantly, complex systems, whether they are social, physical, or biological, tend to share a set of specific properties. Consideration of these properties and their implications from various scientific and policy perspectives has yielded important insights into system behaviour.

When we are evaluating projects and programs encompassing the food system, given its inherent complexity, we therefore need to make sure that we develop a deep understanding of the system parts as well as the emergent properties of the system itself. For example, this could include environmental disturbances caused by land owners’ decisions about management of climate, land, and water resources in addition to various socio-economic effects mediated by policy processes within the rural landscape, such as income, wealth, and distributional equity, quality of life, and worker health and well-being.

Conceptualizing food systems as complex systems therefore has a strong bearing on our thinking, both during the design of our research approach and methodology for the evaluation of specific projects, and during analysis of project impact or performance. In particular, we have used this approach to frame our thinking in the evaluation of projects and programs in the rural landscape. This includes the assessment of various projects and programs with different objectives such as the improvement of small scale farmers’ livelihoods, the sustainable transformation of the rural landscape and sustainable resource management.


Mackay, R. and Horton, D., 2003. Expanding the use of impact assessment and evaluation in agricultural research and development. Agricultural systems78(2), pp.143-165.

Committee on a Framework for Assessing the Health, Environmental, and Social Effects of the Food System: A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Food and Nutrition Board; Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources; Institute of Medicine; National Research Council; Nesheim MC, Oria M, Yih PT, editors. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2015 Jun 17.