Single puku standing still on misty plains
Puku in mist at sunrise, Busanga Plains, Kafue National Park, Zambia. | Credit: Adobe Stock

Measuring Complexity: Evaluating the Impact of Cross-Sectoral Climate Programs

By Christina Seybolt, Sara Carlson, Rob Cohen

Cross-sectoral programs present a unique opportunity to address the multi-dimensional nature of the climate crisis. Their goal is to advance sustainable development through investments in climate change, biodiversity conservation, agriculture, health, governance, and other sectors—tackling many of the root causes of the climate crisis. USAID’s Health, Ecosystems, and Agriculture for Resilient, Thriving Societies (HEARTH) initiative aims to do just that by implementing development solutions that advance both the sustainable conservation of threatened landscapes and the well-being and prosperity of communities through partnerships with the private sector. 

Measuring the effectiveness of cross-sectoral programs can be challenging. Counterfactual impact evaluation methods, which include randomized control trials and other methods such as matching and synthetic controls, can shed light on what works, what doesn’t, and under what conditions. However, although impact evaluation is well established in fields such as health and education, it is still relatively rare in climate change programming. To date, few climate programs embed counterfactual methods into their activity design or implementation, resulting in programs that are implemented time and again without harnessing potential learning opportunities.


Aerial view of Kafue National Park with river, savanna, and forest areas.
Aerial view of Kafue National Park with river, savanna, and forest areas.

To successfully address the climate crisis, we must continuously learn and adapt to improve program effectiveness. Occasionally, programs do not achieve their intended objectives or, worse, have unintended negative consequences. Take, for instance, the prevailing theory that increasing agricultural productivity can reduce deforestation by producing more crops with less resources. Recent evidence finds that in regions where it’s more cost-effective to expand production by utilizing land rather than other resources, increased yields can actually lead to higher deforestation rates through the use of more land relative to other inputs.

While there are challenges to conducting rigorous impact evaluations for cross-sectoral programs—ranging from long time horizons for priority outcomes to clustered interventions and large spatial scales—it is possible to adapt evaluation designs to overcome these challenges. 

HEARTH is demonstrating how to surpass these obstacles by conducting impact evaluations and supporting robust monitoring systems across its portfolio. In line with the HEARTH Learning Agenda, this support will help answer important learning questions at the core of HEARTH’s theory of change regarding under what conditions cross-sectoral programming improves the well-being and prosperity of communities, changes conservation attitudes and behaviors, reduces threats to biodiversity and carbon-rich ecosystems, and ultimately leads to sustained benefits for humans and nature. 

This process includes conducting evaluation feasibility assessments, which explore in detail the evaluation design challenges and solutions for each USAID activity. For example, HEARTH is currently conducting a mixed-methods evaluation of the Eastern Kafue Nature Alliance (EKNA) Activity in Zambia. From baseline data, the team has already uncovered crucial linkages that are essential for addressing the climate crisis. For example, more than one third of farmers self-reported clearing an average of one hectare of virgin land in the past 12 months. Importantly, the same proportion plan on clearing the same amount of land in the next year. 

When asked why, farmers stated their primary motivations were to grow more crops to feed their families, suggesting it will be challenging to reduce land clearing and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions while households struggle to meet their basic needs. This was further emphasized by findings of low dietary diversity among women and high food insecurity across the project area. Overall, these findings point to the importance of addressing food security before expecting to see behavior change around deforestation in this context. They also highlight the importance of taking into consideration the complete needs of communities, which might be missed when only approaching a development challenge from a single sector. 

Cross-sectoral programming can be a powerful way to address the climate crisis. More rigorous evaluations will ensure we learn which approaches are most effective. By embracing collaboration, complexity, and flexibility, the development community can overcome challenges to successful and effective cross-sectoral climate programs.

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration, Mitigation
Agriculture, Climate-Resilient Agriculture, Biodiversity Conservation, Climate Change Integration, Deforestation and Commodity Production, Food Security, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, Land Use, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning, Natural Climate Solutions, Systems Change

Christina Seybolt

Christina Seybolt is a Senior Technical Specialist in Evaluation, Research, and Analytics at Social Impact, with over 10 years of experience conducting mixed-methods research and impact evaluations. She provides management and technical leadership on a diverse portfolio of evaluations, focusing on the intersection of conservation, natural resource management, and land rights. She holds a Master of Urban Planning with a specialization in International Development Planning from New York University.

Sara Carlson

Sara Carlson is a Senior Biodiversity Advisor at USAID in the Biodiversity Division, where she has worked since 2012. She leads efforts to integrate scientific research and evidence throughout USAID’s biodiversity programming, with a focus on bridging the “research-implementation gap.” Sara’s work at USAID also focuses on the linkages between food security and biodiversity conservation and how to design development programs and policies that conserve nature while supporting the food security and nutrition of the people who depend on it. A plant evolutionary biologist by training, Sara holds a PhD from Yale University in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Rob Cohen

Rob Cohen is a board-certified preventive medicine physician who serves as a Senior Data Scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Global Health (GH) Front Office. Rob joined USAID in 2016 as a Senior Monitoring & Evaluation Advisor for Maternal and Child Health (MCHN). Since then, he has served GH in a variety of roles, first in MCHN, then in the Front Office as Acting Deputy Chief of Staff, and as a Senior Epidemiologist on the COVID-19 Response Team. Rob currently helps coordinate USAID’s HEARTH program. Before joining USAID, Rob served five years active duty in the Army, including a deployment to Kuwait and Iraq in 2015. He has also consulted for WHO and the World Bank. He has co-authored 14 scientific papers, and is working on re-submitting a paper now on the origins of Ebolaviruses.

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