This paper brings together different theoretical perspectives to propose an evaluation framework for policies which have the explicit aim to foster communities' involvement in the management of their natural environment in the context of sustainable rural development, such as the EU LEADER programme, Australia's Caring for Our Country, and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Previous policy evaluations have over-simplified the complex social-ecological systems on which these policies are intended to act, have lacked specification of the policy level they address and were predicated on the assumption that policies can be designed to produce predictable outcomes. Based on a concept of ‘complex realities’ we developed a framework to guide the evaluation of policy effectiveness in social-ecological systems. This comprehensive framework provides the conceptual and theoretical context in which individual evaluation exercises for policy review and future programme design can be embedded. It goes beyond existing frameworks by allowing the identification of factors that explain how and why a policy tool was effective. It provides a structure within which datasets from different sources, relevant stakeholders and relationships can be identified and analysed in a multi level and multi-scale context. However, we emphasise that policy makers and evaluators' mindsets would have to change to accept uncertainty and the validity of various stakeholders' perceptions and evaluations.