13 August 2009

Customer-Driven Aid?

Two recent publications pick up on the themes from my previous blog (Data Mining and Homer Simpson) around accountability to donor country taxpayers and the intended beneficiaries of aid--citizens of recipient countries. The reports are the Conservative Party’s new Green Paper on international development and Aid Under Pressure a report from the watchdog for DFID, the UK’s House of Commons International Development Committee (IDC) chaired by Malcolm Bruce MP. The IDC’s report is well written and wide-ranging. The parts that caught my eye were on aid effectiveness and on public support for development. The report warns DFID of the tensions inherent in managing a growing budget with fewer staff in increasingly fragile contexts, while trying increasingly to demonstrate impact. The tendency, the report warns against, is focusing on inputs (i.e. spending) rather than outputs, outcomes and impacts. The Conservative Party report (refreshing in many ways) is unnecessarily critical about DFID under Labour on this issue.

The truth is that none of the donors are good at documenting the impacts of their spending. The canon of documented aid success stories is remarkably short, however impressive the components are: the eradication and control of smallpox, polio, measles and river blindness, progress in slowing HIV infection rates and the emergence of AIDS, increases in education enrolment rates, and farm productivity improvements in Asia. The weak documentation of impact has many causes: it is not easy to do (e.g. aid is often only one of several inputs and impacts take a while to emerge), taxpayers in rich countries have not shown much interest, and those living in poverty in the developing world have been cut out of the feedback process. But this is changing.

The downturn and the movement towards 0.7% of Gross National Income are raising the profile of spending on international development. And the Conservative Party Green Paper as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are now saying that they are looking at “innovative ways to transmit the preferences, desires, and priorities of poor people to decision makers” (Green Paper). DFID and indeed the whole development sector will come under increasing pressure to demonstrate poverty impact. The understandable temptation to accentuate the positive will need checks and balances. One set of checks is independent assessments to document the successes--and the failures. One set of balances is to innovate around ways to get customer feedback (i.e. people who are supposed to be benefitting from the interventions) into the public domain. For these changes to happen, donors are going to have to relinquish control to potentially gain more credibility and trust (and effectiveness) — a difficult calculation and a bold decision, but surely ones best made ahead of the curve rather than behind it.

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