As we move into Autumn in the UK, the party conference season is rapidly approaching. All the major political parties will be laying out their stalls for the 2010 General Election. The main topic will be spending cuts. The battle grounds will not be whether they will have to be made (they will if we are to reduce deficits and not store up pressure on interest rates), but how fast and on what? Despite the pledges to maintain the 0.7% pledge (see earlier posts), aid will come under pressure.
I see three major questions being debated right now--all signalling this pressure.
1. What does successful aid spending look like?
2. How do we better assess the impact of aid?
3. When should we get out of aid altogether?
On the first, the UK public is largely supportive of the principle of aid in emergencies, but beyond that the consensus is fragile. Some work we are doing at IDS with the Mass Observation facility at the University of Sussex suggests that the public has a weak picture of what successes in aid look like. DFID has been urged by the International Development Committee to do more to communicate the many good things that come from aid and to not hide the outcomes when things do not work (development is riddled with risks and uncertainty just like any endeavour). The report released last week, Fake Aid, by the International Policy Network (funded by private individuals, businesses and foundations) takes a swipe at DFID's communication efforts. The report is riddled with fundamental errors, but will be taken seriously by some (and you should know that about 45% of IDS activity is funded by various DFID projects).
On the second, there is a lively debate on how to assess the impact of aid in projectised, programme and budget support modes. Budget support channels resources through existing recipient government structures, allowing recipients to pool resources and strengthen their fundamental systems, but it does make it more difficult to demonstrate impact of that aid. See Riddell's 2007 book on this.
On the third, there are the debates about when and how countries should exit from aid, exemplified by Moyo's Dead Aid.
All of these debates would be informed by stronger client-based reporting on whether aid is working. What do users of nutrition centers in India think of the services they are receiving? Are they good quality? are they delivered on time, in the right place, and in a respectful way? (next week I will be blogging from Delhi on these issues). What do farmers in Africa think of large agriculture projects that are supposed to serve them? Do they ask farmers to take on too much risk? Are they gender sensitive? Do they improve the things that farmers care most about?
More client based reporting would generate visions of success (and failure), help develop better measurement systems, and tell us much about when and where aid should be exited from.