30 July 2010

Resurrecting the e-word at UNICEF

Earlier this week I was invited to be on a panel designed to help stress-test UNICEF's new "equity approach" to its programming. The panel was chaired by the new Executive Director, Tony Lake.

The hypothesis that Lake and his team have advanced is that the way to improve the cost-effectiveness of their work and to accelerate progress towards the MDGs is to focus on the groups of children and women who are most deprived in terms of indicators such as under 5 mortality rates, maternal mortality and undernutrition.

Over the course of the day presentations were made by a team of UNICEF analysts, exploring this hypothesis. The team worked through several questions: when is it more expensive to reach the most deprived? Is the per-person impact of doing so larger than the impact on the less deprived? What does this translate into in terms of overall disease burdens? What do the resulting benefit-cost ratios look like?

What does a more equity focused strategy look like? The two key differences from business as usual were a greater reliance on conditional cash transfers and on community engagement. The former has proven to be one way to really reach the poorest and the latter has proven (in some narrow ways such as community lay health workers) to be effective in bringing in those previously excluded from access to quality services.

The analytical work was creative in that it pulled together different bodies of knowledge in innovative ways (the Tanahashi "bottleneck" literature (see here for an application), the marginal bottleneck for budgeting literature, and 23 systematic literature reviews on median impact effects of various interventions).

The review panel poked and prodded and helped the UNICEF team to identify weak points in the modelling, the most fragile assumptions and the narrowest evidence bases.

I can't share the results because they are preliminary (to be refined and unveiled at the MDG Summit in September), but they did challenge some of my preconceived ideas and they made me think that the equity focus can be persuasive on an instrumental as well as a values basis.

It was so refreshing to see a major UN organisation pick up the equity banner in an unapologetic manner. Tony Lake's leadership is clearly having a huge positive impact on the UNICEF staff. Based on his engaged participation in the day's discussions it is not difficult to see why.

23 July 2010

New UK aid to Afghanistan: Will it reduce poverty?

It's been trailed for so long, that the announcement of a 40% increase in UK ODA to Afghanistan over the next few years does not come as much of a surprise (the trailing has worked).

There has been some (but not as much as I had expected) negative public reaction to the DFID announcement.

The main complaint is that this new allocation will divert money away from poverty reduction. Again, this type of response has been signalled for quite some time.

So, will it? I think it is too early to pass judgement yet.

We don't yet know what the aid will be spent on, who will administer it and how it will be tracked and evaluated.

Choices in these areas will go a long way towards determining if this ODA will work for poverty reduction.

These choices matter because the relationship between poverty reduction and conflict is complex. For example, parents don't want to send their children to school and they can't go to health clinics if physical insecurity levels are high. On the other hand if increased ODA means propping up a government that has little legitimacy then fewer schools and health clinics will be built. The latter is a real worry--Foreign Policy magazine's just-released Failed States Index shows Afghanistan moving up the index to 6th, after Somalia, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe and the DRC.

Who will spend it?
Will this ODA be administered by DFID or by the Foreign Office or Defence? This is important because it will influence what it will be spent on and how it will be tracked and evaluated. I cannot find any information on who will actually administer it.

What will it be spent on?
Afghanistan's poverty and malnutrition indicators are similar to those of South Asian countries, so there are plenty of competing needs for the aid. Most of DFID's current aid spend in Afghanistan is allocated to "governance" of which a big chunk is on setting up and supporting community development councils as part of the multi donor supported National Solidarity Programme. There are also programmes to support water infrastructure, alternatives to poppy growing, job creation, and making the government more effective. There is also the objective of promoting stability and development in Helmand. It is the last category that people are worried about. Is this really going to reduce poverty and stay true to DFID's mission?

How will it be evaluated?
Transparency: The big current projects listed in DFID's project database have reassuring titles (rural development, microfinance, strengthening tax administration), but there are no projects listed with start dates in 2010, so this needs updating.
Accountability: We need to know more about what is behind the project titles, current and new. This analysis will require effort and would make for lots of interesting graduate dissertations.
Impact: Will the aid "work to get rid of extreme poverty"? The only way to assess this is to subject the new aid to the same level of scrutiny as current aid--whether or not it is administered by DFID. The new aid watchdog should be an ODA watchdog not a DFID-only watchdog.

Increasing ODA to Afghanistan--whether or not controlled by DFID--is not necessarily a bad thing for poverty reduction, but it could easily become so. We must be vigilant about ODA spending making a difference, whichever department spends it.

If we are going to have a "One HMG" (Her Majesty's Government) strategy on international development, we need one set of values and standards for guiding and evaluating it.

16 July 2010

Citizen Engagement: What is it good for?

John Gaventa and his colleagues at the Citizenship, Participation and Accountability Development Research Centre have just released a report entitled So what difference does it make? Mapping the outcomes of citizen engagement”. This is a timely report given the debates around aid accountability, impacts, and the role of citizens in the UK government’s “big society” vision.

The report is built on 10 years of DFID-supported research. It is unique in that it draws on a nonrandom sample of 100 case studies of citizen engagement from 20 countries, and maps over 800 observable effects of citizenship participation in 4 categories of outcomes: (a) construction of citizenship, (b) strengthening the practices of participation, (c) strengthening responsive and accountable states and (d) development of inclusive and cohesive societies. Effects are classified into positive and negative outcomes in these four categories.

The study finds that 75% of the citizen engagement outcomes are positive and 25% negative.

The things I liked about the study:
  • Its ambition and vision. As far as I know, no other DFID Research Centre has attempted this type of systematic case study analysis
  • It covers the more instrumental development outcomes (Did people get more access to state services and resources? Was the state more responsive and accountable? Were there new forms of collective action? Were new issues identified? For example the review points out how a campaign in Mexico led to budget reforms around maternal mortality, how South African citizens helped expand access to antiretroviral vaccines, how the urban reform movement in Brazil increased public housing and increase state capacity for urban planning)
  • But it also covers the more intrinsic outcomes (increased civic and political knowledge—which can allow more informed citizen choices, and a greater sense of agency and empowerment)
  • The authors are really careful about not simply following an established systematic review protocol—they adapt one (EPPI) to their own data, innovating as they go along
  • They create their final universe of studies in a transparent way: their initial universe is the “hundreds” of outputs produced by the Centre between 2003 and 2010. These are then put through a 4 criterion filter (does citizen engagement occur? Presence of empirical work? Original research product? English language?). The authors do not use an explicit quality criterion for weighting purposes, arguing that the “shared origins” of the cases means that this is less important (although we are never told why this should be the case—perhaps because one quality screen has already been applied by the Centre)
  • The authors take on the tensions between particularization and generalization—something usually either ignored or deemed too difficult
  • They resist the temptation to accentuate the positive outcomes of citizen engagement but also describe the negatives
But the most interesting thing…
  • They look at the distribution of outcomes by (a) country democracy type and (b) type of citizen engagement. They find that more democratic contexts do not necessarily generate more positive outcomes of citizen engagement.
  • They also find that successful outcomes in the least democratic contexts are associated with local associations and in the most democratic contexts successful outcomes are associated with social movements and campaigns.
This last point is so important, because it shows that the way engagement occurs is vital to positive outcomes. Formal participatory government spaces and social movements and campaigns are more likely to work in the UK, but they are less likely to work in Nigeria.

A step too far?

It would be interesting to take these 800 or so outcomes and begin to run some regressions on them, exploring the statistical associations between the contexts, types of citizen engagement, and different types of outcomes. For that, however, we would probably have to weight the observations in some way, and that might be pushing the data too far!

12 July 2010

Eating the Food Standards Agency

How disappointing to see that the UK Government is going to abolish the National Food Standards Agency (FSA). The closure of the FSA will inevitably shift the balance of power around the communication of food standards in favour of the food industry.

We know that unhealthy diets are a major risk factor driving the ever increasing share of the overall burden of disease accounted for by diet related chronic disease.

We also know that consumers find current labelling schemes confusing and would prefer a simpler scheme such as the one shown in the picture at the top, a scheme resisted by powerful actors within the industry.

Perhaps the FSA was ineffective, although I cannot find an independent review of it. Perhaps the Environment and Health Departments will do a better job of informing us about what we eat than the FSA, although mandates split across Departments always run the risk of being watered down.

But what strikes me most about the story is how different this approach is from that taken by the Department for International Development (DFID). DFID is establishing a new aid watchdog and is focusing more on upstream interventions with the aim of reducing poverty at its roots.

07 July 2010

The "Just Give Cash" Bandwagon

This week's Sunday Times' article New Ideas for the 21st Century column entitled (misleadingly) "Stop the aid -- it's cash that ends poverty" is a good example of the dumbing down of international development that I am seeing more and more of during these austere times. The column argues that giving cash to the poor is one of the most effective things that donors and governments can do to reduce poverty (I just realised I can't link you to it because the Times is now charging for online content).

Of course cash transfers to poor households have positive impacts on a whole range of things that we all care about such as hunger, nutrition, schooling and child labour. Why would we expect anything else? Do we seriously expect households living at the edge of survival to fritter the cash away on non-essentials? No surprises there.

The real policy issues are much more nuanced. Could this money be used more effectively for something else (e.g. strengthening the services that can be purchased)? When should co-responsibilities (see a nice series of short articles edited by Stephen Devereux on this) be attached to receipt of the money (e.g. parents seeking preventative health care for infants)? How do households graduate from such programmes without bankrupting the state? How can the cash transfers increase the household's contact points with other services ("cash plus") such as agricultural extension workers or health workers?

But the main problem with the article is that it implies that much of this can be led by the donors. It can't. There have been too many donor driven pilot schemes in sub-Saharan Africa that have not taken off due to lack of political support. The successes cited in the article have been home grown: Mexico, Brazil, South Africa. What donors can do best is to be nimble, nurturing and flexible enough to support home grown political energy for cash transfers when and where it exists. This is what donor support for cash transfers should prioritize and it is what aid more generally should seek to do.