20 October 2010

From One extreme to another?

The One Show is a popular daily news programme from BBC. Last night they had a segment on the need to "take a long hard look at how this £7 billion pot of cash (i.e. DFID) is being spent" in the context of the UK spending cuts that are planned to be announced today. The author, Julia Hartley-Brewer, was right to say we need to take a long hard look.

Unfortunately this report was not it. Admittedly it is a challenge to have a long hard look at anything in a 4 minute segment. However, there were some shortcuts available. The people who have taken a long hard look at aid could have been interviewed: people like Roger Riddell, Esther Duflo, John Gaventa, and Michael Edwards. These are the people who are generating and analysing the evidence on aid from a critical perspective. Instead we had 52 seconds of talk from the International Policy Network who are aid skeptics and only 15 seconds from Justin Forsyth Head of Save the Children UK and 24 seconds from Duncan Bannatyne, entrepreneur and UNICEF ambassador. Note the imbalance in time given to skeptics and the rest.

One of the stats highlighted by Ms. Hartley-Brewer is the 25% of DFID projects "not expected to achieve or even largely achieve their objectives". I think this refers to the March 2010 study by Conlin and Beaujean which found that "in 2008, 75% of projects were expected to achieve or largely achieve their objectives (scored 1 or 2 on a 5 point scale) scored 1 or 2 rising from 71% in 2004/2005 and 65% in 2000/01" and "improvement has been sustained while DFID has taken on riskier projects. In 2005-8, 18% of projects were considered high risk compared with 12% in the previous period, with most projects (75%) rated as medium risk."

I don't know about you, but 75% of projects that achieve or largely achieve their objectives against a backdrop of taking on increasingly risky activities looks pretty good when you consider the difficult circumstances most aid work takes place in. For some context, we know that the 3 year survival rate of new business start ups in Europe hovers below 70%, that 70% of UK government IT projects fail and that DFID along with the Department of Health are two of the best performers in Government when it comes to the quality of their data systems to track performance--a sure sign of a Department that is striving for efficiency and effectiveness.

The report also cites an IDS IDS study assessing and analysing the attitudes of the UK public to aid. The One show quotes the study by noting that “less than 50% of British people want foreign aid ring-fenced” and “more than 60% of British people want it to be cut”. For balance you should know that the study also reported that more than 6 out of 10 respondents felt that "it is our obligations as human beings to help the poor in the world" and just over half had the view that "the UK should be prepared to share at least some of its wealth with the poor in developing countries".

It was clear that this was an opinion piece from a journalist, presumably commissioned by the BBC, and in such cases the evidence is usually fitted to the position and not the other way round as is the case in good research and policymaking.

All of us in the development community need to strive be as balanced as possible about the successes and the failures of aid as the cuts land outside of the ring fence.

1 comment:

rick davies said...

As part of the drive towards increase aid effectiveness, I think we should demand more failures (explicit ones, that is). When do we want them: Now!. We need at least 10% of all development projects to be publicly acknowledged failures. For an argument on why this is the route to greater aid effectiveness, see "Do we need a Minimum Level of Failure (MLF)? at http://mandenews.blogspot.com/2010/10/do-we-need-minimal-level-of-failure-mlf.html