Last week the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords published its report of an enquiry into the economic impact and effectiveness of development aid. The headline recommendation was to abandon the 0.7 per cent GNP target for aid. The Committee concluded that increasing the spend has undermined quality. I tend to agree. There is a disincentive to fund the relatively low cost interventions through small grants and technical co-operation assistance that may have disproportionately significant impacts. And the pressure to spend may distract from the construction of the effective relationships necessary for sustainable poverty reduction. When I was first working in the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in the late 1980’s a reduction in the aid budget certainly did improve the quality of the programme; we had time to build relationships and think about how we went about our work. However, cutting staff puts this in peril. The House of Lords got this one right when warning about the risk to quality of such cuts.
But the main problem has been DFID’s response to the Daily Mail newspaper and the rights wing of the Conservative Party in defending their increased budget at a time of general cuts. Ministers are seriously undermining DFID’s potential to support equitable and sustainable development. The drive to demonstrate to the British taxpayer how every penny is spent ironically risks these pennies being ill-spent just because the donor is trying to be in control. Here are four lessons about effective aid that both DFID and the House of Lords appear to have over-looked.
Support from international agencies is more likely to be effective when harnessed to already initiated, locally-owned processes.
Findings from the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Research Consortium (Pathways) illustrate this point. Women’s political organising is key to securing government policies and private sector practices that make a difference to women’s lives. Today, however, by insisting on time-bound and pre-set objectives which treat such women’s organisations as contractors rather than innovators, donors are putting at risk their own gender equality objectives. DFID and other donors must realise that social change is contested and messy, requiring aid agencies to be flexible and responsive to rapidly changing local contexts. They should not seek to be in control of the agenda.
Value for Money means designing and adapting interventions that reap long term and sustainable development dividends.
Investing in mutually satisfactory relationships with partners makes possible the establishment and implementation of integrated financial and programmatic monitoring, evaluation and learning processes that enable all involved together to review progress and consider the value for money being achieved. Ensuring that budgets reflect the real costs of an intervention thus means including what is required to implement an adaptive learning strategy within supportive relationships with partners, characterized by respect, solidarity, responsiveness and helpfulness. For more about value for money, go to the Big Push Forward.
Modesty makes aid more effective.
Women’s rights organisations in Bangladesh highlighted to Pathways researchers that donors’ negative qualities were: being top-down; not giving the organisation a “decent hearing”; no transparency in decision-making; wanting too much publicity; imposing their decisions; being bureaucratic and inflexible; and thinking too much of themselves – for example, by insisting on ‘badging’ their work, as the House of Lords mistakenly recommends, rather than staying modest and in the background.
Aid agencies should develop a sound understanding of their power, position and biases
Power has an adverse effect when we impose our own point of view. Alternative ways of understanding and tackling problems are ignored or dismissed as irrelevant; those putting them forward feel disempowered and will drop out of the conversation. Organisational and individual critical self-reflection delivers benefits for donors as well as the others they seek to help. Like them, donors also will learn and think differently, to imagine new possibilities and to debate alternative choices.
Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.