The banality of certainty (Book excerpt)

Value for Money (VfM) sounds eminently reasonable. It represents the kind of due diligence we expect from modern liberal states: accountability to taxpayers’ demands that governments keep an eye on how public funds are spent, assurance that these funds are, in fact, employed for their stated purposes, and transparent management of public funds are all necessary for avoiding corruption and waste. In that light, VfM is not only reasonable but perhaps even morally desirable.

However, not all areas of public policy are equally amenable to the same calculations and standards of proof. When procuring bricks to build a school, for instance, we can easily compare the costs and estimates of different providers in order to choose the most economic, efficient, effective, and cost-effective option. As we move to less tangible goals, however, the simple logic of VfM begins to unravel, and at a certain point the demand for hard evidence does not necessarily lead to accountability. And, as we know, many development assistance goals are of the less tangible variety. Continue reading The banality of certainty (Book excerpt)

Gesture politics and foreign aid: evidence vs spin

[Reposted from The Conversation]

Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt has warned recipient governments that they face cuts in UK aid if they don’t “put their hands in their pockets”. Her warning is grounded on a claim of public concern: “Nagging doubts persist for many people, about what we are doing, why we are doing it … especially when there are domestic needs and a national debt to address.” It is a compelling point but, as it turns out, one for which there is actually very little evidence.

The most recent YouGov/Times survey poll asked Britons what issues they considered most important among those facing the country: Brexit, health and the economy topped the list. The potential misuse of foreign aid funds, as one would expect, did not even register.

Surveys on public opinion about aid are scarce and often contradictory. While a Telegraph poll in April 2016 found that 57% of people opposed the commitment to spending 0.7% of national income on foreign aid, a Eurobarometer survey later that year found that 55% of respondents in the UK thought aid commitments should be kept and 14% believed that they should be increased. “Nagging doubts”, it would seem, are in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading Gesture politics and foreign aid: evidence vs spin

Adaptive anti-corruption: Best-fit methods for best-practice goals

These days I am writing a paper on how the STAAC programme that I work on in Ghana has managed to chart a bespoke adaptive programming course to anti-corruption. There’s a lot in there about embedding PEA into everyday practice, about being smart and adaptive, about doing things differently. And you would expect as much from a DFID programme designed with TWP/PDIA buzzwords in mind. But the exercise of reflecting on two years of experimentation with the approach and evolving relations with partners has also made me ask questions about the broader dilemmas of anti-corruption programming.

The challenges of combatting corruption are well known: informal institutions, social norms, principal-agent and collective-action poblems (I have written about some of these in my book). In fact, corruption tends to be one of the most difficult components of the broader public sector agenda. Naturally the anti-corruption community – such as it is – appears to be developing a new consensus that challenges conventional approaches to anti-corruption, compiling evidence of what works, and asking for a smarter way of tackling an intrinsically difficult problem: we need to “move away from thinking of anti-corruption as a blueprint”, finding solutions that are “localised and adapted to individual country contexts”.

All of this sounds great, and is very much in line with DFID’s own approach to chain-link, politically-smart, adaptive approaches to anti-corruption. There is just one minor glitch: local partners do not necessarily share this view. Continue reading Adaptive anti-corruption: Best-fit methods for best-practice goals

Tres futuros para la eficacia de la ayuda: Presentación en AECID

El 15 de septiembre fui invitado a la Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional al Desarrollo (AECID) para dar una charla sobre nuevas ideas y debates emergentes sobre eficacia de la ayuda en el mundo anglosajón en torno a Thinking and Working Politically, Doing Development Differently o Results-Based Approaches. A pesar de la densidad de contenidos y la miríada de acrónimos, la presentación despertó un debate bastante animado, y con suerte habrá plantado semillas que piquen la curiosidad de algnos de nuestros expertos. Para quien esté interesado en lo último en innovación y los desafíos de gestionar el cambio, comparto aquí el powerpoint de la presentación.

Why is researching donors so hard?

I have just finished supervising a master’s thesis at the University of Manchester which compares the extent of internal reforms in DFID and the Spanish Development Co-operation Agency, AECID. The student – an AECID civil servant – wanted to know why her organization failed so miserably to reform internally in accordance with its international commitments to principles of aid effectiveness, in particular when one could find in the European vicinity other agencies like DFID that did so much better on all indicators. What emerges is a story of politics and institutional infighting: a socialist prime minister who symbolically boosted the foreign aid budget through the roof without actually planning how it would be managed, a tenuous balance of institutional power where only a few key individuals tried to make a semi-autonomous agency work, and a cadre of jaded civil servants headed by political appointees for whom development co-operation was often a stepping stone in their political careers. This is as much as I can spoil right now; for the whole picture you will have to wait a while. Continue reading Why is researching donors so hard?

Revuelo en 3500 Millones

Esta semana ha aparecido en 3500 Millones un post mío que parece haber causado un poco de revuelo en la comunidad de cooperación al desarrollo en España. El argumento original era sobre especialistas vs generalistas; pero inevitablemente una de las interpretaciones ha sido funcionarios vs profesionales (un campo de minas en el que ya me adentraré más adelante). Entre las respuestas más ofendidas se cuenta una persona que decidió que mi idea era que solamente se trabajase en cooperación si se tiene un doctorado: se nota que no conoce a muchos académicos, que apenas pueden hacer funcionar sus propios departamentos! Y tampoco sabe lo cómodo que se está analizando desde fuera, en lugar de tener que lograr resultados en el mundo real. En fin: debate generado, misión cumplida.

Respecto al modelo británico como panacea… Tampoco hay que glorificar a nadie. Aunque por un lado acaban de aprobar una ley para cumplir el 0,7% en cooperación, y por otro son capaces de reírse de sí mismos así: