“Can We Do Aid Better?” Debate at UCL

On 29 November I was honored to join a panel discussion organized by UCL’s Department of Political Science under the title “Can We Do Aid Better?” This was an all-star event, by far the most engaging, critical and provocative debate by insiders (take that term as you may) that I have participated in. Well attended, too, with plenty of great questions and audience engagement.

Incoming ICAI Chief Commissioner Tamsyn Barton opened with the need for a better response to current political hostility to aid, and for a greater emphasis on learning. Dan Honig from SAIS summarized the themes of his fantastic book, and dared us to take that one step that could put us on the path to learning from failure and empowering field-level actors. David Hudson from DLP presented some key findings from the fascinating Aid Attitudes Tracker project, including the crucial insight that communication affects attitudes and therefore we may be shooting ourselves in the foot. And Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi from Power of Nutrition reminded us to take people seriously: both the poor who should be at the centre of foreign aid, and the sceptics whom we’ve patronized for far too long.

I was last to speak and, with little substantive to add, I decided to go for two provocative statements: (1) Aid does not really matter, what we need is more internationalism; (2) Aid really does matter, but the people in charge of it don’t get it.

Have a listen: https://soundcloud.com/user-916865595/can-we-do-aid-better-29th-november

PEA Confessions, part I: Mainstreaming woes

Four years ago I published a research paper and policy briefing at ESID that focused on the barriers to political-economy analysis (PEA) in donor agencies. I thought our research gave me a pretty good grasp of the promises and pitfalls of PEA in the aid community. After two-and-a-half years of working as a PEA consultant, the time has come for some self-imposed accountability. This is part I of a new series of posts dramatically called “PEA Confessions”.

I want to begin with ESID Briefing Paper 5: “Mainstreaming political economy analysis (PEA) in donor agencies”. It is not my most inspired writing, but at the time it felt like a very clever contribution. Having found – with David Hulme – how organizational dynamics made the use of political analysis by DFID and the World Bank very inconsistent, I thought I needed to devote some thinking to the “so what” question and come up with some semi-coherent recommendations. Continue reading PEA Confessions, part I: Mainstreaming woes

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.