In a recent chapter in a volume published by the World Bank, I argued that the current approach to managing aid is confused. There are two opposing forces creating this confusion.
The first is the results-based approach to management, which focuses on measurable improvements, such as delivering food and vaccines, during a project. The second is an emphasis on the need to achieve systemic changes and transform underlying constraints, such as improving health care and education systems, which are both geared towards reducing inequality.
Increasingly, aid agencies are focusing on the second approach to deliver systemic changes in developing countries, but are still being held accountable through assessment of results as characterised by the first approach. This is unhelpful, as systemic changes will often require a long-term transition that will be impossible to measure straight after an aid project is completed.
The confusion is further illustrated by the five core principles outlined in The Paris Declaration (2005):
- ownership of development priorities by recipient countries
- alignment of donor funding behind these priorities
- coordination between donors to avoid duplication
- focus on the results of aid, which should be measured and used as a management tool
- transparency and accountability between donor and recipient countries.
On the one hand, these principles reward agencies that collaborate with others to provide meaningful, long-term change in developing countries. This strengthens the efforts of aid agencies and helps provide these systemic changes.
However, these principles also point to results-based management focused on easily measurable outcomes which are agreed upon before a project begins. These are introduced to not only manage aid agencies, but also hold government and partner agencies to account so they can justify the involvement of aid agencies and ensure that “value for money” is being provided.
While I would find it hard to argue against a focus on measurable outcomes, as this is a fundamental part of evaluating a project, it's evident that there should be a more mature discussion about how to make system strengthening a part of the process.
These outcomes are usually intangible and rarely measurable in the sense that distributing food or vaccines can be measured. To reduce inequalities and strengthen pro-poor systems, a method should be devised to reward agencies that demonstrate the behaviours needed to achieve these systematic changes. Otherwise, vital system-strengthening changes needed in developing countries will be overlooked for short-term “quick wins” that provide easy-to-measure outcomes.
Tom Ling is a senior research leader at RAND Europe.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.