I have recently been pondering what the age of austerity means for the development community. One consequence which seems inevitable is increasing scrutiny of how development funds are spent. The principle behind this is hard to argue with; money is limited and it seems both sensible and ethical to make sure that we do as much good as possible with what we have. However, the way in which costs and benefits are assessed could have a big impact on the future development landscape. Already, some organisations are taking the value for money principle to its logical conclusion and trying to assess and rank causes in terms of their ‘bang for your buck’. The Open Philanthropy project has been comparing interventions as diverse as cash transfers, lobbying for criminal justice reform and pandemic prevention, and trying to assess which offers the best investment for philanthropists (fascinating article on this here).
The Copenhagen Consensus project* is trying to do a similar thing for the sustainable development goals; using a mixture of cost-benefit analysis and expert opinion, they are attempting to quantify how much social, economic and environmental return development agencies can get by focussing on different goals. For example, they find that investing a dollar in universal access to contraception will result in an average of $120 of benefit. By contrast, they estimate that investing a dollar in vaccinating against cervical cancer will produce only $3 average return. Looking over the list of interventions and the corresponding estimated returns on investment is fascinating and slightly shocking. A number of high profile development priorities appear to give very low returns while some of the biggest returns correspond to interventions such as trade liberalisation and increased migration which are typically seen as outside the remit of development agencies (good discussion on ‘beyond-aid agenda’ to be found from Owen Barder et al. at CDG e.g. here).
In general, I find the approach of these organisations both brave and important. Of course there needs to be a lot of discussion and scrutiny of the methods before these figures are used to inform policy – for example, I had a brief look at the CC analysis of higher education and found a number of things to quibble with, and I am sure that others would find the same if they examined the analysis of their area of expertise. But the fact that the analysis is difficult does not mean one should not attempt it. I don’t think it is good enough that we continue to invest in interventions just because they are the pet causes of development workers. We owe it both to the tax payers who fund development work and to those living in poverty to do our best to ensure funds are used wisely.
Having said all that, my one note of caution is that there is a danger that these utilitarian approaches inadvertently skew priorities towards what is measurable at the expense of what is most important. Impacts which are most easily measured are often those achieved by solving immediate problems (excellent and nuanced discussion of this from Chris Blattman here). To subvert a well-known saying, it is relatively easy to measure the impact of giving a man a fish, more difficult to measure the impact of teaching a man to fish** and almost impossible to measure, let alone predict in advance, the impact of supporting the local ministry of agriculture to develop its internal capacity to devise and implement policies to support long-term sustainable fishing practices. Analysts in both the Copenhagen Consensus and the Open Philanthropy projects have clearly thought long and hard about this tension and seem to be making good strides towards grappling with it. However, I do worry that the trend within understaffed and highly scrutinised development agencies may be less nuanced.
So what is the solution? Well, firstly development agencies need to balance easy to measure but low impact interventions with tricky to measure but potentially high impact ones. BUT this does not mean that we should give carte blanche to those working on tricky systemic problems to use whatever shoddy approaches they fancy; too many poor development programmes have hidden behind the excuse that it is too complicated to assess them. Just because measuring and attributing impact is difficult does not mean that we can’t do anything to systemstically assess intermediate outcomes and use these to tailor interventions.
To take the example of organisational capacity building – which surely makes up a large chunk of these ‘tricky’ to measure programmes – we need to get serious about understanding what aspects of design and implementation lead to success. We need to investigate the effects of different incentives used in such projects including the thorny issue of per diems/salary supplements (seriously, why is nobody doing good research on this issue??). We need to find out what types of pedagogical approach actually work when it comes to supporting learning and then get rid of all the rubbish training that blights the sector. And we need to think seriously about the extent of local institutional buy-in required for programmes to have a chance of success – and stop naively diving into projects in the hope that the local support will come along later.
In summary, ever-increasing scrutiny of how development funds are spent is probably inevitable. However, if, rather than fearing it, we engage constructively with the discussions, we can ensure that important but tricky objectives continue to be pursued – but also that our approach to achieving them gets better.
* Edit: thanks to tribalstrategies for pointing out that Bjorn Lomborg who runs the Copenhagen Consensus has some controversial views on climate science. This underscores the need for findings from such organisations to be independently and rigorously peer reviewed.
**High five to anyone who now has an Arrested Development song on loop in their head.