Waylaid Dialectic

November 16, 2010

In the World of Aid, where pendulums can only ever swing too far…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 11:50 am

Meanwhile in the UK Madeline Bunting writes:

Even more problematic is the three-part mantra Mitchell believes will win the argument for aid: value for money, focus on results and transparency. Every speech and interview are peppered with the phrases. They all sound as unobjectionable as apple pie until you probe a little further and discover how they are taking a cowed DfID into a Gradgrind number-crunching quagmire.

Every submission to the secretary of state has to be accompanied with a value-for-money calculation. This is taken to absurd lengths; nonplussed civil servants had to find a measure of value for Mitchell’s recent visit to the UN summit on the millennium development goals, so they resorted to adding up column inches of media coverage and calculating what that would have cost as advertising. Many crucial issues in government can’t easily be measured in monetary terms.

How do you measure strengthening civil society in a developing country to campaign against corruption? How do you measure strengthening the capacity of a finance ministry? This is the kind of thing which British aid has been rightly used for in recent years but it doesn’t fare well by Mitchell’s measures. The paradox, of course, is that value for money requires a small army of bureaucrats to implement. Yet the comprehensive spending review pledged to cut backoffice costs to half of that of any other donor agency.

The fallacy of low overheads is perennial and nearly universal amongst people who’ve never worked in aid. Evaluation-mania is a new one though. In part it’s a sensible response to the fact that for too long we’ve done too much in aid on the basis of too little evidence. More evidence, more evaluation, more research — these are all good things. But like most good things it’s possible to have too much. For a start, there’s a trade-off involved: time and money spent on evaluation and gathering evidence can always be spent doing stuff. And, more importantly, as Bunting notes, some activities are harder to quantify than others (although her examples aren’t necessarily examples of this) meaning that an excessive focus on quantification might lead to things that count being discarded in favour of things that can be counted.

I’m inclined to think that most aid agencies don’t do nearly enough gathering of high quality evidence. But, if Bunting is correct, at the other end of the scale, DfID looks like it’s careening towards a situation of doing too much.

The irony of it all is that Mitchell is supposedly doing this to prevent money being wasted and boost public confidence in aid. But if fewer staff end up having to devote more time to more work gathering evidence, odds are that the actual development work they do will get worse. And so, in the end, the only thing we’ll have evidence of is failure.

[Update: Jennifer makes a great comment.]

[Another update: because on this blog it’s quality of comments not quantity – quality not quantity…]



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Linda Raftree, davidweek. davidweek said: RT @meowtree: Too much counting: In the world of aid where the pendulum can only ever swing too far. by waylaid dialectic http://ht.ly/3alEp […]

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  2. Thanks for this sensible post. One mantra I continually share with implementing partners and colleagues alike is…”M&E should never detract from the work at hand, which is serving people.” It is certainly time to examine our belief that there are technocratic, precise ways of measuring progress in order to make consequential judgments based on these measures.

    What so many people on the ground have told me again and again is that abstract metrics don’t help them understand their relationship to improving the well-being of the people they serve. As members of the community, they read trends through what’s happening on the ground, rather than using any theory. The business sector seems to have a healthier relationship with risk in their for-profit endeavours, perhaps something we may need to explore in the development sector.

    Yes, let’s pursue and obtain useful data from the ground that is meaningful for communities and donors, rather than what is easily measurable, and at a scale at which information can be easily generated, utilized, and acted upon by those we are trying to serve. Let’s always consider what is the appropriate cost and complexity needed for evaluation (especially given the size and scope of the program) and aim for proportional expectations so we ensure M&E can be a more effective tool for learning in our sector.

    Comment by Jennifer Lentfer — November 17, 2010 @ 1:11 am

  3. Thanks Jennifer – great comment 🙂

    Comment by terence — November 17, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

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