What citizens want to know about aid dollars

Jul 10, 2012

Evaluations of the impact of donor aid is a basic pillar of accountability for the use of development aid.  But recent research by IPPR and ODI suggests that at least in the United Kingdom voters want to go beyond questions of whether development aid has had an impact or not. As the ODI and IPPR report put it: “rather than being told ‘aid works’, they wanted to know how aid works (and were open to hearing why it may not always work).” Civil society organizations (CSOs) that are funded by aid  have an interest in telling them what they want to know. Yet there is a gap between this obvious demand for information and a sufficient supply by CSOs and others to satisfy it. Why?

Documenting the impact of aid on governance

Working in one sector of the development community, the International Budget Partnership has been compiling such accounts of what happens when citizens in poor countries engage in efforts to hold their governments to account for the use of public resources, including development aid money. Over the next 5 months we will publish 25 case studies of how poor country citizens have tried, and sometimes succeeded, to put pressure on their governments to do the right thing with public funding. Click here to read the first seven case studies and send an email to openbudget [at] gmail.com if you want to receive the others as they are published.

The communication gap with aid constituencies

However, despite these and other efforts to document impact, persistent gaps remain between the efforts of poor country citizens to hold their governments to account on the one hand, and what is said and known about these efforts on the other. Why? Is this just a communication gap that can be solved by sophisticated new technologies or social media? Or are there more fundamental reasons for this gap? What are your thoughts? Here are some of my own thoughts about what fuels this gap:

  • Certainly CSOs  in the governance sector  (and many other sectors) have not invested enough time or money in documenting the impact of their own work. To be fair, many donors have not funded them sufficiently to do so either. Short term and projectized funding does not encourage reflection or documentation. But even within the envelope of existing resources, CSOs can do a better job of documenting and learning how to talk about their own impact.
  • The endless debate about how to assess and understand the impact CSOs in the governance sector has not been helpful either. Yes we need randomized control trials to produce quantitative assessments of localized impact. And we need other quantitative methods to assess the impact of interventions that cannot be localized. But we also need qualitative assessments and reports to help us understand the process of achieving or failing to achieve impact. We don’t need to choose between these broad methodological approaches. And the illusion created by some that we do need to choose has slowed down the process of documenting and understanding impact.

 The end of passive citizens

Just as citizens in poor countries don’t want to be passive recipients of development, citizens in rich countries say that don’t want to be passive providers of development either. They can and want to understand much more about where there funds are going, how decisions were made, what the impact was and why.  Ultimately better communication to citizens in rich countries could lead to an exciting and dynamic new form of development with much tighter linkages between citizens in rich and poor countries.


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