Living in Ethiopia for the last three years, I saw aid working every day. I saw children going to school, health workers in rural villages, and food or cash preventing hunger for the poorest people. The academic debates about aid effectiveness seem surreal when you are surrounded by tangible, visible evidence of the huge difference aid makes to people’s lives.
But on the whole the sceptics are not disputing that kids are going to school because of aid. They are asking what effect that has on the country as a whole. Does it lead to economic growth? Does it drive up the exchange rate and so damage competitiveness? Do governments become dependent on donors and so less accountable to their own citizens? Does aid keep the bad guys in power?
It is possible that aid is effective in terms providing people with basic services, and at the same time that it is not effective at increasing economic growth. It is even possible that aid simultaneously does short-run good (better services) and long-run harm (worse institutions).
It was this difference between perspectives which made me want to respond to the call for evidence in an investigation into aid by the Economic Affairs Select Committee of the British House of Lords. This committee, which includes some well-known economists and other public figures, is examining the ‘Economic Impact and Effectiveness of Development Aid’.
The submission begins by trying to address the question of what aid is for, which seems to be the source of much of the confusion about whether aid works. Aid is often regarded as having two purposes: humanitarian aid to alleviate suffering usually in an emergency, and development aid to promote economic growth and sustained prosperity. But this is a false dichotomy: most aid falls into neither category. About two thirds of British bilateral aid is spent on improving services such as education, health, water and sanitation. This aid is not a temporary humanitarian response to an emergency, but a long-term contribution to the provision of key services and an investment in the institutions needed to provide them in the future. The success of this aid is not best measured by whether it leads to growth in the short or medium term, but by the improvements it brings about in the quality of people’s lives.
The submission then reviews the evidence about whether aid leads to economic growth (answer: we don’t know) and whether aid improves people’s lives (answer: yes it often does). The more interesting question is not whether aid works, but which aid works.
But there are also possible adverse effects of aid, and these are potentially serious. The submission suggests that these may be mainly a consequence of how aid is given and that they can largely be eliminated if donors give better aid. But that requires donors to overcome domestic political obstacles to reform of aid.
The evidence finishes with ten suggestions for how to make aid work better. They are:
- Spend more through the multilateral system
- Make aid more predictable
- Make aid transparent, accountable and traceable
- Build the accountability of governments to their parliaments and citizens
- Focus on results and use this to simplify aid
- Invest more in global public goods, especially new technologies
- Focus aid on people in chronic poverty, and on women and girls
- Leverage the private sector
- Use innovative finance to increase the productivity of aid
- Learn more and fail safely
It is a good discipline to be concise, but it is not possible to do full justice in six pages to the nuances of these issues. I have tried address the big questions with what I hope are balanced and dispassionate judgments. I hope you will let me know in the comments if you think I’ve got these right.
This blog post was also published on CGD Views from the Center.