The UK Department for International Development is to be commended for encouraging some of its staff to maintain a blog to explain to the public what they do.
In Bangladesh, Adam Jackson has posted some interesting reflections on his visit to a health programme (in which DFID supports the government) and a Chars Livelihood Progamme.
Our health review team visited a District hospital where mothers who would never normally have access to safe delivery facilities had very recently given birth thanks to a voucher scheme funded by DFID and a number of other donors. Fifty miles away in the Chars I and the other workshop participants visited a village and met a number of women – some of the most vulnerable people on the planet – who had been given assets of their choice (typically a pair of cows) and had their homes raised on clay plinths above the seasonal flood level, as well as a range of other support to enable them to become self-sufficient. … Both of these programmes contribute to the Millennium Development Goals, and produce results that few people interested in the welfare of the poorest would argue with.
Adam makes the excellent point that both programmes work, albeit to achieve different kinds of objectives. Working through Government may be slower and more uncertain, but in the long run it is an investment in Government systems which, in the end, Bangladesh will need as it becomes more prosperous and no long relies on foreign aid. The Chars programme reaches people more quickly, but does not contribute to building lasting institutions. Clearly, both programmes have an important place, and donors need to be better at understanding that we are working towards multiple objectives and need many different types of instrument.
We need to understand better than we do: (a) how much immediate development benefit do we give up, if any, and how much institutional improvement do we gain, by working through governments? and (b) can providing services through parallel channels such as NGOs actually do harm to the long-run evolution of national institutions, for example by hiring away skilled staff, or by reducing the focus on and accountability of government institutions which should, in the long run, be playing those roles?
Adam’s call for rigorous, transparent evaluation is welcome. I would add that it should be independent and more focused on impact and less on process than current evaluation.