Two interesting new articles start with the premise that the aid system needs to be overhauled, and then reach radically different conclusions about what this means in practice.
First up, Roger Riddell says we need a radical rethink of foreign aid:
The gap between what it does and what it could do is widening fast. … The central problem of the aid system is that there is no system. … Almost since official aid was first given, politicians have both warned of aid’s systemic problems and proposed alternatives. These include raising aid funds through an automatic compulsory mechanism based on the ability to pay; pooling aid resources and allocating them on the basis of need; and, if there are grounds for believing that the recipient government is unable or unwilling to use the aid funds transparently, “ring-fencing” the aid in a fund to be administered independently.
Most of these good ideas have been eclipsed by the focus on increasing aid levels. A common response to anyone advocating these solutions to aid’s systemic problems is the counter-argument that they are part of the very nature of the aid system, and that it is naive to suggest that it can be changed. They warn that if governments are unable to decide for themselves how to give aid and then check on its use, then they simply won’t provide it.
There are two ways to respond to these arguments. One is to point out that that aid’s systemic problems are getting worse and fast and frustrating progress on the core objective of ending extreme poverty. Resolving key systemic problems would probably have a greater effect on extreme poverty than expanding the amount of aid given. The other is to draw attention to high-level discussions where the sorts of changes needed to fix aid are being presented as politically viable.
Like it or not, we have to find new ways of making the aid money go further and find new ways of financing development that do not depend on the political will of a few rich countries. Philanthrocapitalism, by tapping the expertise, creativity, money and other resources of the private sector, has to be central to a new development strategy. First, to pilot and test ideas to make aid smarter and more effective. Second, to leverage more private capital – full for-profit, ethical investment and donations – to fill the gap.
As we have argued before, this means thinking about aid not as the exclusive preserve of government but as a partnership with philanthrocapitalists, rich and less rich alike. This challenge is urgent and the rich countries are being slow to take it up – Britain’s new government, in particular, seems set on business as usual (although there are plenty of disgruntled voices on the right who would like to see an axe taken to the aid budget).
Both arguments start from the view that the challenges to aid are the result of political pressures in donor countries. Roger Riddell argues for a more centralised, technocratic aid system which can be isolated from undue political influences. Mike and Matt want to see much greater involvement from a range of other actors, especially the big philanthropic foundations.
I think they are both partly right, and both partly wrong.
Roger Riddell is right to say that the systemic problems of aid are the result of politics; and he is right to disagree with the pessimistic idea that these problems are insurmountable. But he wants to address these problems but putting the aid system at arm’s length. I don’t think this is a viable solution: it wishes the problem away. It is like saying that we can solve the global climate change problem by handing over control of energy policy to an international panel of wise people. The politics matters, and we can’t make them go away by asking technicians to give us the answer; so we have to figure out how to change the politics.
The aid system today is characterised by aid institutions (official aid agencies, international organisations and charities) trying to mediate between the preferences of the people who give them money and their view of the interests of people in developing countries. Aid agency staff typically want to do as much as they can for people in developing countries: if you ask most aid agency staff who their “client” is, they will tell you it is the world’s poor, not their own taxpayer. But they feel they can’t do many of the things they would like to do (such as improve the allocation of aid, reduce conditionality, make long-term commitments, scale back paperwork and process, focus more sharply, untie aid etc) because they have to take account of the preferences of the people whose money they are spending. They see themselves as a firewall, serving the interests of the poor by protecting the aid programme as best they can from what they consider ill-informed or selfish wishes of their taxpayers. This behaviour is not confined to official donor agencies: many NGOs say one thing to their supporters, and do something quite different (think, for example, of the difference between what Kiva actually does and what most people think that it does). In my view, trying to deliver effective aid despite public opinion is fundamentally misconceived and unsustainable; this model is beginning to fray at the edges, and could well fall apart.
The alternative approach is for aid agencies to recognize that the public wants to see aid used as effectively as possible; and to build an informed conversation about how that can be achieved. The stakeholders see the issues from different perspectives: for example, the public sees the benefits of spreading its aid across many countries and sectors, while aid agency staff see the ineffective duplication this creates. The solution to this is to share information and build a common view, not to try to disempower the public. If the aid bureaucracies believe that long-term commitments of aid to strengthen national systems is more effective in the long run than the series of smaller ad hoc projects that the public seems to prefer, then they should produce the analysis and evidence and persuade their stakeholders. Both Roger and I believe that more aid should be given to the poorest countries; he believes that this decision should be taken out of the political process, while I believe we have to win the public round by explaining why that would be better.
In the long run, public opinion will determine how much aid is given, to whom, and by what means: we cannot and should not try to sidestep the argument by putting the administration of aid beyond the reach of public opinion. The only sustainable way to make aid more effective is to change the political pressures by producing persuasive evidence and analysis. If Roger’s approach is to insulate aid from political pressure, my approach would be work to align those political pressures with more effective aid by making aid more transparent and accountable.
By contrast, Mike Green and Matt Bishop want to improve aid, and attract more resources, by making more use of the expertise and money of the private sector. I agree with them that there is huge potential for the growing diversity in the aid system to improve the effectiveness of development system, if different organisations focus on the contributions that they can make. Foundations could act like venture capitalists: taking bigger risks but leaving long-term financing of scaled up successes to official aid donors. Private aid could focus on achieving community and individual level results. Specialised global organizations could provide particular expertise not available through generalist support. The diversity of official donors could provide innovation rather than a monoculture of ideas. Official aid agencies could focus on long term funding and resource transfer, and support for institutional change.
Unfortunately it is not clear that all these different actors really are focusing on their strengths, and there is nothing in the aid system that pushes them to do so. The foundations do not display the higher risk appetite that we would expect them to have (despite their rhetoric). The approach of official aid agencies to the division of labour does not appear to be intended to drive specialisation (from which the benefit of division of labour derives) but simply to limit spread. Diversity of approaches and innovation are essential, but this must be accompanied by mechanisms which kill off bad innovations and take good ideas to scale; otherwise the effect is simply to add to costs and fragment systems.
In their book, Philanthrocapitalism, Mike Green and Matt Bishop give several examples in which philanthropic foundations have made significant and worthwhile contributions. The role of the Rockefeller Foundation in promoting the Green Revolution is a compelling example. But from these successes they extrapolate a wildly rose-tinted view of the work of foundations. As with official aid, there are successes and failures; there are good practices and bad.
My impression is that, at their worst, foundations are much less effective, and behave even worse than official donors. For example, I have seen:
- massive unpredictability and volatility of foundation grants; many foundations make grants worth 5% of their capital asset value each year, which is the minimum imposed on them by US tax authorities. In years when asset prices are volatile, many foundations pass on this volatility to grantees – they do not (as they could, if they chose) use their capital to smooth out the grant-giving and make it more predictable and stable. In 2009 I know of some foundations which imposed in-year cuts exceeding 25% on their grantees, leading to cuts in services and imposing huge costs in developing countries just at the time when the world economic crisis created needs for additional funding;
- reinventing the wheel and failure to learn – it is one of the advantages of foundations that they can be innovative and unconventional; unfortunately, both the benefactors and staff of many foundations suffer from an inflated sense of their own abilities, and foundations often repeat basic mistakes that have been made for many years, rather than building on the experience and wisdom of organisations that have made these mistakes before;
- capriciousness and personality-driven priorities – both the staff and benefactors of foundations get ideas into their heads from which they cannot be dissuaded. There are many examples of ludicrous decisions and instructions from foundation staff to grantees based on nothing more than their prejudices or personal preferences.
Of course, official aid agencies also suffer from these problems to some extent. But they also benefit from a degree of public accountability which puts them under pressure to be more effective. I think Matt Bishop and Mike Green underestimate the problems that foundations suffer as a result of their lack of accountability. In many cases benefactors became rich in markets; and they often trusted their instincts. But when they got a judgement wrong they were soon punished by the market, and they were able to change course. Now that they are philanthropists, they do not have any such feedback. When they make the wrong decision, everyone is too afraid to tell them, for fear of losing the opportunity to apply for the next grant. There is no mechanism for identifying and rewarding their most effective staff; nothing that forces foundations to concentrate on what they are really good at.
In many ways we have the worst of all worlds: with some notable exceptions, foundations do not in practice take enough advantage of the opportunities that their lack of accountability give them (for example, taking bigger risks, or supporting unpopular causes) but they do suffer from the weaknesses that lack of accountability imposes on them.
So I think Mike and Matt are right to say that development relationships should not be the exclusive preserve of government, and that is should increasingly be an effective partnership with philanthrocapitalists, NGOs, private sector organisations and individuals. But without some more effective governance arrangements in the aid system, we will not reap the potential benefits of this partnership. We need stronger pressures for the different partners to make their specific contributions effectively, which in turn demands greater transparency and stronger accountability for all organisations.
Both articles start from the premise that the aid system needs to be improved; on this I think we all agree. But Roger’s solution – putting aid beyond politics – is unlikely to be effective, and is undemocratic. If we believe that politics constrains effective aid decisions, we should square up to trying to change the politics, not trying to insulate ourselves from it. And Mike and Matt’s answer – passing the baton to very rich Americans – is no answer either. These stakeholders certainly have a contribution to make, but to be effective their contribution must be part of a system that is likely to get the best from all partners working together, and holds everyone to account; otherwise we risk having all the disadvantages of the free market with none of the benefits of market discipline.
Disclosure: the organisation for which I work receives grants from the Gates Foundation and Hewlett Foundation.