Don’t TOSSD the baby out with the bathwater: The need for a new way to measure development cooperation, not just another (bad) acronym

Once upon a time, long ago, the development industry was fixated on measuring aid from richer to poorer countries. They called it ODA, standing for Official Development Assistance. For decades this aid has been codified, reported, and tracked, mostly by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (DAC/OECD), a club of advanced economies. In advance of the Spring Meetings of the IMF and World Bank, the DAC announced that ODA has risen by 6.9% over 2014 levels to 132 billion dollars, a record amount. Importantly, ODA increased even after stripping out funds spent on refugees.

The United Nations has established targets for ODA—like the famous 0.7 percent of national income—which have taken on legendary status as benchmarks of national generosity. Only six out of 28 DAC countries met this target last year: Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Some institutions and lobby groups remain fixated on ODA, but many development actors now reject it as flawed. A major theme of the Spring Meetings is how to move beyond ODA and expand other forms of financing for development. ODA is, among other things, symptomatic of a charity perspective, rather than investment; inappropriate for South-South cooperation; and unable to capture the big new landscape of public-private links. What’s more, it is riddled with self-serving quirks like scoring numerous flows—the cost of university places in donor countries, and administrative costs of aid agencies—that never reach developing countries.

Perhaps the most telling weakness of ODA is that emerging powers like China and India see little merit (and arguably, some residual stigma) in this concept and, therefore, will not report on that basis to a club to which they do not belong. As their share of the world economy and their interactions with other “developing” countries continue to grow, this means ODA will inevitably start to represent an ever smaller share of official financing for development.

TOSSD to the rescue?

TOSSD stands for Total Official Support for Sustainable Development. The idea, still being fleshed out, is to have a universally accepted measure of the full array of public financial support for sustainable development. TOSSD should differ from ODA in at least three ways:

  • First, it should take a developing country perspective rather than a donor country perspective. So it should cover the value of all funding for development that is officially supported, from pure grants to near-market loans and equity investments, as well as guarantees and insurance.
  • Second, it should measure cross-border flows from all countries, not just the rich members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee.
  • Third, it should include contributions to global public goods needed to support development, like U.N. peacekeeping and pandemic surveillance.

There are many complications behind any international attempt to define and track such a huge range of activities. Some are technical, but can probably be resolved with enough goodwill and professionalism. So, for example, we can debate how to establish whether and how official support to private investors changes their behaviour, delivering “additional” development results compared to a situation without that support. In the end, sensible solutions and workarounds will be found.

More difficult are a couple of politically sensitive challenges, which at the same time underlie the value of reaching consensus on a new measure. How far, for example, should the new measure recognise indirect spending on global public goods? Take for example public research on an AIDS vaccine that could lead to prevention of millions of deaths in developing countries. Right now, this would not count as ODA because the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries is not its main objective.

We tend to think that consideration of globe-spanning benefits like these, which do not fit the simple mould of money crossing borders, is an essential feature of a new measure of development finance. However, it will need to be bounded sensibly, not least because of underlying suspicions that the countries that are today most likely to deploy such tools, and claim them as a large part of their distinctive contribution, are among the “old rich”—though that could change quickly. We suggest that spending on a defined list of global public goods should be included, perhaps those that support Agenda 2030, such as U.N. peacekeeping or a global research consortium like GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

A second potentially divisive issue, already alluded to, is how to value non-monetary flows, like technical assistance, and in a fair way across countries. We think it would be a powerful positive signal for international cooperation if even modest contributions by low- and middle-income countries are recognised, celebrated, and valued according to the contribution being made, not the cost of providing the assistance. The assistance provided by professionals from developing countries (think Cuban doctors) should be measured at the same prices as assistance provided by professionals from rich countries. Some form of purchasing power parity equivalence would need to be defined and used.

Who should collect all this information and ensure it is more or less consistent?

This is a hugely contentious question. Neither of the most obvious answers, the well-organised but globally unloved OECD and the legitimate but under-resourced U.N. secretariat, are likely to be acceptable without some changes. A preferred candidate has to have a sufficiently broad group of countries prepared to self-report on even a loose set of definitions in order to get momentum. At a minimum all the major economies of the world, for example members of the G-20, should be willing to participate. It should also have the technical capacity to help countries provide information in a consistent way.

The International Monetary Fund or World Bank could be candidates—most countries already report to them on a range of data, including financial flows. The Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, with its membership of many development actors and technical support, could be another. Or a new group could be created in much the same way as the International Aid Transparency Initiative. This could even be a revamped Development Assistance Committee that operates with broader support in much the same way as the OECD’s tax work has many non-OECD members participating. What is important is that the guiding principle be to measure official cross-border financial resources that support the new universally-agreed Sustainable Development Goals, and to start now and learn by doing.  Such initiatives are too easily killed by subjecting them to endless external criticism that a perfect solution has not been found.

Finally, what’s in name?

TOSSD may be one of the least attractive acronyms on offer today. Without disrespect to its OECD authors, it will anyway have to change to something that works for all the major stakeholders, and is not visibly invented in Paris and that also encourages players who are not strictly speaking “official,” like foundations, to sign up. We tend to favor a plainer, simpler wrapper like International Development Contributions (IDC), or Defined Development Contributions (DDC).