Almost two years ago, I alerted readers to a contest, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the Global Development Network, to develop new ideas to improve the impact of development cooperation. The Next Horizons Essay contest 2014 received 1,470 submissions from 142 countries, from which 13 winners were selected.
Four of the winners took part in a roundtable at the Brookings Institution yesterday. Here’s a quick synopsis of the main takeaways.
There is a lot of experimentation happening in the delivery of aid, and most aid agencies are thinking hard about how to position themselves to contribute more to the sustainable development goals. In part, this is because these agencies are mission-driven to improve impact. The current system of aid replenishments of multilateral institutions forces them to compete with each other by persuading donors that they are best deserving of the scarce aid budgets being allocated. Even bilateral aid agencies find themselves under budgetary stress, asked to justify the impact of their lending compared to a counterfactual of channeling the money through a multilateral agency or of contributing to an appeal from the United Nations for humanitarian assistance or climate financing.
Stephen Mwangi Macharia talked about using development assistance to promote social impact investing. He noted the problems of sustainability, dependence, and ownership that can arise in traditional aid relationships and argued that social entrepreneurs can avoid such pitfalls. The question then becomes how donors can best help build the market infrastructure to support such efforts. Stephen’s idea: develop a social impact network initiative to build entrepreneurs’ capacity to develop “bankable” projects and to have a database to help match entrepreneurs and funders.
There is certainly a lot of interest in social impact investing. According to the Global Impact Investing Network, around $60 billion are already under management (although mostly in developed countries) and the market is growing rapidly. Some questioned the role of aid donors however, noting that they could reduce incentives for others (universities, non-profits, etc.) who charge a fee for business development, awareness raising, and other market services. Others questioned the risk tolerance of donors for impact investing and a culture in many countries where business is viewed suspiciously when it tries to intentionally generate positive social and environmental impacts. As an aside, Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has noted that the development of impact investing was one of the accomplishments that she was most proud of.
Ray Kennedy suggested that vertical funds, because of better governance and a sharper focus, should be a preferred channel for development assistance. Interestingly, his argument was not based on advocacy for a particular sector, but on the improved adaptability of these institutions. His evidence provided several examples of how vertical funds changed in response to changing global conditions, and, he argued, such change is a highly desirable virtue in our rapidly changing times.
Of course, the recommendation to favor vertical funds did not go unchallenged. There was a lively discussion about the comparative advantage of different institutions and the dangers of mission creep by more effective institutions into space left open by less effective institutions. Yet, most agreed that new platforms were being fluidly created to solve new problems, and that a “mixed coalition,” to borrow a phrase from one of the participants, was part of the preferred solution.
Yuen Yuen Ang took on the problem of local ownership directly. It is easy to talk about local ownership, she said, but few agencies do anything about it in their actual operations. Instead, they promote best practice ideas, some of which may fail even the basic test of “do no harm.” Basing her arguments on the complexity of how organizations change, she advocates specific internal reforms: diversify staff experiences and backgrounds beyond economics and finance; carve out time for staff to pursue “non-standard” approaches; and build a bank of examples about “best-fit” approaches that have been shown to work in weak institutional settings.
A lively discussion followed on best-fit versus best-practice approaches and, indeed, on whether there is a trade-off between the two or whether the issue is how to balance both at the same time. There was agreement that best-practice applies to some issues, especially where global standards have developed (debt management or anti-money laundering, perhaps). Best-fit is more useful when judgement and a deep understanding of local conditions are required. Some questioned the role of external donor agencies in such contexts, however.
Dan Honig argued for greater autonomy of field-based staff. Based on an extensive and unique data set, he was able to test the impact of the degree of autonomy on project success. The econometrics show significant impact of autonomy on certain activities and in certain situations. When the context is fluid and unpredictable, as in fragile states for example, or when judgement is required, as in institutional development, then autonomy can help. But when desired outcomes are easily measurable, such as school or road construction, then autonomy makes little difference.
During the discussion, there was agreement that too much of a focus on metrics could be distortionary and, in fluid situations, could be damaging. The theme of donor risk aversion came up again, but this time coupled with the idea that metrics, however false and misleading they might be, provide comfort and cover for bureaucrats. A sympathetic hearing was given to former United States Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios’ concept of “obsessive measurement disorder.” But, participants also warned of the need to show that the costs of autonomy, in the form of larger field presence and a limited ability to scale up, outweighed the benefits.
It was refreshing to see new evidence and multidisciplinary approaches being brought to bear on development effectiveness. The four themes highlighted in these essays—making markets work for the poor, improving agency governance, local ownership and contextualization, and decentralization and autonomy—resonated with those participants who are, or had been, active in aid agencies. I thank the Global Development Network and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for this initiative, as well as to the winning scholars for injecting new ideas into the discourse.