Should we care about the effects of development aid?

The importance of the evaluations that lead writer Carl Von Seth calls for more of has been exaggerated in Sweden and other donor countries in recent years. It is not possible to circle all the factors that determine the effects of development assistance, writes Professor Göran Hydén in a reply.

Should we really care about the effects of development aid? Carl Johan von Seth in a signed article in Dagens Nyheter (13.8) believes that we should and therefore advocates a larger allocation for evaluations in the development assistance budget. However, there are four good reasons why such an investment can easily be a blow in the air.

The first reason is that Swedish development assistance rests at least as much on moral and economic grounds. Solidarity with the world's poor people has always been a cornerstone of Swedish development policy.

According to the European Commission's own opinion poll - the Eurobarometer - development assistance is much more deeply rooted in Sweden than elsewhere on the continent. As many as 70 percent of Swedes surveyed believe that we must keep our promise to increase aid to developing countries, compared with only 49 percent on average for other countries. 76 percent of Swedes compared to only 44 percent in the other countries are willing to pay more for food or other products from developing countries to help the people there (fair trade). Swedes are also consistently better informed about the focus and design of development assistance, they are consulted in other countries.

The Swedes react primarily to what is ugly. They believe that corruption and environmental degradation are the biggest obstacles to aid reaching its goals. A white elephant here or there does not shake public opinion in any obvious way. The one percent goal is well rooted in Swedish thinking. It is primarily the thinkers who argue about efficiency.

The second reason is that evaluations create a completely wrong idea of ​​how development takes place. They encourage linear thinking as if development can only be traced back to individual public decisions. They cut off the influence of the environment and the opportunity for development arises spontaneously through the creativity of individuals or organizations. The focus is on the formal at the expense of what usually applies - the informal.

The state auditors in Sweden and other development assistance countries demand this focus, but this means that they are assigned an opinion about the role of development assistance that is both exaggerated and misleading. Through the coordination or harmonization that has taken place under the auspices of the OECD in recent years, the gap between the result-oriented donors and the politically anchored decision-makers in the recipient countries has widened. This is evident not least in the policy dialogues that donors have with the governments of the recipient countries.

The third reason is that evaluations focus on the present - that is, what has happened in a short period of time that has been arbitrarily determined to create a framework for taking responsibility. They are aimed at donors rather than those responsible in the recipient countries. A lot of money and intellectual energy has been devoted to developing methods that capture as much as possible in complicated models in order to thereby demonstrate policy-relevant causal relationships.

The downside of these efforts is that what is shown on paper has very little to do with reality. The more sophisticated the methods become, the further from what actually happens the analysis tends to be. It becomes rigid and at best reflects an actual condition but not the process that determines the results. It may have the right academic qualities but lacks the policy relevance that is still the intention of the evaluations. Against this background, it is not so strange that despite hefty consulting expenses, these end up on the office shelf or in the archives. They are performed more to fulfill formal obligations than to contribute to an understanding of how societal development is created.

The fourth reason is that through the harmonization and agreement between the donors to carry out evaluations according to a common template, the knowledge created about development assistance and development becomes both narrow and standardized. This is an unfortunate trend, not least in light of the fact that academically based research on these issues is receiving reduced financial support and is therefore declining. African researchers are attracted to support themselves through consulting assignments that limit their ability to contribute to an independent interpretation of their countries' problems and challenges. The conventional view of Africa has increasingly been shaped by the methodology and conclusions of the evaluations.

The problem is not that the government and parliament in Sweden and in other donor countries care too little about the effects of development aid, as von Seth believes. The problem is the opposite: evaluations have been given an exaggerated role.

The problem is not that the government and parliament in Sweden and in other donor countries care too little about the effects of development aid, as von Seth believes. The problem is the opposite: evaluations have been given an exaggerated role. They do not affect public opinion. They miss how societal development comes about. They cost far too much for the insights produced for decision making. They create a stereotypical, often misleading perception of reality that easily becomes conventional knowledge in policy circles.

The donors must stop looking for the needle in the straw stack. It is not possible to convincingly list all the factors that determine the effects of development assistance, in particular the short-term ones that are so eagerly sought on incorrect premises. A refined methodology on paper leads one astray in reality. The social and political processes have their own way.

Sweden and the other donor countries became modern and strong societies without a single evaluation. They went their own way. Today, the African countries strive for the same thing: to have a chance to take greater responsibility for both the pain and the joy of societal development. Constant change does not come on a gold plate even if they are served by well-meaning donors.

What is required is a long-term perspective and a methodology adapted accordingly. Throw away the templates and let independent investigators and researchers take on the task. There is a need for more variation in thinking and above all more reflections on progress and mistakes. Take the consequences of the fact that development is not something you "fix" with the help of standardized practice. More depth and less foam on the surface is required in the analysis. This would be the best way to use the per mille in the development assistance budget that is off to evaluate the effects.

With regard to public opinion, one can follow the Danes 'example of “selling” the long-term effects of development assistance via short summary information in large letters on the outside of the Danish state railways' train system. If you stand at Hovedbangården in Copenhagen and wait for a train, you get exactly the information about the effects that people appreciate and the evaluations miss. The Swedish government together with SJ and its gray X2000 - and why not the blue SL trains in Stockholm - could run the same track.

Göran Hydén
Professor emeritus, aid expert

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