"Post-bureaucratic" effectiveness?

There has been a bit of a buzz around the recently released British Conservative Party Green Paper on international development, and David Cameron’s party is getting a little bit of heat for some of their policy prescriptions. 

The report begins by announcing the Party’s good intentions:

As well as highlighting the amazing achievements of aid, we are candid and open about the difficulties and problems involved in turning money and good intentions into real outcomes on the ground. We identify both the systemic problems that beset the whole official aid industry, and the specific mistakes that Labour politicians have made in running our aid programme. And we set out how we will put these problems right, increasing British aid, while injecting a new post-bureaucratic focus on effectiveness and outcomes. Our aim is to spend more on what works, and end funding for what doesn’t.

What caught my eye was the notion of “post-bureaucratic” – which is in fact repeated throughout the report. At first, I thought it was probably another euphemism for increased coordination among agencies or more flexible funding and disbursement timelines. Interestingly, the Conservatives take the concept in an unexpected direction; as The Independent reports, their suggestion is to give British citizens a say in where their tax dollars/aid money goes. Through the intelligent use of “post-bureaucratic” modern technology (the internet, who would have thought), David Cameron is considering asking British citizens to decide which international development projects they want to fund:

The site will include a history of each project, the impact it has achieved, details of how the additional money will be spent and a short film by the head of the project, setting out why they deserve to be backed. The £40m pot will be divided in proportion to the percentage of the vote for each initiative.

The point of this being two-fold: a), it would allegedly increase the quality of project results,  by creating new incentives for effectiveness, b) it would give tax-payers a say in how their money is spent, leading to increased popular support for aid programs. However, as critics note, this would inevitably lead to some “unpopular” programs being cut, and surviving ones spending more time trying to cater to the needs of an ever changing public opinion than addressing issues on the ground. 

Many are calling this “populist gimmickry”. I can understand that, especially when phrases like “Every time the candle of life is snuffed out by disease, we all suffer” are thrown around (page 8 – some beautiful prose, highly recommended). And indeed, some of the Conservatives’ policy prescriptions seem a bit “naive”, like the “MyAidfund” initiative described above. 

Nonetheless, they deserve some credit for at least attempting to be creative in their solutions to address the issue of aid effectiveness. And, while the vigorous debate on the topic continues to further polarize opinions (see the Boston Review recent “Development in Dangerous Places” for a brilliant installment on the subject), while the same old promises are being made by the G8, the Conservatives are at least taking a crack at finding a solution to the deadlock.

For instance, while everyone’s attention is focused on the “MyAidfund” program, I think some of the ideas below – also suggested in the 64 page policy paper – are at least worth debating:

We will ensure the impartial and objective analysis of the effectiveness of British aid through an Independent Aid Watchdog. This will gather evidence about the impact and outcomes of different British aid projects and programmes, allowing the Secretary of State for International Development to make informed, evidence-based decisions about where spending should be directed […]

We will publish full information about all of DFID’s projects and programmes – including the results of impact evaluations – on its website, and have them translated into local languages. This information will be published in a standardised format so that it can be freely used on third-party websites […]

We advocate a more far-sighted approach. DFID should where possible make three-year rolling commitments and give indicative ten-year projections for aid. However, such a commitment on our part will require something in return. Projects and programmes must demonstrate that they are performing, delivering what they said they would deliver.

The last recommendation listed here is contentious for critics: for some projects, where measuring objective impact is challenging because of the lack of quantitative indicators, it will be difficult to retain funding. This would create an unnatural skew towards “delivery” programs which can effectively measure their results, but are not always the most transformative or sustainable. That said, the current lack of indicators shouldn’t preclude us from searching for new, creative ways to measure impact… Which a lot of researchers are doing already. It’s definitely time for the development industry to become accountable (much in the same way that the private sector is being held increasingly accountable for their social and environmental impact.)

Finally, one of their more praiseworthy suggestions, in my opinion, is the following:

There is a wealth of talent and energy in the many ‘little platoons’, small charities and NGOs who are making an impact on poverty in a thousand different ways all across the world. We want to support and bolster these organisations. Yet Labour ’s current funding rules are restrictive, with money earmarked for specific but limited sectors. 

In addition to the existing funding structures which exist, we will establish a demand-led, performance-based Poverty Impact Fund, worth £40 million in its first year. 

The Fund will be open to British NGOs and charities, working alone or in partnership with local organisations in developing countries. The Fund will invite submissions for projects and programmes to reduce poverty in developing  countries. Fund managers, drawn from DFID, NGOs and the private sector, will assess the applications, and allocate funds on the basis of their anticipated effectiveness in reducing poverty. 

The Fund will maximise innovation and enterprise, letting ‘a thousand flowers bloom’,tapping into a wide range of NGOs and supporting a wider range of projects than the current structures allow. To balance risk in the portfolio, the Fund will also support projects which are well-established and have a demonstrable performance record. NGOs will have a clear incentive to maximise the effectiveness of their work in order to secure and retain funding.

So there are proposing to work more closely – and fund! – grassroots organizations that deliver results. Without seeing the details (how exactly would the portfolio be “balanced”? Will 50% of funding go to well-established projects? More? Less?), it’s hard to say whether this idea can really work. But we should at least appreciate the effort to bring some new ideas to the table – Cameron and his party probably haven’t cracked the complicated issue of aid effectiveness, but their notion of “post-bureaucracy” might not be such a poor conceptual starting point. 

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of David Cameron…. Not a detractor either, but definitely not a fan