Politics still drives most Western countries’ foreign development aid, because of strong historical and diplomatic relations. But politics is not known to be evidence-based — understandably so.
Even if donor countries spend billions on foreign aid and on development, there will still be a zillion unmet needs. But resources are not only money — they can also be policies. So what if we were to start by using scientific and evidence-based tools for policymaking and priority setting, and only then bring in politics and diplomacy at the implementation stage?
Let me start with an analogy: what ‘traditional’ donors tend to do with aid is address severe bleeding by providing a constant blood infusion, whereas one should rather compress the ‘upstream’ artery. In that sense, trade should replace aid over time; and aid should have a clearer basis in evidence-based policy.
For example, policies can promote technology leaps such as satellite telecommunications to replace landlines, and can also help reduce environmental impacts by banning the import of non-degradable packaging into countries that cannot cope with such waste.
Evidence-based policies should also include the governance of aid programmes — to ensure achievable, efficient and measurable results, fair and transparent selection, and evaluation after a project has been completed.
Debate needs to be opened on the assessment of the evaluation methods themselves. What is most lacking is to learn from negative results, which tend to go unreported. But why be afraid of errors? From the perspective of lessons learned, what has not worked is even more important than the successes.
The Darwinian concept of trial and error, and expanding on what works best, is useful to consider in this context. In practice, this would work by starting a large number of small and short-term projects, with the most successful ones getting more funding at each review step. As things stand, a significant proportion of projects (not based on trial and error) have not rendered results proportionate to the investments — some people go as far as saying that, up to now, most development projects in Africa have failed. 
When shifting from aid to trade, Western countries obviously have to look back at their own missteps before helping others towards economic growth that is adapted to local needs, is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. For example, we must reconsider exporting solutions that only include high-tech elements (such as solar panels instead of gravity lamps) and consumerism approaches such as ‘industrial’ agriculture or fast-food habits that are responsible for lifestyle-induced health problems (such as the explosion in obesity rates).
Finally, bartering high-tech assets and infrastructure in exchange for local resources — such as China building and operating satellites for Nigeria — without true technology transfer is not the best policy either.
In all its applications, policymaking is ultimately a means for donors to be innovative in how they work with aid recipients.
The way ahead
In practice, the selection and implementation of aid programmes should involve comprehensive teamwork, with the systematic involvement of technologists, scientists including social scientists, economists and educators, as well as diplomats.
It will be important to provide an evidence-based online portal where all information on project evaluation and follow-up is openly available. But on top of transparency, what is needed is a way to include local decision-makers and citizens in policy-shaping.
For example, it is technically easy to install a satellite dish, for example, but what is lacking is a better definition of needs, a clearer expression of demand, a consideration of the social acceptability of change — and a business case. Because those aspects are often not addressed properly upfront, projects are too often not sustained locally once the external financing source dries out.
In the bigger picture, solving development problems is about addressing complexity; it is about implementing the ‘right think’ at the right place. In many instances, government aid and philanthropic initiatives do not work hand in hand, and even compete. There is a clear lack of comprehensive policy analysis. If we want to be serious about efficacy, we need to move towards strategic and common policy planning.
Routing the right resources to where they are most effective is important, but is not the end of the story. In the long-run, evidence must also be promoted as a fundamental principle for in-country policymaking. This could help avoid counterproductive policies, such as the depiction of smoking as being healthy in countries such as Indonesia.
Finally, anticipation and foresight are needed to underpin long-term policy and planning. Take the case of biofuels, promoted to reduce carbon dioxide emissions: their negative impacts on food prices, land use and biodiversity could have been avoided had we removed silo thinking between policies in different sectors (such as energy, food, environment or trade) and had we developed anticipatory policies by modelling long-term consequences of using them, for example.
By 2050, up to 80 per cent of the nine billion people forecast to be on the planet will be in Africa and Asia; up to 70 per cent will live in cities, requiring 80 per cent more energy and 50 per cent more food than city-dwellers do now. If one considers that climate change will mostly impact already vulnerable regions, there are gloomy prospects for the environment, health, living conditions and societal, economic and political stability. Only by addressing policies in an integrated way and with foresight can the international community help make planet Earth a better place to live.
Didier Schmitt is scientific advisor and foresight coordinator in the Chief Scientific Adviser’s Office and in the bureau of European policy advisors to the president of the European Commission. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of the European Commission.