Aid agencies, under pressure to prove their worth, should seize the opportunity to make spending more accountable, says Linda Nordling.
Does development research make a difference in Africa? It may sound like a strange question for this website, but it is one donors are increasingly asking.
It is easy to see why. Having spent billions on stimulus packages to kick-start their stricken economies, rich governments are querying why, with unemployment rising at home and people foreclosing on loans, billions of taxpayers' money still goes overseas.
It is not just avarice at play. Some voices — the most publicised is Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, writing in her recent book Dead Aid — are saying that aid makes poverty worse, not better.
So it's no surprise that aid agencies are facing pressure to prove their budgets come to good use.
But what is remarkable, is that the debate is raging most fiercely in altruistic, peace-loving Sweden.
Sweden spends over 90 million kronor (US$13 million) every day on aid — much of which goes to Africa. But aid scepticism has flooded the country since the financial downturn and a May announcement that Zambia's health ministry reportedly embezzled millions of Swedish aid kronor.
The sceptics include Sweden's aid minister, Gunilla Karlsson, who last month called for a "more honest" discussion on what aid can achieve.
Sweden's aid budget, is already feeling the pinch from the new financial and political climate — the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) is planning to reduce its 2010 budget for 'research cooperation with developing countries' from around US$148 million to US$112 million (see Sweden slashes research aid budget).
Other countries may also make cutbacks. A representative from Irish Aid told SciDev.Net that Ireland is looking at a possible 20 per cent across-the-board aid budget cut from anticipated 2010 levels. And a representative from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which collects international data on aid flows, said he expected a global drop in 2010.
Any falls in aid budgets to Africa will come on top of funding cuts from private sources that the continent is already experiencing (see Africa Analysis: Global finance crisis will hit grants).
The situation is causing concern across the developing world. Representatives from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which has been identified as a likely victim of the Swedish cuts, said earlier this month that these might "seriously curtail" potential long-term returns on Sweden's investments.
Even donors that are not openly speaking about cuts are under increasing pressure to prove that their budgets offer value for money — both for the poor and for the taxpayers who foot the bill.
The UK's Department for International Development (DFID) is putting a renewed focus on monitoring and evaluating the outcomes of its funding. In June it published an evaluation policy to guide this work which, among other things, anticipates a stronger role for developing countries themselves.
"We have to be much better at demonstrating how the money is spent. This requires us to be more focused on value for money, better at managing risk and, of course, demonstrating where and how our investments are making a difference," says Abigail Mulhall from DFID's research uptake team. "If investments are not making a difference, or are failing, we also have to be more accountable," she adds.
DFID is also considering how to get developing countries to adopt more of the recommendations its research suggests. On 14 September it held a seminar for media professionals, policymakers and researchers in Stellenbosch, South Africa, to discuss the idea of funding a global Research Communications Support Facility.
The facility, which DFID is likely to test-run in Africa, would help researchers get their message across to the government or media, and vice versa. In particular it would help DFID grant-holders, who are expected to spend at least ten per cent of their budgets on outreach activities, to plan and carry out this side of their work well.
Make no excuses
But, as one researcher at the Stellenbosch seminar warned, making research accessible does not automatically mean it will be used. For that, there needs to be a "thirst for knowledge". Creating this demand might prove the biggest challenge for aid organisations wanting to demonstrate the value of their work.
The vilification of the aid 'business' in Sweden has forced donors on the defensive. SIDA's director general said last month that although it is important to look for outcomes, the fact that aid aims to help and protect people in some of the world's most corrupt and dangerous countries means you cannot guarantee 100 per cent success.
Such comments, while well intended, risk turning the public off aid completely, by making it sound like some degree of misspending might be acceptable.
With donors' reputations hanging in the balance, there is no doubt that closer scrutiny of aid's value for money should be encouraged and donors should use these lean times to prove their worth to taxpayers.
Doing so could help boost their popularity. But it would also give supporters of science for development the opportunity to add hard facts to the rhetoric that made organisations like SIDA invest in African science to begin with. If investing in science and technology works to boost development, there should be plenty of evidence to support it by now.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, the Guardian, Nature and others.