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To stay relevant in a changing world, aid agencies must focus their resources on meeting low-income countries’ growing demand for data that can help them assess the impact of development activities, a meeting has heard.

With aid playing a decreasing role in many developing nations’ budgets, foreign donors should ditch expensive implementation work, said Ruth Levine, director of global development at funding organisation the Hewlett Foundation. Her comments came during  London Evidence Week, which was convened by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) earlier this month (13-17 October).

Shifting towards a support role of “knowledge building” by providing governments with impact and performance evaluations would strengthen donors’ influence, she tells SciDev.Net.

“Aid agencies are continually on a search to find ways to have leverage over public policy in developing countries,” she says. “Orientating towards being a funder of knowledge generation rather than an implementer is a really effective way to make a contribution.”

Impact and performance evaluations can help to answer the questions that governments ask, such as how well public sector development programmes work, how much money leaks out through corruption and whether employees on these programmes actually turn up for work, says Levine.

These assessments have the added bonus of being much less susceptible to corruption than aid project implementation, she says. This is because in the former money is channelled directly to academic institutions, whereas in the latter an elaborate web of contractors and equipment is needed.  

And although the value of impact assessments is increasingly appreciated — marked by a recent exponential rise in research in the area — donors remain too adverse to learning about failures, Levine says.

With nearly all fields of aid work — HIV/AIDS is a notable exception — dominated by the public sector, governments in developing countries are searching for knowledge that will allow them to improve these programmes, she adds.

“Development agencies of the future should think much harder about working within and across government to improve the positive impact these policies have on developing countries.”

Owen Barder, Center for Global Development 

Listing Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and Uganda as just a few of the countries that have approached 3ie for support in setting up impact evaluation systems, Levine sees a “critical mass of important countries” beginning to demand better data.

But Levine admits she has yet to “test the waters” to see how receptive the development community would be to pursuing this new strategy, adding that there would be many critics of the idea.

One of these is Owen Barder, the European director of think-tank the Center for Global Development.

While he is “fanatically in favour” of more impact assessment, he doubts whether aid agencies are in the best position to take up this role.

“Many of the problems regarding service delivery are local problems,” he tells SciDev.Net. “It is not obvious to me how an agency managed from Washington or London will be able to organise themselves to be local problem-solvers.”

Domestic civil society organisations, think-tanks, politicians, academics and businesses may be much closer to the local communities in question and therefore in a better position to lead on impact evaluation, he adds.

Aid agencies must instead examine how their own countries’ polices outside the traditional aid sphere, such as those on climate change, trade, immigration and intellectual property rights, affect  the developing world, he says.

“Development agencies of the future should think much harder about working within and across government to improve the positive impact these policies have on developing countries,” he adds.