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Foreign aid can significantly improve economic, social and human development, but practitioners must be open about failure if it is to succeed in the future, concludes a three-year research programme.
Research and Communication on Foreign Aid (ReCom), a project of the UN University's World Institute for Development Economics Research, attempts to replace the "unhelpful and polarised debate" on whether aid works with one firmly based on evidence, says deputy director Tony Addison.
"The aim of the project is not to make a grand statement that all aid works, which ultimately doesn't help," he tells SciDev.Net.
"What is more useful is to show governments and donors where success can be found and how to recreate it."
Drawing together hundreds of researchers — many from the developing world — with NGOs and policymakers from the fragmented foreign aid field, ReCom will have produced around 200 research, policy and position papers, as well as consolidating existing evidence, when it finishes at the end of this year.
Its work aims to answer four central questions about aid: what works; what could work; what lessons are transferable across countries; and which approaches are scalable.
“The aim of the project is not to make a grand statement that all aid works, which ultimately doesn't help.”
Four thematic areas — growth and employment, social sectors, gender equality, and environment and climate change — provided "good to strong" evidence of the positive impact aid can have on development, says Addison.
For example, the report finds that aid encourages private investment by improving infrastructure and institutions, and is linked to progress in a variety of areas, including healthcare, education and sanitation.
Aid aimed at reforming agricultural institutions, with a strong focus on technology, is highlighted as a particularly promising method for ensuring development in the face of environmental concerns.
But the project found a more mixed impact in the area of governance and fragility.
Aid played a role in bolstering democracy in countries such as Zambia and Ghana — whose successful 2012 elections were supported by foreign involvement — but the failure of donors to mitigate the Islamist uprising in Mali underline the varied results, says Addison.
The aid environment is so diverse that experts who make general claims based on their own narrow fields can be misleading, he adds, and it is these extreme, over-simplified views that currently captivate policymakers.
By "distilling the wisdom of the crowd" ReCom is an important step towards consensus and acts as an antidote to extreme views, he adds.
Gideon Rabinowitz, a research officer at the Overseas Development Institute's (ODI) Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure, says evidence is the best tool for challenging narrow political agendas, and that efforts must be made to communicate with civil society in developed nations, where aid programmes are under attack.
Negative public opinion may be making donors reluctant to disclose failures, instead focusing on short-term, low-risk projects, he adds.
It is essential, therefore, that donors and governments must use this information to justify their investments, says Rabinowitz.
Link to ReCom project results
See below for a video on results-based approaches to foreign aid: