3 big problems with how we think about results and development

U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening listens to a specialist from the U.K. military explain the building of an Ebola treatment center in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone. How useful or disruptive is focusing on results to development work? Photo by: Tom Robinson / Royal Logistics Corps / DfID / CC BY

How do donors aim for “results” without setting up a counterbureaucracy that disrupts rather than encourages good development programs?

A recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact report has taken the U.K. Department for International Development to task for doing just that, which in turn demands a serious reconsideration of how DfID thinks about results and accountability.

Of course, these critiques are hardly new. However this isn’t another nongovernmental organization or academic report slating the “results agenda,” but an independent body that has specifically been set up to ensure the effectiveness of aid and — based on 44 previous reports — is providing evidence about how the results agenda unfolds in practice.

In a nutshell, ICAI argues that DfID today knows better than ever before when and where taxpayers’ money is being spent, but not what that spending actually achieves. ICAI found that the results agenda has tended to prioritize short-term economy and efficiency over long-term, sustainable impact. It has brought “greater discipline” and “greater accountability for the delivery of aid” but also a focus on quantity of results over quality.

Not everything ICAI has to say is bad news; but most of it is. The ICAI findings undoubtedly hold broader relevance for other donors who are taking a similar approach to their result agenda.

So how useful or disruptive is focusing on results to development work? As it is currently understood, the results agenda is dangerously unrealistic, time-consuming and misleading.


Too often measuring results is confused with controlling spending on predetermined tasks. But this implies that when money is spent in a specific way on certain things, we know what will happen. This demands a degree of control over social processes that is not in keeping with what we do know about how development works.

Donors cannot guarantee that they will spend “every penny of every pound of your money wisely and well,” or that spend will be “in the right places, on the right things and done in the right way,” as the past and current international development secretaries respectively have stated. Every bean that an aid organization is given is not a magic one that will grow into a beanstalk. Far from being a problem, this is the reality that the international community needs to find a way of communicating, rather than hiding behind unrealistic promises that cannot be kept.


Counting the beans occupies a huge amount of a development practitioner’s time, rather than allowing them to think about how best to grow a beanstalk and under which conditions. The tools and processes brought in to set this all in motion become part of the problem. Logframes are no longer about participatory design, but holding implementing partners and local counterparts to account for contractual obligations (of course that’s important, but it’s one thing we should care about among many).

DfID’s results framework has sought to come up with global numbers — for example that there will be 10 million women and girls with improved access to security and justice services through DfID support — and then to hold their country offices accountable for providing their piece of the pie. During recent research in Bangladesh, for example, local NGOs expressed their bemusement at such attempts.


The corporate language and reporting requirements for results focuses too much on “cost efficiency” and “value for money” and not enough on actual results.

ICAI states that value for money is a “powerful idea” but then goes on to castigate how it has played out in reality, arguing it has subsumed the notion of impact into the terms of economy and efficiency.

ICAI highlights that the results agenda has made DfID more “cost-efficient,” but this begs the question: cost-efficient for whom, and for what? Bureaucratic efficiency may be an important part of aiming for meaningful impact, but surely it’s not an end in itself. Given that the majority of people in the aid industry and taxpayers alike are interested in helping change the lives of poor people for the better, the question of what such efficiency has actually achieved for people cannot and should not be dodged.

A ‘serious rethink’

So where do we go from here?

Focusing on results and improving donor accountability to taxpayers and to the communities that aid aims to support makes a lot of sense. But the agenda has largely failed to tackle those challenges, and has created a number of perverse incentives of its own. Surely by its own logic, a results agenda failing to deliver results needs a serious rethink.

Here are three suggestions on how to do just that:

1. Reclaim it.

There is some scope to think creatively and improve the results agenda.

Increasingly practitioners are taking up a “Theory of Change” approach which, if used well, can contribute to learning and accountability in complex contexts. More can be done to join up thinking on effective programming and the drive for results: Pushes to develop adaptive programming and to think and work politically (see here and here) offer interesting ways of pursuing a genuinely different “results” focus.

2. Support the reformers.

There are many within donor agencies who recognize the negative effects the results agenda has had on development thinking and practice; these potential reformers need the support of their colleagues, NGOs, researchers and politicians to make change happen.

In DfID, there are some reasons for hope, such as the “Smart Rules” that seek to move the department toward more flexible, adaptive and trust-based programming. The ICAI report is valuable ammunition for those within DfID seeking to make these changes and to ensure visibility at the highest political level, which is where the interest to demonstrate results principally lies.    

3. Tell a better story.

Politicians — especially in the U.K. — urgently need new ways to justify the aid budget in a manner that is simple (not necessarily a bad thing), but not misleading (definitely a bad thing).

The public don’t want patronizing accounts of aid, but an honest appraisal of what’s being achieved and for what purpose. If the demand for results is genuine, we need more genuine attempts to answer it.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Craig Valters

    Craig Valters is a research officer for politics and governance at the Overseas Development Institute. He has an interest in security and justice provision in conflict-affected regions of the world. His work is also concerned with how aid organizations can learn and adapt to the complex social environments they work in, with his recent research analyzing the value of Theory of Change approaches.