Barder: Get the Public Involved in Aid Reform

Boxes of aid to be delivered to Haiti earthquake victims. Photo by: British Red Cross / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 British Red CrossCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Owen Barder offers two ideas to reform the aid system: boost involvement of taxpayers and promote diversity in the types of donors. 

Aid workers often feel they are restricted from improving the delivery of aid “because they have to take account of the preferences of the people whose money they are spending,” Barder writes in a blog.

“In my view, trying to deliver effective aid despite public opinion is fundamentally misconceived and unsustainable; this model is beginning to fray at the edges, and could well fall apart,” he explains.

The alternative, according to Barder, is to engage the public in an “informed conversation” on how to achieve aid efficiency by sharing information and building a common view instead of trying to get them disempowered.

Barder, the director of Aidinfo, an initiative seeking to enhance aid transparency, believes that the poorest nations should receive more aid, and to achieve this, the aid community owes the public an explanation why such a move will lead to better results.

“In the long run, public opinion will determine how much aid is given, to whom, and by what means: we cannot and should not try to sidestep the argument by putting the administration of aid beyond the reach of public opinion. The only sustainable way to make aid more effective is to change the political pressures by producing persuasive evidence and analysis,” says Barder, who is also a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development.

 Barder likewise says that foundations and the rest of the philanthropic community can be tapped to enhance the aid system since the diversity of official donors can help cultivate innovative ideas.

“There is huge potential for the growing diversity in the aid system to improve the effectiveness of development system, if different organisations focus on the contributions that they can make,” he says.  

Foundations can take on the role of venture capitalists, which assume bigger risks, while private aid can target grassroots-level programs, Barder suggests.

“Diversity of approaches and innovation are essential, but this must be accompanied by mechanisms which kill off bad innovations and take good ideas to scale; otherwise the effect is simply to add to costs and fragment systems,” he says.

Barder, however, doubts that foundations can do effective work, stressing that “at their worst, foundations are much less effective, and behave even worse than official donors.”

He says that “massive unpredictability and volatility” of grants, failure to “build on” previous experience and “capriciousness and personality-driven priorities” hinder foundations from making effective contributions.

About the author

  • Ma. Rizza Leonzon

    As a former staff writer, Rizza focused mainly on business coverage, including key donors such as the Asian Development Bank and AusAID.