Don’t Let the Bean Counters Get You Down

A charity box located outside a church. The U.K.’s value-for-money agenda has crept into all areas of international development, and has led even nonprofit organizations to use dubious claims to boost fundraising and advocacy. Photo by: Steven Depolo / CC BY

In these lean, mean economic times, getting “value for money” has risen to the top of the political agenda. The aid business is not immune (although British football clearly is) and increasingly, not least here in the U.K., there is a demand from the political class to deliver more for less and show results. If we can’t show that our donor dollars have had an impact – and quickly – we will undermine support for development, goes the logic.

Minouche Shafik, the Department for International Development’s senior civil servant, was hauled before the U.K. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee at the end of last year to explain her department’s lack of numbers showing value for money across its programmes. During ill-humoured questioning, one member of the committee asked her: “Instead of answering the questions, you give us an example. Some of the examples are laudable, but when you’re spending £1 billion, answering our questions on value for money by use of anecdotes is insufficient.” The PAC wants numbers and it wants them now. At the end the session, the chair summed up: “We are extremely concerned at what we feel is a very lax attitude on ensuring that there is value — that you try to achieve value — for the investment of U.K. taxpayers’ money.”

Actually, DfID started to think about Value for Money years ago, perhaps predicting leaner times. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says they “pioneered” the approach and should share “good practice” with other donors. But for the bean counters, it will never be enough.

The drive to get better value for money from aid is understandable but wrong-headed because it fails to appreciate that dealing with poverty and development is a long-term, multi-dimensional, non-linear process. It also doesn’t recognize that interventions are often counter-intuitive and some programmes which look like good value end up being bad.

Is quickly scaling up malaria treatment through the “efficient” informal sector a good idea? It might be in the short term, as more prophylactics are distributed, and death rates fall. But it might end up being very bad value if that means untrained medicine pedlars give the wrong dose, leading to the immunity of the malaria parasite, as Oxfam has noted.

To try to measure, quantitatively, the impact of aid will skew your spending in the wrong direction. Andrew Natsios, former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, summed it up when he said: “Those development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable.”

Out of control? ‘Value for money’ claims in advocacy and fundraising

The value-for-money agenda has crept into my own area of work: advocacy. When once it was accepted that campaigns and policy work, in NGOs for instance, could be treated as special and different from, say, service delivery work, donors and managers are increasingly requiring that organisations puts figures on not only how money is spent, but what impact it will have and by when. But if you think about how long a policy change might take to have an impact – say a policy that says that more money will be spent globally on nutrition or teachers, sanitation facilities or water pumps – these impacts will take years to come through, long after the funding cycle has ended.

Real impact on outcomes for beneficiaries – high standards of literacy, health benefits – may take a generation or more.

These arguments, however, are lost on most politicians who have a short electoral time span in which to show results. The media compounds the problem by being even more impatient than the electorate. And, difficult as it is to admit, there are of course plenty of poorly designed and implemented aid programmes out there and a lot of inadequately planned and implemented advocacy work going on.

So what should we do? The development community, including those working on advocacy, need to accept the challenge. We need to continue making the argument that Value for Money is the wrong approach, but we also must propose a different model, one that accepts the need for more accountability and better scrutiny but under terms that make sense in the context.

The Institute for Development Studies has launched the Big Push Back to resist “the new ‘audit culture’ of philanthropic foundations and government ministries.” The first set of proposed responses includes building “counter-narratives” that emphasise accountability to those for whom international aid exists, developing different methods of reporting, and re-claiming the term “value for money.”

We should point out that advocacy itself, when effective, is startlingly good value for money. That’s why over the last ten or fifteen years, NGO after NGO has downsized service delivery and increased advocacy spend. You only have to look at universal primary education, HIV and AIDS treatment, or the landmines ban to see how relatively small amounts of spending on advocacy can have a massive impact on people’s lives.

And we must not over-claim or over-promise what we can achieve. It has become a habit, following the prevailing political and marketing culture, that aid agencies – both governmental and non – make vast claims for what we will do with your money. Rhetoric about “ending poverty” and “lifting millions out of poverty” is dishonest, if we understand that development is about complex power relationships that we can’t always control. The “give us £5 and we will save a life” slogans that NGOs employ for public fundraising is also damaging because it reinforces the simplistic, “quick wins” mantra.

If advocacy is making a difference, then it should be possible to explain how. There is plenty of evidence out there about the effect that advocacy is having, it is just not easily collected, but it is collectable. We need to bring together information about what is happening because of our advocacy and why – more systematically and robustly.

This needs to be about more than anecdotes. It is possible to construct a way of collecting information about political and social processes that is integrated into the way we plan and strategise. In fact, the process makes advocacy more effective and strengthens analysis and action. It’s just good practice, really.

Do you think donors, nonprofits and others have gone too far – or in the wrong direction – trying to quantify international development progress? What does “value for money” mean to you? Tell us what you think! Please leave a comment below.

Read more of Full Disclosure: The aid transparency blog, written by aid workers for aid workers.

About the author

  • Steve Tibbett

    Steve is an advocacy, research and campaigning specialist based in London who focuses on strategy and evaluation. He previously served as director of policy and campaigns for two prominent NGOs and has worked on global trade, worker’s rights, tax havens, food security, corporate accountability, finance and aid. He was a member of the Make Poverty History campaign coordination team and has published widely on international development and campaigning. Steve's writing for Devex focuses on civil society's role in foreign assistance. His views don't necessarily reflect those of Devex.