Heroes or zeroes? Dara’s HRI breaks down aid effectiveness

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, official development assistance will surpass $130 billion in less than two years - a whopping sum and a doubling since 1998. Assessing the impact of donor country aid, therefore, is increasingly crucial.

That’s why the Development Assistance Research Associates created the Humanitarian Response Index, a gauge of donor country assistance that the Madrid-based nonprofit hopes will improve the effectiveness of aid delivery around the world. First published in 2007, HRI may not be perfect, but many see it as one of the best available tools.

“The HRI is one of the more thoughtfully done indexes I have seen, and I have seen many,” said David Roodman, research fellow at the Center for Global Development, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “I doubt that there is a better alternative for measuring humanitarian aid quality.”

Center of their universe

HRI dissects the work of OECD countries through the lens of the Principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship, established in 2004. Data are compiled by teams that fan out to humanitarian aid sites around the globe, such as the areas damaged by Hurricane Felix in Nicaragua or Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. The surveyors speak with victims, aid workers, contractors and nongovernmental organizations, and record all relevant information regarding how donor countries spend aid funds.

Due to its seriousness and thorough methodology, HRI has quickly gained respect.

“I firmly believe that the Humanitarian Response Index will serve as a crucial tool to help ensure that no disaster is ignored, and that every dollar spent helps those most in need,” former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at the release of the 2007 HRI.

That first index put Scandinavian donors at or near the top of most categories, while the United States ranked last in terms of both neutrality and implementation of good donorship principles. The 2008 edition, which will be formally released in September, may generate considerable debate.

“I’m quite certain that the humanitarian aid officials in the U.S. and other countries take it seriously, having been in on meetings with them,” said Roodman, an expert on policy indices and a member of HRI’s peer review committee.

He believes HRI will have a measured impact.

“My guess is that the effect on the U.S. will be more limited because of our divided government - Congress limits the latitude of U.S. aid operations to a great extent,” said Roodman. “There will be more response among progressively minded donors such as the U.K., Ireland, Netherlands, and the Nordics.”

The HRI project director echoed this view.

“The response has been a bit of a mixed bag,” said Phillippe Tamminga. “Some donors have expressed concerns about the index, others see it as a tool to help, others are uncomfortable or disagree with the rankings.”

Tamminga blamed donors’ unfamiliarity for the inconsistent response, but HRI is not unprecedented. OECD has been putting out performance reports for decades, such as its Development Cooperation Report 2007. The Center for Global Prosperity issues an annual Index of Global Philanthropy. A cousin of HRI is CGD’s Commitment to Development Index, which was partially designed by Roodman.

“The CDI broadcasts the message that helping is about more than aid, and covers a vast terrain that includes trade, investment, environment, migration, military affairs, and so on,” Roodman said. “The HRI is much more targeted, and at a set of policies and practices where reform is relatively realistic: Ending agricultural subsidies in rich countries, for example - an implied goal of the CDI - is less realistic than reforming how governments administer humanitarian aid.”

Both CDI and HRI aim at changing the world, according to Roodman.

“Both are using indexes to focus more public attention on important ideas,” he said. “Both are evolving or have evolved in response to commentary provoked by previous releases, so they are part of public learning processes.”

What makes HRI unique, according to Tamminga, is that it looks at donors specifically, and focuses on humanitarian issues such as complex emergencies and natural disasters. HRI measures response to humanitarian needs, involvement of partners, implementation of guiding principles, and accountability.

Changing with the times

HRI will have to adapt to input from aid workers, consultants and analysts, as well as the donor countries themselves, if it’s to continue to be an effective tool.

“There are always ways to fine-tune and improve,” Tamminga said. “This year, we’ve done another revision - that’s a continual process. And over time, as we gain experience, the methodology will continue to be refined and improved. We see this as a long-term project, and even if donors begin to make improvements, our work will inevitably change.”

This year’s focus has been on determining what developing countries and disaster areas require before taking action.

“Needs assessment is a critical factor in humanitarian action,” DARA founder Silvia Hidalgo said in a recent interview published on her organization’s website. “If we do not assess needs, we will not be able to take into account the real desires and needs of people and, therefore, we end up providing responses that are not based on equity or proportionality.”

In the interview, Hidalgo pointed to situations in Peru and Nicaragua in which donors were only familiar with the needs of those closest to urban distribution centers. The result was that insecure and outlying areas were given food handouts while more accessible regions received integrated aid and rehabilitation. Hidalgo raised a related concern.

“When a donor decides how much it should give to a country, objective indicators and criteria are needed in order to make informed decisions about how much funding to commit, where this funding should go and how it should be spent,” Hidalgo said. “The key here is the lives and needs of people, irrespective of the donor’s national or political interests.”

Tamminga, an HRI surveyor in Bangladesh in 2007, recalled instances of military units distributing aid and donors telling aid workers to focus on a certain ethnic or demographic group.

“Certainly, there are contexts around the world where it makes actors difficult to be neutral and impartial,” Tamminga said. “That’s why donor policy is absolutely critical.”

About the author

  • David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.