Is Aid Dead? We Don’t Actually Know

I'm not the first person to complain about the lack of data available on development aid. In recent years, there has been an increase in calls for greater accountability for results achieved by development aid. However, the call for better information surrounding development aid - how much aid is given, where it is allocated, how does it flow, etc. - is alarmingly muted, even after evidence has emerged suggesting that the sparse data we do have is suspect.

How can we expect to keep the commitment to aid when we do not have sufficient account of the resources we are deploying in pursuit of development impact?

I don't mean to overdramatize this, but we should be very concerned about the glaring data gap across much of the development sector. The health sector is an area of particular concern; it has experienced unprecedented growth in resources over recent years, with funds from international donors reaching $22 billion per year in 2007, a tremendous jump from $5 billion in 1990.

While it is extremely positive that donors have made such a significant commitment to global health, what's shocking is that we are willing to allocate these sums of money without having accurate, publicly available and detailed information on how exactly these resources flow once disbursed and how effectively they are converted into treatments or services for patients in developing countries.

Data is plagued by a variety of challenges - it is often self-reported, sporadic, non-standardized and inconsistent when compared across sources. A number of notable players have raised concerns about these challenges. Recently, the health journal the Lancet, published a study by Chris Murray's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which sought to track financial resources and health impact in development assistance. The authors reviewed health development assistance from 1990 to 2007, and struggled even to determine just how much funding goes into global health and for what purposes. They found that out of the $22 billion, only $14 billion had data at the project level to help determine for what purpose the funding was allocated. Furthermore, the data was very difficult to reconcile across programs and donors.

The Center for Global Development has also taken up the issue. Recommendations from its Evaluation Working Group led to the founding of the International Initiative on Impact Evaluation. In addition, its Demand Forecasting Working Group recommended an independent "infomediary" to collect key data on markets for donor-funded health commodities; this has yet to be done.

Are you concerned yet? So, how do we transform the availability of data and create dramatic improvements in the accountability of aid? A few radical, but eminently doable, proposals:

• Increase public disclosure of existing donor data.

• Use basic technology (e.g. mobile phones) to better capture and disseminate data from the beginning: How much is allocated? To where is it allocated? What has it achieved?

• Require an independent third party audit of international donor-funded health programs based on robust reporting standards.

The cynics argue that those in the development sector don't really want to know data on performance because it would reveal the ineffectiveness of the entire enterprise. They would say aid is dead. The question for those in global health and development is: Can we prove them wrong? And, if we find out aid is dead, do we have the will for dramatic transformation to ensure our work does indeed positively transform lives?

Daniella Ballou-Aares is a partner at Dalberg Global Development Advisors. The views expressed in this guest blog are the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Devex.

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