Opinion: Federal budget claims support for evidence, but slashes funding for it

By Shiro Gnanaselvam 20 June 2017
A shot of $100 bills. Photo by: Ervins Strauhmanis / CC BY

In the House and Senate budget hearings last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson frequently commented that the reduced foreign aid funding levels did not reflect the ability of the State Department and USAID to be effective.

Having worked for two decades on improving the effectiveness of international development programs through monitoring, evaluation and learning, I agree with his statement that “more money doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes.” However, I would argue you do need to fund the mechanisms designed to gather evidence about the outcomes and impact of foreign aid.

The proposed fiscal year 2018 foreign assistance budget slashes funding for the very activities that provide this evidence. If we want the U.S. taxpayer to believe the U.S. government is serious about using evidence for effective foreign aid, Congress should restore this funding.  

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In fact, within the overall federal budget, Chapter 6 — “Building and Using Evidence to Improve Government Effectiveness” — gives specific guidance to this end. It “requires evidence — evidence about where needs are greatest, what works and what does not work, where and how programs could be improved.”

However, the guidelines in Chapter 6 are not implemented in the 2018 budget request for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The budget cuts aimed at activities and initiatives that support aid effectiveness are disproportionately large relative to the already significant top-level reduction proposed for foreign assistance.

At USAID, the top-level budget for 2018 represents a 32 percent reduction from FY17 levels. Within the agency, the Policy, Planning and Learning bureau is slated for a 44 percent reduction from 2016 levels. More worryingly, the Learning, Evaluation and Research arm within PPL is slated to have its resources reduced by 60 percent. This business unit has been at the center of USAID’s efforts to elevate the role of evidence and data in decision-making and to rebuild the capacity at the agency to measure results.  

The USAID Global Development Lab is facing an 86 percent cut, yet its very purpose is to accelerate development by bringing data and evidence to bear in sourcing, testing and scaling innovations.

Even the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — the flagship program that has saved nearly 12 million lives in its 15 years of existence — has not been spared. Funding for technical support, strategic information and evaluation has been zeroed out of the budget of the Global AIDS Coordinator, which oversees the program.  

In the new combined economic support and development assistance account, a mere .02 percent is designated for program design and learning.  

All the talk of effectiveness will be compromised without a strong core infrastructure to foster a culture of evidence-based decision-making within USAID. Years of hard work to build this infrastructure that started in the 1990s following the enactment of the Government Performance and Results Act and accelerated over the past 10 years have started to pay dividends.

USAID has a strong evaluation policy and has trained its staff in the tools and methodologies of evidence-based decision-making. The agency is now doing three times as many evaluations of its programs and activities than it did just 10 years ago, and 71 percent of those evaluations have informed decisions about project and activity design. Sixty percent have informed the development strategies in countries where USAID works.  

While further improvement is certainly needed, decimating the very mechanisms in the agency that will enable meaningful reform and increase programmatic impact is not the way to go.

So, what is the way to go? Here are three things that should happen as the USAID budget moves through Congress.

• Use the principles outlined in Chapter 6 of the budget to make downstream budget decisions.
• Protect the funding mechanisms responsible for monitoring, evaluation and learning.
• Build up (and reform where necessary) the structures, tools and systems for evidence-based decision-making. Do not eliminate them just as they are starting to deliver results.

As noted in Chapter 6, “using evidence to improve government is what taxpayers expect.”

Exactly! It is my fervent hope that the resources to enable the foreign assistance agencies to do just that will be reinstated.

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