UK aid: The trouble with numbers

Children affected by floods in Pakistan receive U.K. aid. The Department for International Development’s latest annual report is chock-full of numbers but doesn’t have a good story on how U.K. aid has changed lives. Photo by: Vicki Francis / DFID / CC BY

Something’s missing in the U.K. Department for International Development’s annual report: A good story on how U.K. aid has changed lives.

The report is full of figures explaining how many people U.K. aid has reached as part of the goals it set out in March 2011. For example, DfID reports it has immunized 38 percent of the 55 million children it aims to reach by 2015. The aid agency also estimates it has trained more than 90,000 teachers via World Bank and Asian Development Bank programs. DfID’s goal is to train more than 190,000 teachers by 2015 as part of efforts to improve the quality of children’s education.

But numbers alone can’t paint the full picture, at least in some sectors. DfID says it has helped 2.5 million people cope with the effects of climate change. The report, however, does not detail how DfID support was able to do that. It also claims to have provided close to 12 million of the 50 million people the United Kingdom aims to help lift out of poverty with access to financial services. But do these programs guarantee people’s way out of poverty?

Further, the report updates two targets DfID aims to accomplish by 2015, which the aid agency set after March 2011. Instead of 10 million, the department has raised to 20 million the number of children and pregnant women it aims to reach with its nutrition programs. It now also aims to provide another 30 million people with clean water, sanitation and improved hygiene.

These increased goals are all noteworthy. But if the United Kingdom wants to win support for its aid programs, especially plans to legislate 0.7 percent aid spending, a new report indicates it may have to go beyond the figures.

new report by the Overseas Development Institute and the Institute for Public Policy Research says people are more interested in stories on how countries have achieved progress, and that for the public, these stories are better barometers of aid effectiveness. As such, the report says recounting successful aid stories may be more effective than campaigns focused on “pounds spent.”

The report also cautions the U.K. government and nongovernmental organizations against using heartrending images in their campaigns or fundraising appeals — those that show people in dire situations. They give a sense that aid may not be working after all.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.