Keeping the “Evidence” in U.S. and German International Assistance
This past year saw a significant decline in development aid—a decrease of 3 percent to the world’s least developed countries, and of 4 percent in aid to Africa. Particularly in a global context of ongoing humanitarian crises and growing impacts of climate change, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría warns “donor countries are not living up to their 2015 pledge to ramp up development finance, and this bodes badly for us being able to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.”
In tandem with this overall decline, domestic skepticism of aid is on the rise in both the U.S. and Germany. For the third year in a row, the Trump administration has proposed drastic cuts to U.S. foreign assistance budgets, while Germany faces domestic and international pressures to scale up military spending at the expense of international assistance.
In both contexts, skepticism is compounded by an emphasis on financial accountability in aid disbursements—a persistent trend in U.S. policy, and an emerging trend in Germany. This is despite research finding the use of country systems and a focus on outcomes ultimately lead to better development results. While appealing to aid skeptics at home, this financial accountability focus threatens to increase the administrative burden of aid, diverting funds away from the world’s poorest. This also creates disincentives for aid to fragile contexts, where it’s harder to verify results; potentially more susceptible to corruption; and delivers lower “value for money” because of higher unit costs. An overriding focus on financial accountability also violates the aid effectiveness principles of country ownership, of which both the U.S. and Germany are signatories.
But perhaps most importantly, financial accountability is not an adequate proxy for state capacity for service delivery, but service delivery is crucial for improving development outcomes. Achieving better service delivery in aid-recipient countries is a complex, nonlinear process, that does not benefit from slashed—and unpredictable—aid budgets or policy shifts in provider countries.
So, how can we thread this divide in political feasibility and practical need? Strong civil society partnerships in the U.S. and Germany—within civil society, and between civil society and government—can continue advocating for “what works” in development assistance. One particularly powerful tool is the use of narrative framing to connect operational needs with policy goals. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, use a clear “Challenge – Opportunity – Strategy – Focus Areas” framework to clearly communicate their strategic approach toward development issues.
Another example of clear communication can be found in the USAID Journey to Self-Reliance framework. This framework provides a theory of change around how U.S. development assistance supports stronger country systems, in a manner that is “good for our partners around the world, our nation’s security, and the American taxpayer” and aims for a world in which aid is no longer needed. With the right evidence, advocacy, and collaboration, the U.S. and German aid communities should continue to push for “what works,” and make the case for sustained, evidence-based development assistance.