The Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting recently slammed Andrew Mitchell’s (Secretary of State for International Development, UK) commitment to results-based aid.  Here’s what I had to say about her somewhat cavalier critique:  (See also Mitchell’s response, where my comment is posted.)

Surely the Secretary is right to emphasize results (something taxpayers should surely expect) and at reasonable cost. From where I sit, in Washington, it sounds like a good idea. It is not, as Madeleine Bunting suggests, sending shivers down the spine of development experts. On the contrary many aid and development aficionados see it as an official finally demanding outcomes and not just reports of money disbursed.

The fear about an insistence on results arises from confusion about what “results” are. A legitimate typical concern is that aid bureaucracies pressed for “results” will resort, more than already is the case, to projects that provide inputs that seem add up to easily measured “wins” (bednets delivered, books distributed, paramedics trained, vehicles or computers purchased, roads built) while neglecting “system” issues and “institution building”. But bednets and books and vehicles and roads are not results in any meaningful sense, and the connection between these inputs and real outcomes (healthier babies, better educated children, higher farmer income) goes through systems and institutions and is often lost. Meanwhile when donors try to “build” institutions and “fix” systems directly they often do even worse. For decades, donor money for institution building has financed expensive consultants to work with beleaguered deputy ministers and district managers, and paid fees to a country’s mid-level bureaucrats to show up for “training” in procurement or tax administration. For decades this ‘capacity building’ has escaped the discipline of asking: To what end? With what measured outcome?

Let us define results as measured gains in what children have learned by the end of primary school, or measured reductions in infant mortality or deforestation, or measured increases in the hours of electricity available, or annual increases in revenue from taxes paid by rich households in poor countries – or a host of other indicators that ultimately add up to the transformation of societies and the end of their dependence on outside aid. For a country to get results might not require more money but a reconfiguration of local politics, the cleaning up of bureaucratic red tape, local leadership in setting priorities or simply more exposure to the force of local public opinion. Let aid be more closely tied to well-defined results that recipient countries are aiming for; let donors and recipients start measuring and reporting those results to their own citizens; let there be continuous evaluation and learning about the mechanics of how recipient countries and societies get those results (their institutional shifts, their system reforms, their shifting politics and priorities), built on the transparency that Secretary Mitchell is often emphasizing.

I believe it is these things that Andrew Mitchell had in mind when he urged DfID to take a close look at piloting the delivery of aid via the Cash on Delivery approach I and colleagues have proposed at the Center for Global Development. Because DfiD is an outstanding development agency (of major bilateral donors, the UK is among the best in our recent QuODA assessment) I have no doubt it can meet the challenge and – yes—define ex ante what results are worth aiming for, and what results are being achieved.