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Owen Barder unpacks the results agenda, now so much discussed in the aid and development community, here.  It’s brilliant. He sets out four different motivations of various parties in the community for their recent focus on the “results agenda”. I asked myself which motivation has driven my devotion to the idea of Cash on Delivery Aid (COD Aid). (If you are new to COD Aid, see this short video for a start.)

Here’s a quick rundown using Owen’s taxonomy.

Using results to justify aid to taxpayers. Yes, that’s one reason why COD Aid makes sense though it’s a byproduct not the main motivation.  Taxpayers in donor countries want to know if their tax dollars made a difference.  In surveys and in support for different kinds of aid programs, they are clear that “made a difference” mostly means made a difference in peoples’ lives.  Thus the tremendous support for President Bush’s PEPFAR program.  Legislators could endorse saving lives and explain it to their constituents.  A big benefit of COD Aid is that disbursements of aid are triggered by the recipient government’s annual report of measured and independently verified progress on some “result” like declining infant mortality, increased learning of children, or reductions in rates of deforestation.

Using results to improve aid, ie that development professionals want more aid to be allocated to projects and programs that have already been shown to work – where the connection between inputs financed by aid and some output.  No not in itself a big motivation for COD Aid.  I’ll explain below.

Using results to manage aid agencies. No, not a motivation for COD Aid – at least not in the way Owen frames it, which has to do with managers of aid agencies want to achieve more focus  -- across countries and sectors.

Using results to manage complexity. Yes yes yes.  This is the point.  Owen’s explanation of this motivation is so clear and compelling and succinct that I repeat it here in its entirety:

Many of the problems we are trying to solve involve supporting the emergence of successful complex systems – social and political institutions, economic change and the formation of various kinds of social capital.  These complex processes cannot easily be broken down into a series of steps which will predictably lead to the outcomes we want to see.   Instead these solutions evolve: taking small steps, finding out what moves in the right direction, and building on progress.  The aid industry’s habit of reducing everything into a series of processes and activities which can be planned, tracked and reported not only fails to support this evolution, it can stifle it by preventing both the innovation and the adaptation that evolution requires.  Focusing mainly on results can enable the aid business to resist the tendency to plan and prescribe, and so create space for the emergence of sustainable local institutions and systems.

This last motivation is fundamental to the idea of COD Aid.  It is why #2 above -- using results to improve aid -- is not a key motivation of COD Aid.  #2 puts the focus on what the aid industry does about development and not on what countries and countries’ citizens choose to do given their local setting. It risks the aid industry, with its “lessons” about what works in general (inputs associated with outputs – schools and teachers associated with higher enrollment) imposing those lessons everywhere, reducing instead of enlarging local space to experiment, stumble, recover and build.  This last motivation also clarifies why COD Aid would not invite short-termism and would potentially support long-run institution building.  Development is a complex process; a key motivation of COD Aid is to make space and allow time (say over five years) for a country and a government to fail, learn, adjust and recalibrate. Again quoting from Owen:

. . . .we should be thinking about ‘post-bureaucratic aid’. Our existing systems have tended to lead to excessive outside prescription and micromanagement; and in principle they should not be needed if we can observe directly the results about which we really care.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.