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Today we present a slightly unusual edition of the CGD Podcast. We are bringing you highlights of an excellent discussion held at CGD's offices in London which involved, among others, CGD’s Owen Barder. It was a special edition of the Radio 4 program The World Tonight, organized and broadcast by my former colleagues at BBC Radio.
The discussion focused on the UK's aid budget. The panel considered whether it was right for the UK legislated to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development. They also discussed attempts to make aid more transparent, ways to tackle corruption, and how to think of international development in a political landscape where major countries seem to be turning inward.
A consistent theme of President Trump’s campaign and White House tenure is the imperative of ending foreign aid to countries that fail to support America’s policies. These threats were made explicit in advance of the United Nations General Assembly vote on a nonbinding resolution that rebuked the recent US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In a cabinet meeting, President Trump said: “this isn’t like it used to be, where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars and nobody knows what they’re doing.” Regardless of whether the administration makes good on this rhetoric, such posturing undermines US credibility and strains its partnerships with other countries.
Since the foreign aid budget and architecture was established to help stem the spread of communism during the Cold War, it has been an instrument of US foreign policy. Studies of US aid and UN voting have found significant connections between the two, although aid-based punishments or rewards are used sparingly and vary depending on regime type, level of development, and trade relationship between the US and recipient country.
Given that US foreign aid has always been linked to national security, how much of a departure is President Trump’s approach from that of previous administrations? And what should we expect to happen to the 128 countries that voted to express “deep regret” over recent decisions on the status of Jerusalem? (Nine countries voted against the resolution, 35 abstained, and 21 were not present for the vote.)
There are at least three ways in which President Trump’s threat is qualitatively different from previous approaches to tying US aid to the diplomatic actions of recipient countries:
The blunt and sweeping nature of the threat. The threat to cut aid to allies and partners was not tied to broader security and foreign policy objectives. While peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a critical US goal, the treatment of this single issue as a litmus test for apparently all forms of foreign assistance to all countries is uniquely broad. Previous aid negotiations have largely occurred around specific issues and targeted leverage; for example, a threat to withdraw aid in the event of a coup or other serious actions that undermine democracy. During the Cold War, the US sometimes traded one-off infrastructure projects for a UN vote or other policy decision (such as cutting ties with Cuba). And US aid to small countries (such as Nauru and Palau) does largely explain their consistent support in UN votes, including this one. Before the contentious vote to include Palestine as a member of UNESCO in 2011, the US exerted diplomatic energy and cut off contributions to UNESCO itself (as required by law), but there were no reports of threats to bilateral aid. The nature of President Trump’s threat also breaks with precedent in the framing of the vote as a personal sign of loyalty or disrespect: US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley wrote in a letter to UN Member States “that the President and US take this vote personally.”
The public airing of the threat. The carrot-and-stick negotiations around aid generally take place in private to preserve the broader bilateral relationship. President Trump has embraced an unorthodox approach to foreign policy that combines bold and unpredictable rhetoric with a systematic undercutting of the State Department’s capacity and role. Many USAID posts also continue to go unfilled, weakening the overall US foreign policy toolbox. By making such broad threats publicly while undermining his capacity to act on them, President Trump raises the stakes for his own credibility in future aid and diplomatic negotiations—even if his primary audience was a domestic one. Ironically, the high-profile nature of the threat may have created pressure for countries to abstain or vote for the resolution to avoid the appearance of being too eager to toe the US line.
The lack of a realistic implementation plan. Much foreign aid is congressionally mandated—and it is difficult to imagine movement to end programs combating HIV/AIDS and promoting female empowerment because of this UN General Assembly vote. When President Trump’s FY2018 budget proposed to cut development and humanitarian aid by more than 30 percent, members of Congress expressed strong disapproval. But even if aid levels remain the same, the uncertainty itself hampers planning and frays partnerships. There is also the difficulty of developing and implementing a strategy for the many countries that receive foreign aid among the 128 yes votes, including key strategic allies. Egypt, for example, was a sponsor of the original United Nations Security Council resolution that the US vetoed earlier in the week, paving the way for the UN General Assembly vote Thursday. But as of FY2015, Egypt was one of the top five recipients of US foreign aid at nearly $1.5 billion (with a slight reduction to $1.4 billion in the FY2018 request). Even if it were possible, slashing the aid budgets of critical partners in the Middle East like Egypt and Jordan is counter to President Trump’s stated security, development, and humanitarian interests in the region. Not surprisingly, just after the vote, the State Department’s spokeswoman seemed to walk back the threat, saying that “the president has said yesterday that the UN vote is really not the only factor that the administration would take into consideration in dealing with our foreign relations…”
If past experience is any guide, key security partners will continue to receive development and security aid, while poorer countries may be squeezed a little to show that there are consequences for siding against the United States in multilateral forums. More significantly, as other experts have noted, this rhetoric may be paving the way for major cuts to the US contribution to the UN. This risk is heightened by pressure to cut spending to make up for reduced government revenue as a result of the new tax bill. Whether or not there is follow through on President Trump’s threats to aid, the overall effect of this failed gambit is to erode US credibility and nudge countries to seek more reliable and productive partnerships elsewhere.
Germans have given Chancellor Angela Merkel a fourth term as chancellor, but once again without a parliamentary majority. It seems likely that Merkel will now try to negotiate a black-green-yellow “Jamaica coalition” (referring to the parties’ colors) with the Greens and the pro-business Liberals replacing the Social Democrats as coalition partners. Despite the gain in vote for nationalists, our analysis suggests the Jamaica coalition could actually strengthen Germany’s role in accelerating global development, as well as benefitting Germany.
In this blog, we look at the what the Jamaica coalition means using the framework of our Commitment to Development Index—which ranks rich countries on aid, migration, technology, environment, trade, finance, and security.
Germany’s starting point on Commitment to Development
Overall, Germany ranked fifth (out of 27 countries that we assess) and first on migration, largely because it has accepted so many refugees in recent years. We counted migrants as “1” when they came from the poorest country (Democratic Republic of Congo) and “0” when coming from the richest country (Norway). This method quantified that Germany lifted the equivalent of “880,000 poverty weighted migrants” out of extreme poverty last year! But a ratio of one new migrant for every 92 Germans, contributed to the rise of the far right nationalists (AfD) who have become the third largest party in parliament. Regardless of the election results, mounting public pressure will reduce migration. But a poll of economists thinks the Jamaica coalition is actually more migration-friendly than a continuation of the previous grand coalition would have been.
On aid, Germany met the international commitment of 0.7 percent of national income (GNI) on aid (overseas development assistance) for the first time in 2016. This included high expenditure on hosting refugees—but to maintain 0.7 when fewer refugees arrive, overseas development assistance would have to ramp up quickly.
On environmental policies, high emissions per capita mean Germany might not meet the Paris agreement commitment to reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2020. The global poor will suffer the consequences: climate change might push 100 million people back into poverty by 2030. This is partly due to Germany’s poor policy choices, like burning and subsidising fossil fuels. Both the Greens and Liberals want to phase out these subsidies.
On technology more widely, there has been an increase in overall R&D spending to 0.88 per cent of GDP, but this is still lower than in many other countries. Spending more to create new technologies like mobile phones or biometric IDs can transform development and is a perfect example of investing in global public goods. All major parties want to increase R&D spending to 3.5 per cent of GDP by 2025—a “Jamaica coalition” will not change anything significantly here but this is a positive direction for development.
Germany’s trade policies have a significant impact on developing countries. Free trade agreements such as the EU’s “everything but arms” initiative give poor countries tariff-free access and have the potential to dramatically reduce poverty. For instance, a recent natural experiment suggests trade deals such as these can lower infant mortality by about 9 per cent.
On security policy, Germany has been criticized by the US for failing to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. This figure includes spending on UN peacekeeping, for which Germany spends only 0.03 per cent of GDP—less than the OECD average, and this at a time when the UN peacekeeping budget is facing deep cuts. This is a matter of real concern because security and development are closely interlinked—for instance, one study suggests that civil wars decrease GDP per capita by 17.5 percent. Merkel’s conservatives want to double defence spending to reach 2 percent of GDP by 2024. The Liberals also want to increase defence spending, unlike the Greens, who want to specifically focus on increasing support for UN peacekeeping.
Overall then, taking the policy commitments of the Liberals and Greens and adding them to Merkel’s conservative bloc in a “Jamaica coalition” could bode well both for Germany, and development beyond aid.
With the US Congress considering cuts to foreign assistance and aid budgets in other donor countries coming under increased pressure, evidence about what works in global development is more important than ever. Evidence should inform decisions on where to allocate scarce resources—but to do so, evaluations must be of good quality. The evaluation community has made tremendous progress on quality over the past decade. Several funders have implemented new evaluation policies and most are conducting more evaluations than ever before. But less is known about how well aid agencies are evaluating programs.
To fill in the gap, we—together with our colleagues Julia Raifman Goldberg, Felix Lam, and Alex Radunsky—set out to assess the quality of global health evaluations (both performance and impact evaluations). We looked specifically at publicly available evaluations of large-scale health programs from five major funders: USAID, the Global Fund, PEPFAR, DFID, and IDA at the World Bank. We describe our findings in a new CGD Working Paper and accompanying brief. Check out the brief recap of our findings below.
What types of evaluations are aid agencies conducting?
We identified a total of 299 evaluations of global health programs published between 2009 and 2014. One feature stood out to us: performance evaluations made up an overwhelming majority (91 percent), with impact evaluations accounting for less than 10 percent. This is comparable to the share found across USAID evaluations in all sectors by an earlier study. And among impact evaluations, those using experimental methods, known as randomized controlled trials or RCTs, constituted a minority (we only found five RCTs). When looking at evaluations commissioned or conducted by major funders, the often-made criticism that RCTs are displacing other forms of evaluation doesn’t hold up.
How well are aid agencies evaluating global health programs?
We randomly sampled 37 evaluations and applied a standardized assessment approach with two reviewers rating each evaluation. To answer questions about evaluation quality, we used three criteria from the evaluation literature: relevance, validity, and reliability. We considered evaluations as relevant if the evaluation addressed questions related to the means or ends of an intervention, and used appropriate data to answer those questions. Evaluations were considered valid if analyses were methodologically sound and conclusions were derived logically and consistently from the findings. Evaluations were considered reliable if the method and analysis would be likely to yield similar conclusions if the evaluation were repeated in the same or similar context.
We constructed four aggregate scores (on a three-point scale) to correspond with these criteria. Overall, we found that most evaluations did not meet social science standards in terms of relevance, validity, and reliability; only a relatively small share of evaluations received a high score.
Looking across different types of evaluations, we found that impact evaluations generally scored better than performance evaluations on measures of validity and reliability.
What can aid agencies do better going forward?
Building on our analysis, we developed 10 recommendations for aid agency staff overseeing and managing evaluations to improve quality.
Classify the evaluation purpose by including this information in the title and abstract, as well as coding/tagging categories on the agency website.
Discuss evaluator independence by acknowledging the evaluators’ institutional affiliation and any financial conflicts of interest.
Disclose costs and duration of programs and evaluations.
Plan and design the evaluation before program implementation begins; we found that early planning was associated with higher evaluation quality.
State the evaluation question(s) clearly to ensure the right kinds of data are collected and an appropriate methodology is used.
Explain the theoretical framework underlying the evaluation.
Explain sampling and data collection methods so subsequent researchers could apply them in another context and readers can judge the likelihood of bias.
Improve data collection methods by using purposeful or random sampling, where possible, that provide more confidence in findings.
Triangulate findings using varied sources of qualitative and quantitative data.
Be transparent on data and ethics by publishing data in useable formats, and taking appropriate measures to protect privacy and assure confidentiality.
This set of recommendations draws on the high-quality evaluations we found in our sample. These examples showed that it is possible to conduct good quality evaluations for a range of methodologies and purposes. In many cases, quality improvement is possible within existing budgets by planning early or using better data collection approaches. Taking steps to improve quality can help ensure evaluations promote learning about what works and hold funders and implementers accountable—with an eye on increasing value for money and maximizing development impact.