A Key Question If You Are Reviewing Multilateral Organization Effectiveness: Do We Need a Multilateral Solution?

March 06, 2017

There’s increasing appetite in the US to follow the UK model and launch a review of US spending through international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank. There is a lot to be said for such an exercise—my colleague Todd Moss even carried out a mock version for the US a few years ago which suggested plaudits for Gavi and the African Development Fund alongside brickbats for the ILO and UNESCO. But I think the model has a serious weakness if it is going to be applied as broadly in the US as some proposals, including a draft executive order making the rounds, imply. I’d argue for (preferably) limiting the review to like-to-like comparisons covering aid and development institutions or (at least) using different criteria for judging the many different types of international organizations.

The focus of the UK Multilateral Aid Review (MAR) was on 43 multilateral institutions that spend much of their time delivering aid-funded projects and services at the country level—the International Development Association at the World Bank, for example, which funds investment projects in developing countries from roads through schools to government procurement systems. The MAR was designed to evaluate an organization’s contribution to UK development objectives (what they do) and organizational strengths (how well they do it). And its attention was largely on the activities of those agencies in individual developing countries—so it awarded points for focus of activities on poor countries, striving for results at country level and so on.

The US equivalent might spread far wider—covering some or all of the 163-odd recipients listed in the State Department’s report on US Contributions to International Organizations as well as the multilateral development banks and other organizations not in the State Department report, including GAVI and the Global Fund.  

That will capture a lot of organizations that aren’t in the aid business at all (the Pacific Salmon Commission, for example), a lot of organizations where at least some payments are mandated by treaty obligations, and a lot of organizations where US financing is both non-aid and treaty-obligated including core funding of the United Nations itself alongside UN peacekeeping operations. (For what its worth, the internationally agreed definition of overseas development assistance excludes core payments to international organizations as well as peacekeeping dues.)

That’s a problem. The UK Multilateral Aid Review was (largely) explicitly and implicitly comparing like with like: explicitly between different multilateral forms of aid delivery to developing countries and, implicitly, comparing multilateral aid delivery to bilateral aid delivery to developing countries.  A broader US International Organization review would involve comparing a bunch of activities that can only be done by multilateral organizations only some bits of which might be considered ‘aid’ with a bunch of activities that could probably be done either bilaterally or multilaterally and might well count as aid.

Take some examples from the State Department list of International Organizations: the International Atomic Energy Agency gets access to nuclear power plants worldwide to inspect them. It only has that access because it is an internationally recognized UN body. No US equivalent could do the same job. Or look at UN peacekeeping: 0.1 percent of peacekeepers are American, they cost 1/86th per person the cost of US troops, and they operate with international authorization. The US couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) operate all 16 peacekeeping operations. Then there’s the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol—that’s the institution that provides support to countries to ensure the ozone layer continues shrinking, avoiding millions of cases of skin cancer. The support is part of the treaty, and the US needs the treaty to ensure everyone—China, Russia, India, Europe—all halt producing the chlorofluorocarbons that were destroying the ozone layer.

Even with activities that are closer to traditional aid projects, there’s a sliding scale: Take Gavi, a global alliance that provides the vaccines used to immunize children in poor countries against a range of infectious diseases. In theory, the US could do this alone, but financing Gavi is far more cost effective: US financing helps leverage resources from other countries but more importantly Gavi uses bulk international purchasing to reduce the cost of vaccines, and coordinates delivery to ensure that all target countries get all of the vaccines they need for ubiquitous coverage. The US simply couldn't achieve that by itself without spending multiples the amount it spends in financing Gavi.

The logic of multilateral necessity is perhaps a little less compelling when it comes to financing school construction in Liberia or a road in Afghanistan. There are still lots of reasons why the US might want to work through international organizations—to work in places US officials aren’t welcome, to leverage donations from others, to reduce overhead costs of delivery, or because of the skills or flexibility of the multilateral donor. But in this case, an aid review could reasonably assess whether the multilateral approach was providing a better return for US financing than it would simply channeling the money through USAID.

What does all of this imply for a US international organization review? Perhaps the best choice would be to limit it to apples to apples comparisons: voluntary contributions to organizations that mainly do ‘traditional’ aid of the type that could be delivered either bilaterally or multilaterally. That’s (broadly) the route the British MAR took. But if the review has to be broader, it should use different sets of metrics to judge different types of financing.

Take the judgment criteria laid out in the UK MAR. They include some organization effectiveness measures that are widely applicable: demonstrates delivery against objectives, measures results, achieves economy in purchase of program inputs, controls administrative costs, has a comprehensive and open disclosure policy. But they also include mission criteria that are largely applicable to traditional aid delivered to individual countries: allocating resources to countries that need it most and to countries where it will be best used. Those criteria aren’t applicable to NATO or the Pacific Salmon Commission.

And if the US International Organization review is going to include payments made under treaty obligation and that aren’t about traditional aid, it should at the least add a filter of ‘multilateral necessity’—how much is the multilateral approach simply vital to delivering the outcomes the organization is set up to achieve. For organizations such as NATO and the International Atomic Energy Agency and activities including peacekeeping and global pandemic preparedness, the answer might be ‘critical.’ For organizations such as the International Development Association or activities including support for school construction the answer might be ‘greatly increases efficiency and impact, but not vital.’ Perhaps for some organizations, a review would conclude simply ‘not important.’

For institutions where multilateralism is simply a necessity (and, in many cases, financing is a treaty obligation), the review could focus on organizational efficiency. For institutions where multilateralism is less of a necessity and support is closer to traditional aid, the review might additionally consider prioritization between organizations. But without the multilateral necessity filter, an international organization review would miss the key justification for why many of the organizations were set up in the first place.


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.