Fair warning: I am asking you to pay attention to something that some people argue is of dwindling relevance. Development assistance—the taxpayer dollars that the U.S. government spends globally to reduce poverty, foster economic growth, and help improve the human condition—makes up a smaller slice of the development finance pie than it once did. Private financial flows now dwarf donor-provided funds, and the strong economic growth in many developing countries means their domestic resources play an increasingly important role, too.
Does this mean we should turn our backs on aid? On the contrary. Aid can play a pivotal role in creating the environment—in terms of reliable infrastructure, skilled workforce, legal frameworks, and good governance that attract all this new private investment. And despite being relatively smaller in terms of dollars, improving how we spend aid can have an outsized impact—to ensure that fewer dollars go farther, that the assistance we do offer is worthy of U.S. leadership on the global stage, and that it helps set a standard for global engagement by all actors, old and new.
How we design, allocate and implement development assistance is precisely the question that the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) is tackling. MFAN (which the Hewlett Foundation has supported since 2008) is a coalition of research, grassroots, implementing, and advocacy organizations pushing for more effective U.S. development assistance, originally formed in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections to get development issues on the political radar screen. It re-emerged last week in version 2.0. Its new reform agenda focuses on two fundamental principles to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective: accountability, through increased transparency, evaluation, and learning; and country ownership of the priorities, resources, and implementation of development investments.
Why getting the “how” of development assistance right still matters.If the world’s biggest bilateral donor puts partner country priorities at the top of the agenda, invites their citizens to the table, and opens its books about how much it spends and what it does (or doesn’t) achieve, this sets a standard by which other actors, including partner countries themselves and private investors, are held to account. It allows the U.S. to lead by example and by conviction on the global stage. It helps raise the bar on the kinds of engagement and accountability citizens come to expect and demand of their own governments and of global partners.
Why now. The principles of accountability and country ownership are not new. Why has MFAN chosen now to bring these fundamental principles back into the spotlight? The last five years have brought an increasing supply of rigorous evaluations that test long-held assumptions about traditional development interventions, a major push on open data and aid transparency, and an increasingly frank discussion about the causes of and lessons from failure. In this context, “accountability” takes on a whole new meaning, with vastly more information and data in the hands of citizens, advocates, and governments. Likewise, the notion of “country ownership” gets much more sophisticated when technology enables citizen participation and feedback in ways unthinkable just five years ago. Finally, the concepts of accountability and ownership have been mainly applied to development assistance in stable, democratic countries; but they are largely absent in fragile environments. With poverty (and U.S. assistance) increasingly concentrated in these fragile environments, it is even more critical that we push ourselves to apply these pillars of effectiveness in those places.
There’s a window of opportunity to consider, as well—both at home and globally. The Obama administration, which has in fits and spurts embodied these principles, has less than three years to solidify the gains it has made so far—to embed these basic principles into the DNA of how the U.S. engages on development. Meanwhile, the U.S. government will be at the negotiating table next year to establish the next set of global development goals, the so-called post-2015 goals. What these goals are, and how they are set, should absolutely align with the principles of ownership and accountability, and the U.S. is an important player in making sure they do.
What to watch for.My eyes will be on three things as MFAN pushes this policy platform over the next few years.
First, what do the U.S. Administration and Congress do? MFAN’s policy paper calls for specific and high-profile actions, like U.S. compliance with the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and reducing the number of Congressional earmarks and Presidential directives that make U.S. assistance more about what Americans want than what poor countries need. But we should be watching behind the scenes too, to monitor how the Administration’s initiatives (things like Power Africa and USAID’s Development Lab) embody the principles of accountability and ownership, and the degree to which agencies live up to their own policies for local solutions, evaluation, or transparency. For real impact, these principles need to be embedded in how agencies do all their business.
Second, what does the U.S. development community do? The government is not the only one that bears responsibility to make aid more effective. The broader community, including organizations that contract with the U.S. government to implement development programs, have to walk the talk too. If they advocate for more country ownership, they must also make room for partner country priorities, citizens, and businesses in their own work. If they advocate for greater evaluation and transparency by the U.S. government, they must bring these practices in-house as well.
Finally, what does MFAN do? Ambitious goals like shaping how the U.S. government engages with country partners and on the global stage require a sophisticated campaign founded on solid research and analysis—one that taps into the sensibilities of grassroots coalitions, and leverages the skills of seasoned policy advocates. No one organization holds all this capacity. But across its diverse membership, the MFAN network does. There’s real potential for this network of organizations to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
I joined the Hewlett Foundation earlier this year after more than a decade in Washington, DC. My time in Washington was dedicated to many things, but a common thread throughout them was gathering lessons learned (on behalf of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Center for Global Development)about design, implementation, and evaluation of U.S. development assistance programs. I learned a lot. But, two months in at the Foundation, it’s all about what I am un-learning. For example:
The amount of money you spend is not necessarily related to the influence you have. In Washington I got used to thinking about bilateral grants in the hundreds of millions of dollars, supporting direct investments for economic growth and poverty reduction. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to making grants in the millions (or less) here at the Hewlett Foundation. One month in, I am getting a sense of the big impact that smaller dollars can have. The secret is not just thinking about the scale of direct investments, but also what resources can leverage and signal.
Leverage can mean using grant resources to connect the dots along a chain. For example, supporting groups that generate data about whether kids are learning in school; funding community-based groups that use the data to advocate for better services; and supporting organizations that help build government capacity to use the data for policy-making. Leverage can also mean using anchor funding to attract other funders to a new idea, much more nimbly than bilateral and multilateral donors can.
Signaling matters too—when the size of the check is less important than the strength of the principles. The Foundation’s independence allows it to stick by deeply-held principles over decades, such as standing firm on a woman’s right to an abortion, or to combating climate change, no matter where the political winds blow. Or backing efforts to increase transparency—of government spending, aid dollars, or service delivery—long before transparency was the sexiest thing in development.
On Monday, the 2014 African Transformation Report “Growth with Depth” hit the streets of Johannesburg and the world. Just another economic report for the shelves, you ask? Not this time. Here’s the “who, what, and why” that should make you stand up and take notice.
The Who: If we told you this is an ambitious, continent-wide, agenda-setting, deeply-researched, data-heavy, policy-relevant economic report, who would you guess produced it? The World Bank? The African Development Bank? Guess again. The report is the brainchild of the Ghanaian African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), working in collaboration with home-grown think tanks across the continent. ACET bills itself as a “think-and-do tank, bringing an authentic African perspective,” with staff hailing from eight African countries. African scholars setting a robust agenda for African development. For global development policy makers and advocates looking for the next frontier of country ownership, this is it – at a continental level!
The What: The 2014 African Transformation Report defines a framework for economic transformation in Africa – growth with DEPTH. It is an actionable policy agenda to make the most of Africa’s growing workforce, abundant land, and natural resources. According to the report, growth with DEPTH means:
Making Exports competitive;
Increasing Productivity of farms, firms, and government functions; and
Upgrading Technology used throughout the economy.
All to improve Human well-being.
The report also presents the African Transformation Index: a ranking designed to create some healthy competition among countries, and frankly, to test our assumptions about which countries have the right mix of policies to promote growth with DEPTH. The big surprises are Ghana and Nigeria in the bottom third of the Index and Botswana nowhere near the top. Read the report to find out why!
The Why: “Transformation” is the talk of the town in capitals around the globe. The UN High Level Panel on post-2015 development goals focuses on it; the African Union Vision 2063 calls for it; and it’s at the heart of the African Development Bank’s new strategy. ACET puts forth a data-driven, actionable agenda for what “transformation” can and should look like. The data-driven approach also helps shine a light on what we do and don’t know. Some countries are left out of the Index altogether. The report actually opens with an eloquent forward by Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Yet her country is not included in the Index. Why? Insufficient data. We simply don’t know enough about Liberia’s economy to know whether it is transforming and how.
What’s Next: ACET has done a terrific job of laying out the puzzle pieces of economic transformation in Africa—including what pieces are still missing. Their next step is to use the report as a call to action for African governments, international donors, the private sector, and civil society. When they make that call, it’s time for everyone who cares about the future of the continent to stand up, take notice, and take action.