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Evaluating the impact of international aid, scientifically
January 24, 2013 2:32 AM   Subscribe

International aid projects come under the microscope Clinical-research techniques deployed to assess effectiveness of aid initiatives.
posted by infini (3 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

I must say, this piece does not start of well: the opening para is a farrago of unsubstantiated generalisation:
Not long ago, ‘research’ was a dirty word in international-development circles. The prevailing view was that the time and money available should be spent implementing aid projects rather than analysing their effects in detail. For most projects, assessment was limited to tracking how much they spent and whether they reached their end points.
The old, "It's so common I don't even need to furnish a single example to my battalion of sweeping generalisations" trick.

Definitely worth pushing on though, after that ignominious beginning, there's actually some proper journalism tucked away in there.

I do feel that the writer's ignorance of aid as a sector is obvious, however; she gives very short thrift to the idea that assessing the impact of aid programs - however flawed or patchy - in a "scientific" way is actually something that's been going on for a long time, decades, even.

But I find a lot of scientists don't have much time for history; a real shame, but I guess you don't get many grants in their fields for that kind of extra-discipline context.

Regardless, it's certainly true that the more rigorous, varied and multi-disciplined ways we have of assessing the success of aid programs the better.

I do think we need to be alert with these discourses, of putting outcomes and/or needs into a maslovian kind of hierarchy. Different programs can have very different goals and that's okay - multiple contexts require multiple approaches. One of my aid bugbears is that popular perception of the sector - and certainly some parts of the sector itself - remain bound up in a kind of Grail-like quest for an "aid-recipe", where if the ingredients are tweaked just right, aid will work for everyone.

I dunno, to paraphrase Tolstoy, "Unhappy countries are unhappy in their own ways." What works for Bangladesh may not work for Cote D'Ivoire, or more likely what worked for one part of Africa may not work for another - or even the same part at a different point in time. Heterogeneity is something the sector and its funders still struggle with I think, and acknowledging how little we know about the workings of aid. Research like this could be very valuable in highlight that, or in giving a false confidence. Interesting stuff, thanks.
posted by smoke at 3:01 AM on January 24, 2013 [9 favorites]

Post happens in the midst of a wonkwar carrying on in Duncan Green's influential From Poverty to Power blog on the role of evidence in development. One view (from two heavy-weight positivists from the UK Department for International Development) argues that technical interventions informed by evidence are the way forward for development. The other view (two posts), from leading academics coming from a critical / interpretivist standpoint, arguing that you can do technical interventions that have positive effects, but that this approach / worldview will not be appropriate to inform the kind of transformative development that will support changes in social inequity and power imbalances. The former allows for template programming (to some degree), the latter not at all (smoke's point, I think).

It's unfolding against a background of profound changes within donor countries and a wave of managerialist reforms within donors, basically a debate over the soul of development - technical, but probably unsustainable development that does significant good, but is unlikely to support the social changes that takes/keeps people out of poverty; or riskier, more difficult work that seeks to support and foster long-term change but may be ineffective and unhelpful.
posted by YouRebelScum at 3:22 AM on January 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

This article makes it seem like using the scientific method is a new approach in international development. Esther Duflo has been using "scientific" experiments in international development for years. She is one of the founders of the Poverty Action Lab.
posted by oceano at 7:33 AM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

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