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The problem flatmate who’s always asking for something…..

2012 July 23

DFID have put considerable efforts into getting the aggregated data to report against the 25 results identified in its performance framework.  Yet there seems to be limited value in the effort DFID has made, either in terms of reporting transparency or indeed learning and ‘management for results’.  

The UK Department for International Development (DFID)published its Annual Report on 25 June under its new union jack branding. The report presents progress against DFID’s results framework, showing the taxpayers what has been bought for their money. Level One measures the extent to which the Millennium Development Goals have been achieved and to which DFID claims some contribution. Lev el Two  are the results that DFID claims are attributable to its investments.  Some of these results are fairly specific and express clear values in themselves, such as neonatal lives saved. Others offer much room for interpretation about the nature of the support: e.g. the number of countries supported in “freer and fairer elections”. Yet others  are both broad and only means to ends: children supported in primary education, people with access to financial services.  What was the nature of the financial services, and what does access actually mean? What change did this bring in people’s lives? Are the numbers (11,900,000) good or bad, reasonable or an unreasonable amount given the amount spent?

Many of the indicators say little, therefore, about either the success or the impact. Yet collecting data requires considerable investment of time and effort. At the Big Push Forward, we’ve heard stories of project officers in agencies who have recounted the harm done to partnership relationships as they’ve asked for information at a level their partners felt was not relevant to their project or their work. UK development NGOs risk becoming the problem flatmate or lodger, who’s always asking for something.

So what are the benefits in relation to the costs?  According to DFID:

“By measuring results we get a much better idea of what works and what does not so we can refine our programmes accordingly. This helps ensure that UK aid is focussed on the best value poverty reduction programmes.  DFID has also published results against the framework as part of its commitment to transparency.”

It is hard to see how the data supports what works.  At this level of aggregation, the numbers seem too abstract to be of utility for DFID and its partners in learning how to improve programming.  Nor do they mean much to UK taxpayers.  A recent IPPR/ODI paper suggests that the public is interested not in what but how, not in flat indicators but in more meaningful discussions of the complexities behind aid and how it works. DFID’s indicators are of very limited use here. At the same time the transaction costs and bureaucracy are potentially damaging to the quality of relationships and  the demand for easily aggregated numbers risks prejudicing development agencies’ capacity to support transformative development.  Look out for how DFID’s approach to ‘results’ is part of a wider trend in the international development sector!

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