Power, Politics and Value for Money
A few weeks ago I was a discussant on a panel at a Governance and Transparency Fund meeting about value for money (VfM). The invitation posed a question about whether VfM, effectiveness and accountability were complementary concepts or awkward bedfellows in voice and accountability projects.
It seems impossible to argue with VfM defined in terms of using resources to maximise the impact on poor people’s lives. That’s what makes the idea so powerful and persuasive. However, as discussions at the meeting illustrated, VfM is an inherently ambiguous concept. Some interpretations are more likely to encourage effective, transformational development for poor and marginalised people that voice and accountability projects aspire to than others. The meeting invitation subtly alluded to risks that approaches driven by a donor focus on results, could push agencies to interpretations of VfM that undermine what voice and accountability projects are all about – shifting power relations to enable poor and marginalised people to make a noise about what they value.
Conversations at the meeting illustrated why it is important not to engage with VfM concepts – economy efficiency, effectiveness and equity – on a purely technical level. Debates about value for money highlight issues of power and politics and different assumptions about:
- What aid is and who owns it. Is it an investment by donors or an entitlement – part of a redistributive social justice project?
- What is it trying to achieve – transactional, trickle down development or transformational change in power relations between donors and recipients in aid chains, as well as between governments and citizens in recipient countries.
- Whose values or standards are used to assess whether aid funded initiatives are effective or not, and, related, to whom intermediaries should primarily be responsible – donors or poor people?
- The importance of individuals and relationships in enabling change and enhancing VfM.
- How change happens – is it linear and predictable on the basis of past evidence or complex and emergent shaped by local contexts?
- What can be known and understood about the causes of change – and the relative (un)importance of international development agencies in change processes.
- The extent to which VfM can be used to inform objective ex ante decision-making versus ex post justification.
Christian Aid’s recent VfM briefing is a good example of how organisations can start to take positions on some of these issues. It takes a no nonsense approach to explaining why Christian Aid is more concerned with effectiveness defined in terms that emphasise the importance of equity and sustainable transformational change than economy and efficiency.
The value of transparency and empowering relationships are also made key. Although Christian Aid does not underestimate the challenges involved, it outlines approaches to trying to give poor people a voice in defining and assessing some VfM parameters. Awkward issues such as unequal power relations in ‘partnerships’ with local organisations are tackled head on. Attempts by international agencies to drive costs down could be exploitative or result in local organisations subsidising their more powerful international partners. Descriptions of feedback and complaints mechanisms reveal intentions to pursue approaches to VfM consistent with principles promoted in Christian Aid’s voice and accountability projects.
What I particularly like is the emphasis on context and complexity. The briefing makes clear that VfM judgements require deep understandings of context that go way beyond simplistic comparisons of unit costs. The implication is that VfM should not result in micro management by donors or INGOs. It needs to be managed ‘locally’ within trusting relationships with strong monitoring, evaluation and learning frameworks that are flexible and allow space for adaptation due to unpredictable events and/or changes in context.
None of what is proposed in Christian Aid’s briefing will be easy to implement, but it does provide useful insights into how VfM can be interpreted in ways consistent with the empowerment objectives of voice and accountability initiatives. Does anyone have any similar examples of value for money position papers to share?