Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Where Every Project Succeeds and Every Intervention is Above Average!

On 20 November 2009, Nicholas Kristof published an article in the New York Times called "How Can We Help the World's Poor?" He discussed three views on this question, those who think: 1) that aid is crucial to help the poor, 2) aid, and aid organizations, don't help but actually hurt the poor, and 3) there are both shortcomings and successes with aid but that this should be demonstrated on a case by case basis.

The first view holds that more money is needed from the developed countries to assist the underdeveloped or developing countries. And, one of the main reasons that there are still so many poor in the world is becasuse of so little development aid. Kristof cites Jeffery Sachs and his book "The End of Poverty" as one of the main proponent of this view.

The second view holds that from the years of foriegn aid, there is no correlation between aid given and develoment. In fact, they say that aid systematically fails, undermines self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and can even harm people. The proponents of this view are William Easterly and his book "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Dambisa Moyo and her book "Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working & How There is a Better Way for Africa."

The third view acknowledges that aid has had and continues to have shortcomings, but that some aid programs and projects do make a difference in the lives of people. Proponents in this camp rely on quality evaluations to empirically, not theoretically, show if a project is successful and the interventions make a difference. These proponents are against evaluations showing that every project is successful, where project failures are buried, and every intervention is "above average," and as Kristof says, "these evaluations are often done by the organizations themselves."

Recently, I had a director of a project tell me, "my projet is too unique to be evaluated!" It is this view that quickly provides fuel to the critics of aid.

I think all too often those who work in foreign aid take it for granted that whatever they do is good and appreciated, by both the world community and beneficiaries, but this is simply not the case. There are many who believe that those funds should be used in other ways to improve the lives of people.

Aid projects and interventions can be good or bad.  However, to determine this, systematic methods of evaluating the merits of a project, as objectively as possible are needed with the findings---both good and bad ---being made public. In other words, the aid community needs to willingly face "what works" but also "what does not work" and not view project evaluations as a way to report "All our projects succeed and all our interventions are above average."

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