By: Emily Foecke
U.S. international development has entered a new political era defined by the need to defend its funding, principles, and even its existence. Although U.S. international development funding has long enjoyed bipartisan support, many in the new U.S. administration have been openly critical of U.S. spending on development aid. This aid comprises less than 1 percent of the federal budget and finances areas like global health security, post-conflict reconstruction, and humanitarian assistance for famine relief. Those in the development field can defend this funding by simply shifting pre-existing resources; development leaders should adjust incentives to redefine how evidence is gathered by different actors in the field. As development leaders are already actively deciding how to move forward in this new era and reviewing lessons learned on current evidence-gathering efforts, now is the time to ensure they are amassing the most effective evidence possible.
Development leaders should focus on tactically redefining the evidence-gathering role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in project implementation in the field. Industry standards and funding guidelines currently incentivize NGOs to invest their limited overhead funds earmarked for evidence collection in demonstrating positive project results. Instead, grant making structures and industry standards should incentivize NGOs to invest in recording as much data as possible. This would better provide readily observable information and allow for the accumulation of unique evidence focused on the communities in which these NGOs work.
A "data revolution" has begun in international development that emphasizes the need for evidence and accountability. For project implementation NGOs, the data revolution has meant the proliferation of monitoring and evaluation (M&E). NGOs are expected to prove the effectiveness of projects by describing the “causal story” of how interventions lead to improved outcome for their beneficiaries and collecting data points to support that story. The resulting collection of evidence can be quite narrow.
There are several problems with project implementation NGOs’ M&E strategy that demonstrate the need for a change in practice. First, there are countless external factors out of the control of a single organization and project that make it incredibly difficult to isolate a direct cause and effect link between a project and its outcomes. Second, it is common for these NGOs to gather and disseminate inaccurately or inadequately measured information. Third, conducting M&E on the average five-year project timeline in these areas is futile. Social and economic issues like corruption are pervasive and deep-rooted and create complex barriers to equitable development. It is not feasible for short-term projects to solve these long-term problems.
In addition, there are benefits to separating M&E efforts and data collection. Grant-makers are increasing their capacity to evaluate the effectiveness of recipient NGOs and their projects. Independent organizations like GiveWell have also started conducting and publishing analyses on the effectiveness of these NGO’s programs, and other organizations, such as the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), specialize in proving or disproving causal changes resulting from development investments. The most efficient way to allocate data-collection responsibilities, therefore, is for project implementation NGOs to focus their scarce resources on general data collection, an activity for which they are uniquely suited, while other specialist organizations focus on cause-and-effect evaluations.
General data collection involves documenting and validating data points that are readily observable. It prioritizes recording, for example, where resources are going, how they are being used, and basic facts about beneficiary countries, communities, and individuals at many points in time. This also includes valuable qualitative and anecdotal information, such as like personal stories in communities where development projects are implemented.
The ability to provide consistent facts about what is happening in a community across time is indispensable. It is now more important than ever for NGOs to collect a wide breadth of evidence, as U.S. federal funding streams for international development are increasingly at risk. President Trump recently re-enacted and expanded the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits NGOs that provide abortion counseling from receiving US funding. The policy now excludes the maternal health and family planning NGO Marie Stopes International from receiving any U.S. federal funding. Marie Stopes’ work provides a prime example of strategic general data collection by a field NGO. While providing humanitarian assistance after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the organization continuously collected statistics on the number of general and gynecological examinations it gave, safe-delivery kits it distributed, and pre- and postnatal visits for women and infants it conducted. This evidence helped the development community and U.S. lawmakers argue against the re-enactment and expansion of the Mexico City policy and introduce new legislation aimed at its repeal. This data gave legitimacy and depth to the NGO’s argument that the Mexico City Policy would reverse progress on maternal and child health and prevent NGOs from providing many other essential services.
When NGOs are incentivized to focus their resources on conducting M&E, they risk amassing too narrow of an evidence base that can miss pieces of readily-available information. Project implementation NGOs are often the best source of information on what is going on in the field, and their ability to perform this role should be protected and invested in as one of the key lines of defense for evidence-based development policy.
Emily Foecke is the International Development Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also a Research Assistant with the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. Emily earned her Master of International Affairs in 2016 from the University of California-San Diego, where she concentrated on international development policy.