Value for money in international education: a new world of results, impacts and outcomes?
Imagine if development partners would only pay for results if they were delivered (Cash on Delivery) or if they requested ‘money back’ guarantees from developing countries?
Imagine if development partners would only pay for results if they were delivered (Cash on Delivery) or if they requested ‘money back’ guarantees from developing countries? This seems unreal as grants of official development assistance (ODA) are not about assurances or money-back guarantees. However, it is a fact that donor grants are increasingly expected to yield concrete results.
That said, the concern about Value for Money (VFM) is certainly climbing up the agendas of development partners and governments of developing countries, as is apparent in NORRAG NEWS 47 (NN47), where 40 authors examine VFM for the education sector and for development aid more generally.
Evaluating the increasing importance of results and the emergence of impact on development aid
For government agencies such as the DFID – which continues to have a high level of political and financial commitment to maintain and raise ODA (read a new critical account of the case for raising and targeting ODA at 0.7%) despite a resource‐constrained environment – the pressure is intense, both to deliver change to intended beneficiaries (the very poorest) and to be able to demonstrate credibly what is actually being achieved with taxpayers’ money (the picture is slightly different for emerging donors and VFM).
The increased focus on results, evidence and VFM in the field of education provides an opportunity to tackle what some see as the appalling conservatism and lack of questioning that characterises much of the sector. Furthermore, many say that the benefits of this new focus far outweigh the risks of adopting it. Others maintain that VFM is a good principle as long as it is not viewed from a purely economic perspective. The results agenda is important for four other reasons:
- we cannot sustain rising aid budgets in the face of growing public scepticism unless we can demonstrate to the people who pay for the aid that it is making a difference;
- we have a duty to the world’s poor to use money as effectively as we can;
- measuring results is the key to alleviating the dysfunctional political economy of aid;
- measuring results is the most plausible response to complexity.
The influence of VFM on aid programmes
Owen Barder also lists seven worries regarding VFM which are echoed in the articles of many other NN47 contributors:
- It may add to bureaucratic overload;
- It may make aid less strategic;
- It may impose the wrong priorities;
- It may ignore equity;
- It may create perverse incentives;
- It may inhibit partnership;
- The results information is all bogus anyway.
As aid agencies will be assessed on their measurable results, they may be inclined to opt for activities whose results are easy to measure, regardless of their sustainable impact on fundamental developments in the society concerned. VFM may also preclude the possibility of further developing projects with uncertain results. What is more, by excessively focusing on measurable results, the aid industry ignores the essence of the development process and thus undercuts the very objectives it pretends to pursue: ownership, accountability and participation. VFM may also impact on the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations of giving aid.
The pressure of demonstrating that results have been achieved at the lowest possible cost gives the strong impression that impact is all about measuring quantitative results, preferably in the short and middle‐term. Several authors in NN47 wonder how the principle of VFM is to be applied to education which, at the end of the day, is not in need of economic justification as it is a basic human right.
Demonstrating results means that we need participatory assessments that involve both the donor and receiver, as well as a larger number of rigorous impact evaluations in a wider range of contexts. Of course, it may not therefore be viable and feasible to have impact evaluations for all the interventions or to have one ideal model of impact evaluation. It should be remembered that evaluations are no substitute for continuous learning and adapting approaches.
It is also more difficult to measure less tangible things like education quality. It is more difficult than assessing outcomes when they are influenced by so many other (no more easily measured) variables. Furthermore, it is more difficult to measure social and long-term benefits. There is a danger that VFM could lead to a situation where we are praised and reinforced for doing mediocre and even wrong things really well because they are readily measured.
On the bright side
There is a very positive side to the emergence of Value for Money as it is part of a reaction to the popular and media-propagated view that much aid is wasted. Most authors in NN47 agree that notions such as ‘value‐for‐money’ or ’return on investment’ make social and especially economic sense.
Until recently, evaluators argued that it was too difficult to disentangle all these different factors to state definitively the role of aid. But the situation has changed with the spread of experimental and quasi‐experimental impact evaluations, which are indeed able to answer the attribution question (Howard White).
Doing the right thing, even if there are no guarantees of success!
While there are no guarantees of success for any donor-funded programme, the drive for VFM should stimulate progress towards doing several worthwhile things with more evidence. There are health warnings, however, about stopping other worthwhile things that are extremely valuable even if they very hard to measure.
This blog was recently published at the NORRAG NEWSBite. Ad Boeren is a Senior Policy Officer at Nuffic. Kenneth King is the Editor of NORRAG News and Emeritus Professor at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. Robert Palmer is a member of the NORRAG team.