Evaluating the impact and success of an aid project is dependent on several factors. Collier points to transparency, while Easterly argues that local details are important. Aid projects are generally aimed at improving the lives and circumstances of citizens in developing countries. As such, to paint with a broad brush, one can say that an aid project has worked if it has met the goals it set out to achieve. It is also important to note here that Collier argues once aid reaches approximately 16 percent of a country’s GDP it ceases to be effective, this can also serve as a guide for measuring the impact or success of an aid project. Another important factor in determining the success of an aid project is actually ensuring the aid gets to those who need it. Easterly has a great example of mosquito nets ending up on the black market or being used for other things such as fishing, as opposed to getting to those to need them.
Measures such as consistent data than can be studied by other researchers, interactiveness are key requirements in evaluating the success of an aid project. Clemens and Demombynes also point to key factors such as project outcome, determining whether goals were achieved and determining whether the community within which the project was done was positively impacted. In some cases, randomized controlled trials can be used. The task is to assess the change brought about through the project and compare it with the change that may have occurred had individuals not been a part of the project. The challenge with this approach however is that one would need a control group of individuals not a part of the project to more accurately assess change and outcomes. There is also the reality that other factors could contribute to the same change the project is claiming responsibility for.
Unfortunately, not all aid projects can be measured by impact evaluation techniques and in those cases, determining whether the project has worked becomes more difficult. Easterly posits that the easier it is to determine whether an aid project is working, the likelihood of success is higher.
While it is possible to answer “yes” to aid projects working, there is the problem of aid projects generally being micro solutions and not macro, essentially placing a bandaid on bullet wounds. However, there are instances where aid projects have worked, likewise there are some sectors where successful projects are more likely or at least easier. Further, Collier points out that aid has tended to be more effective where governance and policies are already reasonable.
I don’t think aid will ever get to that point where it is always 100 percent successful or where it always works. However, I agree with Easterly in his contrast of the “Planner” versus “Searcher” approach. He writes;
“A Planner thinks he already knows the answers,” conversely “A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors.” Planners trust outside experts. Searchers emphasize homegrown solutions.
Keeping this in mind when planning aid projects may increase the likelihood of answering “yes” to aid projects working.
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Paul Collier (2007), The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Falling Behind, and What Can Be Done About It, Chapter 7
William Easterly (2006), The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, Chapter 6
Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes (2013), “The New Transparency in Development Economics: Lessons from the Millennium Villages Controversy,” CGDEV Working Paper, #342