By Renee HoDecember 1, 2015

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AidData recently came out with a report, Listening to Leaders: which development partners do they prefer and why?

According to the report,

“[The] goal…is to inject a new source of evidence into these policy discussions, by listening to and learning from those who are making and shaping policy in the developing world…

Once the exclusive province of technocrats in advanced economies, the market for advice and assistance has become a crowded bazaar teeming with bilateral aid agencies, multilateral development banks, civil society organizations and think tanks competing for the limited time and attention of decision-makers.”

The report is fascinating for a variety of reasons. Namely, it’s the first time someone has decided to systematically ask “beneficiaries” (at the country leadership-level) what they think about the aid they receive.

Secondly, at Feedback Labs we frequently think of feedback loops between ultimate individual beneficiaries (i.e. the farmer who receives extension services, the pregnant woman who attends a health clinic for antenatal care, etc). So, it’s novel for us to think about feedback loops at a more macro, policy level.

Here are some feedback-related points that I found particularly noteworthy in the report. They suggest that feedback can be the smart thing to do— in other words, positively correlated with donor performance and influence.

1. “A development partner’s ‘ground game’—that is, the strength of its local presence and direct interactions with host government officials—seems to inform how in-country decision-makers assess its performance. We find that the frequency of communication is strongly correlated with how host government officials assess a development partner’s performance.“

Frequency of communication could mean a few things. Firstly, it could mean that host government officials provide more frequent feedback to the development partner. This, in turn, could mean that the partners iterate, adapt, and improve more on their projects than had they not received the feedback.

But the second point is subtler: increased presence and communication builds trust and commitment among people. This trust and commitment alone could result in development partners caring more about a particular project (and therefore taking addition steps to assure its performance). This trust and commitment could also result in government officials giving higher marks in their assessment.

2. “Alignment with partner country priorities is positively correlated with the extent to which development partners influence government reforms. This finding suggests that when development partners put the country ownership principle into practice, they usually reap an influence dividend.”

This finding seems obvious and yet it was measured perhaps because donor alignment with country priorities remains weak. It suggests that getting feedback at the get-go and using that feedback from country decision-makers is key to donor success.

Without this alignment between donor projects and country priorities, we could easily see how country decision-makers are less enthusiastic about expending energy on making sure donor projects work. Worse still, fragmentation of priorities can mean that donor projects actually undermine the country’s capacity to deliver on its own priorities.

Now that AidData has collected feedback from country-level beneficiaries, the next step is to close the loop.

What will happen when AidData takes this information to donor agencies? How receptive are they to this information and will it actually encourage a change in their business practices?

In a discussion with Samantha Custer, one of the report’s authors, we learned that most agencies have a few people who are excited to learn of the findings. But for these people, listening to feedback is easier than doing something with it. Especially at large agencies, there is an immense diffusion of responsibility and changing institutional culture is next to impossible.

Beneficiary feedback has to fight upstream against what Ben Ramalingam calls “bureaucratic conservatism and a reliance on those predictable actions and routines that are justified by narratives, regardless of the reality on the ground.” If feedback is to be successful, it has to be used and aid agencies have to accept that they, alone, don’t have all the right answers.

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