Published 10/1/2015
Author: Renee Ho

The Washington DC-based Center for Global Development (CGD) recently hosted an event to present findings from a Pew Research Center survey. The survey tried to ask, “What Are Africans’ Real Development Priorities? And What Do They Think of Aid Agencies?”(full report here).

The CGD discussion revolved around the logical follow-up question:

Are the issues that most Africans care about on the agendas of foreign aid agencies?

Aside from some of the methodological discussion, here is what I found to be the more interesting issues raised and some of my thoughts:

  1. Should polling determine policy?

    We believe democracy to be a valuable form of governance but polling is not really democracy in action. It’s simply a survey of a select number of people. So, no— if we generally believe democratic processes should determine resource allocation and government decisions, then polling isn’t sufficient.

    There is a secondary question of whether polling is a good way to get hear from people and get public opinion. Maybe at a high-level, government and aid agencies could use polling results as a post-check, to see if generally their decisions align with popular opinion. But that’s about it.

    My own (unresolved) thinking concerns whether an uninformed opinion is a “true” or “good” opinion. Deliberative polling suggest that no, people need to get fair information and have an opportunity to properly think. Without an informed decision, people are using mental heuristics—shortcuts—to get at answers that they may not, at heart, actually agree with.

    The psychologist, Daniel Kahneman describes this as System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 “is the brain’s fast, automatic intuitive approach.” System 2 is “the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates.” In most aspects of life, System 1 dominates.

  2. What are the institutional and organizational constraints that cause the misalignment with African priorities?

    Many individual program managers might actually know about the on-the-ground priorities and want to align with them. They design programs but hit bottlenecks within their own organization.

    Thinking specifically about US foreign aid, we have to consider how many actors are involved in setting— and fragmenting—priorities. There are a variety of congressional earmarks and sweeping presidential initiatives. Consequently, funding doesn’t follow the strategic plans developed at the mission level by the people who are arguably closest to the “beneficiaries”.

    Ambassador Mark Green explained a time when an inspector-general reviewed aid programs. Half of country-led programs had to be thrown-out and redone—they simply didn’t meet earmarked budget realities.

Watch the whole CGD event (including Q&A):

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