Comment on Are scholarships good aid?

Dear Markus,

Thank you for taking the time to write a thoughtful response to yesterday's blog on scholarships. It sounds like you were put through the mill getting the Freedom of Information request from AusAID and it is good that you persevered so that we can all read the reports and have a more informed discussion on the aid program.

You've clearly given the issues a lot of thought, so here are three debates that I'd like your views on:

1) A debate about the debate. We've been running a series of blogs on the aid program over the last six months or so, and there are a growing number of other blogs on Australian aid issues. We also ran a conference on doubling aid in February. One issue that has struck us is that the debate among academics and aid practitioners (e.g. budget support, aid transparency, independent evaluation) is very different to the debate in the political sphere (e.g. cutting funding to indonesian schools, using aid to tackle Islamic extremism) and the mainstream media (e.g. expensive consultants, aid fraud). I liked that your article moved the debate from aid fraud to development effectiveness. Why is there a divergence of debates, and which debates should we be having?

2) A debate about the development effectiveness of scholarships. My post isn't a rebuttal of the points raised in your article, but rather a rebalancing to include additional information from AusAID and flag the ANAO and Aid Review reports, which will important inputs inputs into a discussion on the effectiveness of scholarships. You make some strong points on waste in the scholarships program, and like you I am skeptical, which is why I hope the ANOA report and Aid Review will zero in on this. Then there are then broader views on the scholarships program that should be considered, including from beneficiaries who have gone on to play important leadership roles in their countries, and a discussion of how scholarships fit alongside an approach to capacity building and investment in local tertiary institutions.

3) A debate on transparency and accountability. This is where I strongly agree with you and we've been running blogs on this issue. The Australian public deserves much better information on how aid is spent and this is necessary for a healthy public debate and for accountability. AusAID needs to be more proactive in sharing and communicating information, which is why I am encouraged--even I don't get 'excited' by such things--by their draft agency plan for the Information Publication Scheme. Australia has also signed up to the International Initiative on Aid Transparency (IATI) and Sandy Hollway has called for 'warts and all' transparency. If AusAID follows through on this, then it will an exciting opportunity to improve aid effectiveness.

Thank you again for taking the time to write a thoughtful response to my blog and I hope you will continue to read our articles on aid transparency, accountability and aid effectiveness.

Best regards,

Matt

Comment on Are scholarships good aid?

Rick, thanks for the links to your M and E site. The trial of Sensemaker is referred to in AusAID's 2010 update on scholarships. Unfortunately they don't provide further details.

Comment on Are scholarships good aid?

Can you point me to sources of more information about the following? "AusAID is also trialling a new tool – Sensemaker – to assess scholarships impact. Results of the trial will be available in March 2011."

I have written on its use elsewhere, not as an advocate or user but as an independent and interested observer. See http://mande.co.uk/2011/uncategorized/using-stories-to-increase-sales-at-pfizer/ and to a lesser extent at http://mande.co.uk/special-issues/participatory-aggregation-of-qualitative-information-paqi/#self-categorised

Comment on Are scholarships good aid?

An interesting post, Matthew. I've already had my say in The Canberra Times, but I must address some of the points you've raised, because I believe you're being very generous to AusAID.

For example, I'm surprised you praise the agency's transparency on this matter. Did you know the documents about the scholarships that are now on AusAID's website are only there because I requested them under freedom of information law? They are not new documents, as you point out. Perhaps you believe that AusAID was on the verge of publishing them, but that, for whatever reason, it never quite got around to it. I don't.

Indeed, I pointed out in last month's Public Sector Informant that AusAID breached the FoI Act by delaying - for months - the release of these papers. Based on this conduct, and on the many years that passed without any serious attempt to evaluate the scholarships scheme, I feel confident in saying that AusAID (or perhaps, more correctly, the government) was not willing to discuss publicly the merits of this program. I am also willing to share with you some of the exchanges between myself and AusAID about the evaluation papers. Some of the responses were unequivocally disingenuous.

Yes, AusAID has published a 2010 update on the scheme (what of the many other years?). I remain unimpressed. Look at those parts of the pamphlet that you have quoted in this blog. It is very basic information; the bare minimum one would expect of any government agency reporting on its expenditure. It is certainly not setting new heights in transparency, and I am surprised you are excited by it.

Nonetheless, I believe it's likely AusAID has improved administration of its scholarships since it received Margaret Gosling's evaluations. I hope so. However, there is not yet evidence of such improvements (e.g. where are the tracer studies? It costs nothing to publish them online). And the agency's past failures, documented in the newspaper, to respond to glaring concerns (come on - an interior design scholarship?) show it needed a prod. Or, to be less "sensationalist", take this broader example, from part 3 of the Gosling evaluation: "Unfortunately, the major findings of this review are that the selection, reintegration and [monitoring and evaluation] processes of most AusAID scholarships programs are not in good shape ... These problems have, for a very prolonged period, consistently defeated all attempts to demonstrate any level of effectiveness." How was this allowed to happen?

I have several roles as a journalist. The more altruistic of them is to expose potential maladministration and encourage public debate about important issues. Scholarship aid clearly needs this debate. Not because I say it does, but because organisations such as the OECD, ACFID and CIDA have expressed concerns in the past about its effectiveness, yet the Australian government has taken little notice. Indeed, it's rapidly expanded its development scholarships scheme, without any evidence to back the soundness of doing so.

Another of my roles as a journalist is more commercial: it's to take a complex issue and simplify it, that so it captures the interest of more people than it otherwise would have. Occasionally, that means using plain English like "doling out" and "lucrative" (and the scholarships are lucrative, by any measure). I also used the accurate terms "confidential" and "internal", because that's exactly what the papers were, and because I always, on principle, call secrecy by its name.

I've learnt, both as a public servant and a journalist, that governments sometimes only take notice of important issues when they are exposed publicly. (I wish this wasn't the case, because governments today are far too media-centric.) I realise that aid practitioners are often uncomfortable when their sector is criticised, because it feeds the agenda of the Centre for Independent Studies and suchlike. But aid practitioners should, more than most, know the importance of transparency in discouraging waste and graft, and encouraging efficiency. Exposing poor practices helps eliminate them.

I, too, hope the Auditor-General's report, and the aid review, give this issue another much-needed kick along. But I don't regard for a minute that my work was a "beat-up", nor am I sorry to have written a word of it.

Comment on Are scholarships good aid?

Great post Matt. That (and the additional evidence contained within) has shifted my perspective on the matter.

One question I've always had is that if we really give untied aid these days, why are scholarships so often still tied to donor country universities?

Comment on A case for stepping up aid efforts to eradicate Polio

Jonathan, I note that you cite a particular New York Times article about skeptics of the campaign to eradicate polio, which include Dr. Donald A. Henderson, the former WHO officer who began the drive to wipe out smallpox, amongst its ranks.. You should amend your blog to say that Dr Henderson 'used' to be a skeptic.

Check out this later NYT article by the same reporter who wrote the one you cited above: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/health/15polio.html?ref=donaldgjrmcneil

It appears Dr. Henderson has changed his mind:
“I see as much greatly augmented the probability that we can stop wild polio virus,” he said Wednesday in a follow-up interview — the opposite conclusion to the one he had given to the same reporter on Jan. 26.

“I apologize,” he added. “It’s not my wont to turn on a dime like this. I don’t think I’ve done anything like this before.”

Also, the point of extended immunisation is about more than reducing case load this year. It reduces life-long case load, and prevents breakouts. Note the measles break out in Australia right now - you may go years without a disease, decide not to immunise, and then there's a single importation that can cause an epidemic. Keeping cases below 2000 a year is a massive achievement, and slowly, it enables you to close the net. I think the better thing to look at is the case load in endemic countries - as they're the source of all imported cases, and if we can reduce endemic countries, then breaks out are less likely. And there, there's huge and exciting news with potential announcements around Nigeria and India. The recent article in the New Scientist is a good insight into this - http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928050.100-dont-let-polio-eradication-slip-away-again.html

Comment on Partnerships: Essential for aid effectiveness?

Dear Bill, thank you for another terrific blog post and getting a discussion going on partnerships--these are a critically important part of aid and development policy.

Definitions are always difficult, but can help focus the discussion. According to Wikipedia, 'A partnership is an arrangement where entities and/or individuals agree to cooperate to advance their interests.'

If we take this definition as a starting point, then Paris, MDG8, the Cairns Compact, and Pacific Partnerships for Development can be viewed as formal agreements on how various entities can cooperate to achieve better development outcomes.

Of course partnerships can be defined more broadly than this, but the blog post highlights these and this could be a starting point for discussion.

Evaluations should then be able to tell us whether such partnerships work and why. Some questions that come to mind:

  • How durable are such agreements (across countries and over time)?
    What impact do they have on the behaviour of entities?
    Do they lead to better development outcomes?
    What happens when interests deviate?
    Are there other ways to organise entities to achieve better development outcomes?
  • Comment on A case for stepping up aid efforts to eradicate Polio

    Michael thanks for the correction. It seems the UAE contribution resulted in an adjustment of the funding gap since the start of the week. Progress is being made as we speak!

    Comment on A case for stepping up aid efforts to eradicate Polio

    The eradication of polio is necessary for other communicable diseases to be tackled in such a way as to provide any real long term benefit- these countries need to strengthen their economies in order to provide sanitation and healthcare- they cannot do this with rampaging infectious disease.

    Due to the prevalence of other diseases in polio stricken areas I don't know how it is possible to predict such economic benefits directly from the eradication of polio, as these individuals are at high risk of other more common infections.

    However it seems shortsighted to argue to shift funding elsewhere as Henderson does, because these epidemics are huge and $1 billion annually would easily be swallowed. In my opinion tackling one thing at a time and unlocking international funding is the only way to begin to solve such problems- ruthless though it may seem when so many are dying of other ailments, it is how the world, and politics, work.

    Comment on A case for stepping up aid efforts to eradicate Polio

    Thanks for this well argued and well written blog Jonathan. Just want to point out that the funding gap is now actually $665M -- see http://www.polioeradication.org/Financing.aspx.

    There are a couple of further points I'll post about later on. In the meantime, your readers might want to check out the campaign the Global Poverty Project are currently running on polio eradication. We recently met with the Prime Minister to discuss the oppourtunity we have to eradicate polio forever. See how the meeting went at: http://globalpovertyproject.org/blogs/view/355