Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More data about projects ... good, but what about the community?

Dear Colleagues

One of my professional friends has recommended I look at the work being done by others that seems to be in the same space as Community Analytics (CA). I went to the initiatives I was pointed to and was relieved to find that the CA work was in fact going to be complementary to the work of these other initiatives.

In fact, I had taken an interest in these initiatives some time back because they seemed, on the face of it to be doing much the same. The following is from one of the websites: (
Project-Level Aid (PLAID) is an interdisciplinary project whose objective is to create a web-accessible database on development finance. Among many other necessary steps toward a better understanding the impact of foreign aid, this project can help improve aid coordination, assist in measuring the effectiveness of development finance, and, ultimately, provide information to improve allocation decisions by donor governments. In December 2009, PLAID merged with Development Gateway's AiDa project to form AidData.
There is going to be a conference in Oxford to help launch the combined database ... and that is good, but certainly not great.

The problem, I believe, is that there is a fundamental flaw in the way development assistance is managed. No matter how much data we have about the "projects", we are still going to be left with a huge data gap that modern economists simply refer to as "externalities". The whole matter of impact of a project depends totally on the specific realities of these "externalities" and unless they are an integral part of the data, then the work done to compile project data is going to be largely futile.

Years ago the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) compiled an annual Development Cooperation Report (DCR) for each of the member countries of the UN. This was a compilation of all the externally funded projects for a country ... and while it was rarely anything like perfect, it was a good starting point for understanding what development assistance was coming into the country. As I understand it the DCR was mandated to be prepared by UNDP by the UN General Assembly in 1978 ... and quietly dropped towards the end of the 1990s. While nobody will confirm this, it looks very much as if the report was dropped because of pressure from bilateral donors who did not like details of their assistance ... whether too big or too small ... or because of sector priority ... to be on the record and accessible. Many donors refused to cooperate with UNDP in the preparation of these reports ... but the data was usually available with a little effort through beneficiary government reports. What I learned from my work in this area over a number of years was that almost every organization preferred to work in the shadows ... true transparency was the last thing any of the big organizations wanted to work with.

The database that is being developed by this PLAID initiative is a start ... but it will have two major limitations (1) the data will mainly be about the inputs and the plans for the projects, and much less about the performance of the projects; and, (2) the impact on the society resulting from these projects will not be part of the database or analysis.

This latter is, of course, where CA fits in. CA is about the progress and performance of a community ... and the projects are the interesting externalities. The question that CA is able to answer is about the impact that a project has on a community.

Experience over the years is that there are many beneficiaries within the project structure ... everyone at the donor organization and all the intermediaries and support organizations ... and the intermediary government agencies ... and the staff of the project ... etc. But it is not usually very clear how much benefit actually reaches a community. The amount of benefit reaching communities is problematic during the project ... but it becomes even more interesting when the long term impact of the project is addressed. Bottom line, the money is disbursed and that is 100% for sure ... but the short term and the long term benefit is very much less sure ... not even a definite maybe! What is particularly concerning is that large projects cause serious distortion in the local economy ... and while there are favorable multiplier benefits while the project sets up, these are all given up when the project winds down.

I am happy when more data is made accessible ... but I won't be satisfied until the cost and impact of relief and development interventions are able to be seen at the community level ... and all the responsible parties held accountable for socio-economic development progress and performance.

Stay tuned

Peter Burgess

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