The aid agency nobody knew existed is even worse than nobody realized

I recently saw a June 2009 World Bank (Independent Evaluation Group) evaluation of the Global Forum for Health Research, an 11-year-old international organization that had received $56 million (through 2007) in official aid funding, about half from the World Bank. The Global Forum’s mission is “demonstrating the essential role of research and innovation for health and health equity, benefiting poor and marginalized populations.” The evaluation report is 162 pages long, but two sentences in it would have sufficed:

About half of the respondents to a survey of 400 key researchers undertaken by the evaluation team indicated that they were unaware of the work of the Global Forum. For an organization concerned to raise awareness, this finding in itself raises questions about its effectiveness.

An 11-year-old health-research-awareness-raising organization of which half of the world’s leading health researchers are unaware – yes, I would agree that “raises questions.” I ground-truthed this finding with my own informal check of well-known people that I look up to on health issues – four of them had never heard of the Global Forum, and three others had heard of them but didn’t know enough about them to have an opinion about their effectiveness.

The evaluation has lots of other things to say about them, both positive (they have a lot of meetings!) and negative (“absence of an agreed results framework”).

So the World Bank seems to be following a disturbing trend. It is financing economic research publications that hardly anybody reads, and financing health awareness efforts that hardly anybody is aware of.

This also creates a new challenge for aid watchers – how can we hold accountable an aid agency we don’t know exists? What other dark matter in the aid world is awaiting discovery?