The best and worst in aid from the past year is…what our readers say it is

Dear Aid Watchers, A year ago this month we launched this blog as one small contribution to the effort to make aid more accountable. Our ambition: to add to the growing chorus of voices demanding that our development assistance money be spent according to what we know about best practices in aid so that it might actually reach the poor. And to provide a forum for aid professionals, academics, students, and citizens to talk openly and frankly about what is working and what isn’t.

With our first birthday around the corner, now is a good time to declare from our lofty academic perch what was the best and worst in aid over the past year. And we proclaim that it was…well, we’re waiting to hear that from you. With this post, we declare our totally unscientific, user-driven, open-ended, end-of-year competition for the best and worst in aid open to your submissions.

You tell us: what was the best thing to happen to aid in the last year? Was it an idea that will someday revolutionize how medicines are delivered? A randomized trial that finally allowed us to generalize to what works?  A brilliant article, or a piece of legislation, or a new technology? A change in practitioner behavior? Share with us your account of an aid success story. Of course, being Aid Watch, we also want to hear the worst: in any of the above categories, or others you can dream up, we want to hear about the horror stories, the delays, the waste, the opportunities squandered, the outright theft, and the pointless failures.

Lest this contest be seen as a veiled opportunity for more snark, or to promote or refute certain narrow positions, we plan to take as seriously as possible the “Best of” part of the competition. For those of you who think Aid Watch can be too dismissive of aid’s real accomplishments, here’s your chance to convince us how much good work was achieved in aid this year. Go ahead and make the case for your favorite NGO, a great project, an overlooked innovation—we’re ready to be persuaded.

A few more points to guide your submissions:

1) Even if you want to remain anonymous on the blog, you still have to reveal yourselves to us. We will protect your anonymity to the public (or to your boss) but we need to know who you are so that we can, to the degree possible, independently verify your submission. Note also that anonymity is fine as long as it doesn’t make your submission so generic that it loses all interest (“In an aid agency we can’t name, working in a country we can’t mention, on a project that we’ll call….” Snooze.)

2) No submitting Aid Watch. We’re disqualifying ourselves from the running to make it clear that we’re not asking anyone to nominate us for the best thing to happen to aid last year (or then again is it to ensure you don’t say we’re the worst….?)

3) We will of course need you to provide evidence to back up your nomination, in whatever form you believe will be most convincing, be it an RCT, a case study, or a well-documented anecdote. In this initial submission, though, it’s okay to send in a short description and simply identify what evidence you have at your disposal. You may be contacted and asked for more details later.

4) Email your submissions to The submissions will be reviewed, corroborating evidence requested, and the results announced at our annual conference (more details on that to come). Criteria for selection will include general interest to the aid community, and the strength of evidence and documentation provided.

5) A final note: we mean this to be a serious contest but we would not be true to ourselves if we did not allow some entertainment value to creep in…

May the best (and worst) win!

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NYU’s Aid Watch Initiative Held Conference on “What Would the Poor Say? Debates in Aid Evaluation”

By William Easterly During last Friday's conference, participants and speakers leveled a variety of criticisms at aid agencies for lacking accountability and transparency, but also suggested new ideas and expressed hope for a new way forward. Here are some highlights; check back soon for more details and some video footage. Click here for the full conference agenda.


Yaw Nyarko (NYU): “No nation has ever developed because of aid and outside advice.”


Esther Duflo (MIT): “Field experiments have a subversive power.” Find her presentation here.

William Easterly (NYU): The institutions of a free society make it possible to answer "what would the people say?" Can we imitate this in aid to know "What would the poor say?" Full presentation here.


Laura Freschi (DRI) on Aid Watch: “We want to act as ONE OF MANY catalysts in the open marketplace of ideas about aid evaluation: inspiring connections, and helping to convert good ideas into opportunities.” Find the text of the Aid Watch launch announcement here.


Andrew Mwenda (the Independent): “Aid money makes African governments accountable to the aid agencies rather than to their own people.”

The power of accountability for African governments is shown by some examples when political elites faced a threat to their very existence, like in Rwanda after the genocide or Uganda after Musevni’s takeover in 1986, when both governments instituted pro-development policies.


Nancy Birdsall (Center for Global Development): Cash on delivery aid “traps the donors so they are forced to have poor country governments accountable to them and accountable to their own people.” Find her presentation here.


June Arunga (BSL Ghana Ltd.): "Aid money is diverting African skilled professionals away from private enterprise to writing proposals for NGOs.”

When June pitched her idea of using cell phones to facilitate financial transactions to Western investors, one well-known philanthropist expressed disbelief that poor Africans (whom she had seen mainly in pictures begging and starving) had cell phones: “Who do they call?” she asked.


Dennis Whittle (GlobalGiving): “Put up a billboard in each community saying what aid money is supposed to be going towards.” Click here for his presentation.


Lant Pritchett (Harvard University): "Is this information you are gathering from us just to help you write your report or can you really be helpful to us?" - a woman in South Sudan.

Evaluation can help make politically successful development movements into effective ones. Find his presentation here.


Ross Levine (Brown University): “Aid agencies are insufficiently evaluated on advice…financial survival depends on distributing money.” The right advice often violates the imperative: “Don’t interfere with lending!” Click here for more.


Leonard Wantchekon (NYU): "We African professionals want to be the ones advising our own governments rather than foreign aid professionals!" Find his presentation here.


Karin Christiansen (Publish What You Fund): “In Afghanistan, the government does not know how one-third of all aid since 2001 – some $5bn – has been spent…Liberian civil society organizations couldn’t get basic information [which foreigners could.]” Find her presentation here.


William Duggan (Columbia School of Business): “I wasted 20 years of my life on aid efforts, but now I see some hope for change.” Click here for his short paper (co-authored with Lynn Ellsworth) on "Evaluation, the Poor, and Foriegn Aid."

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How About a Free Press to Hold Aid to Africa Accountable?

Courageous independent Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda was featured in a mass circulation magazine last weekend, getting some well-deserved recognition. mwenda.JPG

Mwenda has been in and out of jail for his criticism of the (aid-supported) authoritarian Ugandan government. He was a recipient of the International Press Freedom Award for 2008.

Mwenda started his own independent newspaper (known appropriately as the Independent) in Uganda, after complaining the government was curtailing the freedom of the newspaper where he previously worked.

He also is a frequent critic of aid agencies’ operations in Africa for tolerating corruption and poor results, which caused Bono to heckle him in a famous confrontation at the TED conference in Tanzania in 2007.

A free press is an important way in which we hold our governments accountable in rich democratic countries. Why shouldn’t Africans have the right to freedom of the press as well?

Mwenda will be speaking at the NYU conference “What Would the Poor Say? Debates in Aid Evalution” this Friday, February 6.

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DRI to Host Conference on Aid Evaluation

On February 6th, NYU's Development Research Institute (DRI) will host What Would the Poor Say: Debates in Aid Evaluation, a one-day conference with the leading thinkers in development economics. The conference will take place at New York University, where participants from universities, NGOs, the independent media and the private sector will add to the dialogue on how to make aid agencies accountable for the most effective solutions to global poverty. A list of speakers and panelists follows, but for a complete schedule of events, go to DRI's website. The conference is free and open to the public, but space is limited and filling up quickly. To reserve a place, RSVP to with your name and affiliation.


Yaw Nyarko (NYU), Welcome and Introduction

Esther Duflo (MIT), The Evaluation Revolution and the Aid Providers

William Easterly (NYU), The Big Picture on Aid Accountability

Panel 1: Evaluation: Issues in Transparency and Accountability

Andrew Mwenda (The Independent, Uganda), Independent Media in Africa and Foreign Aid

Nancy Birdsall (Center for Global Development), New Methods for Motivating Results in Aid

Dennis Whittle (Global Giving), Accountability in Decentralized vs. Centrally Planned Aid Systems

June Arunga (BSL Ghana Ltd.), Foreign Aid from the African Business Point of View

Lant Pritchett (Harvard), The Political Economy of Evaluation

Panel 2: Issues in Evaluation

Leonard Wantchekon (NYU), Independent Evaluation and the Reaction of Official Aid Agencies

Ross Levine (Brown University), Evaluating the Economics: Finance and the Aid Agencies

Karin Christiansen (Publish What You Fund), Aid Transparency as a Prerequisite

William Duggan (Columbia Business School), Pragmatic Learning from Success and Failure

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