Who’s the best at development cooperation?

My primary school had some quite strong incentives to drive up performance. Every end of term, our teachers would test us and rank my classmates and I against each other. It was the extremes that mattered – top and bottom. Wherever I came in the ranks, I was mostly just thankful that I wasn’t the kid at the bottom – it was certainly very motivating!

Picture of one of my old exam papers.
In Kenya, 9 year old kids like me were tested on our knowledge of hand-washing and malaria. Picture: Hannah Ryder/DFID

Now, many years later, I’d like to think that I’m motivated by a range of incentives than ranking. I have personal goals and don’t have to “win” or “be praised”. But the ranking did make a difference to my performance back then. This week, a report will be published that – to a degree – will try to act as a motivator around the question “Who is best at delivering and using development cooperation?”

There are three notable points about this report. First, its authors are statisticians and experts from UNDP and OECD who are also members of the Support Team for the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation.

Second, lots countries and organisations have volunteered to be included in the report. To be exact, 46 countries that receive development cooperation – from other countries, multilateral organisations and other organisations – submitted data to inform the report. And those countries and organisations to which the data related – including DFID – checked the data to make sure it’s accurate. No-one asked for their data to be withheld. So, in principle, it would seem lots of development actors are happy to be ranked on their performance.

Third, although the report will collate data and analysis relating to 10 different indicators, it will only actually rank countries on 1 indicator – an indicator of transparency of development cooperation. The reason for this is that ranking is political.

Most ranking that we read about in papers or see on TV – whether it’s about how open budgets are, perceptions of corruption or international technology policy – is usually done by independent organisations. But, as mentioned earlier, the authors of this report work in UNDP and OECD. They are world-class experts, which means that the data and information in the report is credible. But UNDP and OECD are organisations that are not independent of the countries and organisations submitting the data. And this is why ranking is too political for them. As children, if you had asked our parents or someone in our class to rank us, they would have had difficulty being objective and would worry that they would create trouble for themselves. Even simply agreeing the criteria to use for ranking might be very difficult. That’s why, as a child, it was the teachers that – objectively – ranked me and my fellow class-mates.

The key reason why transparency is able to be rank in the report is that there is already an independently published report on transparency that has become well-known and well-respected. This independent report has ensured the criteria on transparency are now broadly well understood. But for the other 9 indicators and issues raised in this week’s forthcoming report, no such credible, independent rankings exist yet.

The question is, even if credible, will this week’s report motivate and drive up performance like my primary school did me? Without ranking it might not. But then again, the international development community might not need this kind of incentive to make improvements. Here in the UK for example, a huge incentive to improve our cooperation with other countries has come from pressure from UK taxpayers to demonstrate results and value for money. In countries that receive cooperation, citizens pressure leaders to have a vision for development and use cooperation to deliver that vision. These citizens often have the power to change their votes or stop paying taxes if cooperation is failing.

But there is still a role for ranking – especially where taxpayers or citizens can’t actually voice their concerns openly. And if the data is robust and the indicators and criteria are really relevant and well understood, ranking could be very useful for motivating performance.

This week’s report will be a great step in the right direction for driving improvements around how we all work together to deliver development. But if we want more ranking to be introduced for policies other than transparency, we will need many more independent reports on those other policies to be published in the coming years.

We need some objective teachers in the development community to start some new tests.

March 2014

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