Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Congressional Research Service has recently published a study by Marion Lawson summarizing efforts to evaluate US foreign assistance during the past 50 years.  While describing the historical efforts in this area, it also explores avenues by which Congress may influence actions in this area.  
An extract of the summary is below:
The US Congress’s recent focus on reducing federal spending raises questions about the relative efficiency and effectiveness of all federal programs. In this context, evaluation of foreign assistance programs is of growing interest to many Members of Congress as they scrutinize the Administration’s international affairs budget request and debate foreign aid spending priorities.

Policymakers, taxpayers, and aid recipients alike want to know what impact, if any, foreign aid dollars are having, and whether foreign aid programs are achieving their intended objectives. In most cases, the success or failure of U.S. foreign aid programs is not entirely clear, in part because historically, most aid programs have not been evaluated for the purpose of determining their actual impact. 
The purpose and methodologies of foreign aid evaluation have varied over the decades, responding to political and fiscal circumstances. Aid evaluation practices and policies have variously focused on meeting program management needs, building institutional learning, accounting for resources, informing policymakers, and building local oversight and project design capacity. Challenges to meaningful aid evaluation have varied as well, but several are recurring.  
Persistent challenges to effective evaluation include unclear aid objectives, funding and personnel  constraints, emphasis on accountability for funds, methodological challenges, compressed timelines, country ownership and donor coordination commitments, security, and agency and personnel incentives. As a result of these challenges, aid agencies do not undertake rigorous evaluation for all foreign aid activities.

The U.S. government agencies managing foreign assistance each have their own distinct evaluation policies; these policies have come into closer alignment in the last two years than in the past. The Obama Administration’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) resulted in, among other things, a stated commitment to plan foreign aid budgets “based not on dollars spent, but on outcomes achieved.” 
Though recent evaluation reform efforts have been agency-driven, Congress has considerable influence over their impact. Legislators may mandate a particular approach to evaluation directly through legislation (e.g., H.R. 3159, S. 3310), or can support or undermine Administration policies by controlling the appropriations necessary to implement the policies. Furthermore, Congress will largely determine how, or if, any actionable information resulting from the new approach to evaluations will influence the nation’s foreign assistance policy priorities.
The complete CRS report is linked here.
An update of USAID Evaluation Policy progress is linked here.