In November 2015, the Department for International Development (DFID) announced a new aid strategy that strongly positions UK aid as ‘tackling global challenges in the national interest’. The four new strategic objectives are: strengthening global peace, security and governance, strengthening resilience and response to crisis, promoting global prosperity, and tackling extreme poverty.
Professor Charlotte Watts, DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser, who champions the use of research and robust evidence in development policies in DFID, delivered a Sussex Development Lecture on the role of evidence in this new strategy.
The role of evidence in enhancing ‘value for money’
One of the themes that Watts emphasised in the lecture about the strategy was the ‘value for money’ of projects. This is where rigorous evidence plays a key role in guiding spending decisions according to the UK Government’s manifesto commitments, which cover a long list of areas including mitigation of climate change, immunisation of children, clean water and sanitation, nutrition, education, communicable and zoonotic diseases, humanitarian emergency response and gender-related objectives.
One example of a good ‘value for money’ project is a £16,000 tax research programme ‘Boosting Revenue Collection through Taxing High Net Worth Individuals’ that the International Centre for Tax and Development worked on with the Ugandan Revenue Authority with DFID funding. Through analysing tax avoidance by Uganda’s rich doctors and lawyers prominent in the public life, the Ugandan government was able to develop mechanisms that ensure the rich are taxed, which yielded £2.5 million in extra taxes in merely 4 months.
In the global health sphere, DFID funds research that addresses evidence gaps in tackling major global health challenges, such as combating infectious and emerging diseases, tackling zoonotic diseases, and strengthening health systems in fragile states. DFID also welcomes work that fills the research gap in new health crises, early childhood development and universal health care access. For instance, DFID used evidence to develop an interdisciplinary approach to respond to the Ebola crisis, as detailed in IDS’ evidence submission to the International Development Committee’s Ebola inquiry (pdf). Apart from research that centred on the development of new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics, Watts stressed the need for accompanying research focusing on supporting the health system, creating demands and delivering new technology.
Watts highlighted the role that DFID plays in funding research in climate change, such as answering questions about accessing clean energy in low income countries, and delivering and putting into use innovations in access to water and climate science. During this process, DFID supported private sector involvement and wider innovation in companies such as M-KOPA (pdf), which produces affordable and high quality solar home systems. Through evidence, DFID is interested in finding out new ways to access energy; hence they were involved in other innovations such as smart water pumps and mobile usage for health and so forth.
Similarly, in the sustainable agriculture arena, DFID has supported the development of new technologies that produce better yield. For example, pro-vitamin A enriched sweet potato and rice, iron-fortified beans, scuba rice, drought resistance maize and high yield rice. These are all examples of how research is useful in presenting to decision makers why funding a particular solution is more worthy (aka better ‘value for money’) than other options.
Despite the need for different types of research to fill evidence gaps, there was a general concern shared by many who attended the lecture that the solutions advocated by DFID lean towards hardware and technology solutions. Concerns that the approach by DFID does not seem to target the systematic issues and power relations that are central in the development discourse.
Getting evidence used: making science work for development
To give an example of how science can be used, Watts presented a case study of a Science in Humanitarian and Disasters (SHED) mechanism during Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013. SHED is a formal system (in-built in DFID’s decision making processes and supported by UK Collaborative on Development Sciences) that works as a coordinating body and a ‘one-stop-shop’ for science and technology advice in emergencies. For Typhoon Haiyan, the mechanism brought together experts from multiple UK government departments and institutions to provide coordinated advice, information and data on the expected weather conditions, areas most at risk of landslides and the health impacts of the disaster. The advice assisted DFID and their partners in-country in their operations, and demonstrated that having a coordinated response to provide science advice is beneficial for all parties involved and added value to the UK’s understanding of the situation and response.
Is there a role for research in the new aid strategy?
Despite the fact that there is strong evidence to inform practice, Watts pointed out the challenges in synthesising and capturing bodies of quantitative and qualitative evidence. In particular, bringing together evidence across sectors and disciplines is difficult, especially for cross cutting issues such as development in cities and women’s empowerment.
Members that attended the lecture, IDS Director, Professor Melissa Leach and IDS Professor Robert Chambers also expressed their reservations towards the Payment by Results strategy, arguing that it limits the scope of the research that people could conduct. The idea that payment has to focus on outcomes that are uncertain especially disadvantages those that research on more complex issues.
Does evidence get used?
Watts concluded the session by pointing out that evidence is part of the decision making process. She further went to mention that decisions are ultimately made by ministers and are influenced by 3 factors:
- What does the evidence suggest about what can be done?
- What are the political implications? Are there costs and benefits?
- To what extent do the actions concur with political ideology and belief?
Indeed, they must align with UK’s national interest.