We are incredibly excited to announce the launch of the Center for Effective Aid Policy (CEAP), a new non-profit incubated by Charity Entrepreneurship. Our mission is to improve the effectiveness of development aid. We will do so through policy advocacy to governments and INGOs.
If you are unfamiliar with development aid and want to learn more, we wrote an introduction to the field which was posted to the forum last week. In short:
Development aid represents one fourth of all charitable giving worldwide and is not known for its immaculate efficiency and clandestine operations. The cost-effectiveness of many aid projects can be vastly improved and we believe there are many opportunities to do so.
In this post we will go over:
- Our near term plans.
- Speculative plans for the long term.
- How you can help!
We additionally hope sharing our tentative plans can be a step towards greater organizational transparency in the effective altruism community. Some, both inside and outside this community, will disagree that our organization is a good use of resources. Our funding would most likely have gone to highly effective charities counterfactually.
Being held accountable and scrutinized for our decisions, might hurt us in the short run but benefits everyone in the long run.
Many parliaments are surrounded by ‘think-tanks’ who seek to influence policy in directions that just so happen to benefit the industries which are funding them. Decision makers should be free to evaluate our organization’s priorities and decide for themselves if they agree.
Interventions we are excited about
We are entering a well-established field and stand on the shoulders of giants.
There are many organizations with decades of experience doing great work to improve aid effectiveness - from research institutes doing academic research, to organizations solely focused on advocacy.
Our work builds upon the collective research of thousands of academics, practitioners, and policy makers who have worked tirelessly for decades to improve the quality of aid.
As a new organization we have the ability to move fast and break things. Taking risks on one's own behalf is all well and good, but mistakes we make might hurt the efforts of other organizations advocating for cost-effective aid spending.
When we set out to prioritize between the many possible interventions, we looked for aid policies that experts in development and policymakers alike were excited about when interviewed.
We have reached three of interventions that we think look especially promising:
Interventions we want to address in our first year:
Advocacy for cash-benchmarking of aid projects
Cash-benchmarking advocacy was the intervention with the best reception among policymakers and academics we interviewed. Despite this, there is very little information available on cash-benchmarking. It doesn’t even have a wikipedia page! Google’s top result for cash-benchmarking is a one page report by USAID, describing a recent successful experiment they did.
The discrepancy between the possible impact of improved benchmarking, the excitement of decision-makers, and lack of high quality public material is larger than for any other improvement to aid we reviewed. To change this state of affairs we are producing a comprehensive report, which can serve as a safe point of referral for policymakers and advocates.
Advocacy to affect aid cuts
A recent trend in western countries is for governments to cut aid spending. In 2020, the UK government made the decision to cut its aid spending from 0.7 to 0.5% of GNI. In 2022 the newly elected Swedish government cut future spending from 1% to 0.7%.
Governments are also classifying previously non-aid budgetary items as belonging to aid. The UK government, for example, will include its inland spending on refugees as part of its international aid resulting in an additional de facto cut from 0.5 to 0.3%.
We believe advocacy to prevent these cuts looks promising. It can seem paradoxical that we both believe aid to be ineffective and want there to be more of it, but even if aid is less cost-effective than we desire it is still highly likely to save and improve more lives than what the money will be spent on counterfactually.
When cuts do happen, there are opportunities to affect how cuts are structured. Cuts which seek to keep the most cost-effective programs are much more desirable than cuts which seek to keep the most politically palatable programs.
We will be on the lookout for new proposals to cut aid spending, and campaign to preserve the amount and quality of aid.
Expanding the talent pool in aid policy
A thing that blindsided us, was the amount of incredibly bright students interested in working with us. Our call for student volunteers at Harvard received over 60 applications. We hadn’t even officially launched the organization, before receiving our first unsolicited application!
International development has many more opportunities for impact, than there are people to pursue them. There are currently few opportunities within the effective altruism community to get a foot in the door and test ones fit for work with development policy. This is a tragedy, as many of the most important problems facing the world, whether it is combating air pollution in India or encouraging economic growth in Rwanda, likely will involve the passing of good policies.
Our comparative advantage is absolutely not to be running training programs, but we think the opportunity is too promising to pass up on if we can’t find anyone else to take up the mantle.
Topics we hope to address in the long run:
For now, we are focused on the sections of development aid which can be readily measured and compared. Here we can confidently make claims about cost-effectiveness rank programs against one another.
We seek to become a credible voice within development policy. Advocating for various policies our team suspects to be beneficial, but which we cannot clearly justify through evidence alone is a quick way to throw away whatever credibility we succeed in building.
But not everything that matters can be easily measured. In time we want to address aid policies in domains that are more difficult to measure. Some of the more speculative domains, that we find exciting include:
Increased spending on pandemic prevention in developing countries
Covid-19 taught us many lessons. One of those lessons is that pandemic prevention requires a global outlook. Developing countries, already overseeing a host of other pressing health problems, can’t afford to spend as much on pandemics than they would ideally like.
Development aid played a key role in mitigating the aids pandemic, it can play a key role in preventing future pandemics too. We believe there is promise in advocating for increased spending by wealthy governments on pandemic prevention in low-middle income countries.
Advocacy for interventions which increase growth
Systemic growth is a holy grail of development aid. Many of the top growth-increasing interventions have also proven to be some of the most intractable. The full doha agreement would have encouraged growth, but proved too difficult to pass. We want to search specifically for the subset of interventions which increase growth and additionally are tractable to implement.
How you can help
If you’re excited about our work, there are many ways you can contribute.
Follow our work
On social media:
Subscribe to our newsletter:
Spread the word
Many of our most promising opportunities have come through spontaneous connections, help increase our luck-surface by sharing the news of our existence with the world.
Collaborate with us
If you work in a relevant governing body
If you interface with aid policy, don't hesitate to reach out - we would love to meet you.
If you work in a relevant NGO
We are excited to partner with other organizations with similar values. Please reach out and let us know how we can collaborate to support each other's efforts.
If you work in academia
We would love to partner with academics in the space in order to enable impactful research and disseminate ideas to policymakers. If there's anything we can do to help, please let us know.
If you have money you wish to part with
We have enough funding to cover our core operations for 2023 - but we would love to get to know you, so we can reach out in situations where additional funding would enable us to chase a sudden opportunity.
We are always open to connecting with individuals who are interested in our field. If you want to contribute but aren't sure how, don't hesitate to reach out to us - saving lives is a team effort after all.
“DFID (UK gov’s aid department) does not use benchmarks to assess value for money (that is, how does the programme compare to other, similar interventions) owing to the wide variations in the contexts where it works and the difficulty of collecting comparable data.”
Have you formally surveyed development economists on their thoughts on cash benchmarking? If not, this might be worthwhile before advocating for cash benchmarking?
We have not done a formal survey yet (unsure if we will, very time intensive!) so I can't guarantee there wasn't a bias in the economists we were able to interview and economists who are supportive of cash-benchmarking. That said, the takeaway from our conversations has been that cash-benchmarking looks promising but unproven.
There are a number of questions on cash-benchmarking that there aren't yet clear answers to. As the DFID¹ article states, aid is spent on a wide range of objectives many of which are difficult to meaningfully benchmark against cash. We're currently evaluating country portfolios to get a sense of what type and percentage of projects can be meaningfully benchmarked and cross-compared.
There are also a great deal of details surrounding implementation, without clear consensus either. The goal of our report is not to create the most compelling case for cash-benchmarking, but to accurately summarize the research, collect the case-studies, and hopefully arrive at a set of general recommendations for how to implement cash-benchmarking well.
My best guess is that most issues facing cash-benchmarking are very solvable, but if that turns out to be wrong then we'll have to find something different to advocate for.
¹ Note that DFID has since been replaced with the FCDO, so the article may no longer reflect the UK government's current position.
How do you think your work would compare to that of CGD, and why would funding this organisation be better than additional funding to CGD?
We believe CGD does great work, and hope to build on some of their success in the space! We think there is a lot of potential for impact through aid policy and a diversity of approaches is valuable in and of itself.
That being said, we think there are a few areas that differentiate us from CGD:
I know your long run goals are the least "binding" but I would encourage you to be a little more cautious and evidence-based in your approach to growth as an intervention. Economic growth clearly offers benefits overall in developing countries but it would surely be safer to say your objective should be to study the relationship between economic growth and human development and work to understand the circumstances in which aid that enhances economic growth in particular circumstances is more effective than alternative forms of aid.
Well written! Super clear and concise
Congrats on this idea!
Since CEAP is considering advocating for mandatory transparency reporting for international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), how does CEAP plan to address potential pushback from governments or INGOs to its policy recommendations and especially transparency regulations?
I imagine many governments and/or INGOs might push back on reporting some things that don't make them look particularly good. For example, if an org is unwilling to do an independent cash benchmarking study, or a government is unwilling to say that their prior interventions (that they may have spent/wasted billions on), they could reject CEAP's recommendations.
How do you navigate between being a lobbying organization and an advocacy organization?