The readers of this blog are familiar with the argument that aid fragmentation combined with the lack of comprehensive data on aid undermines aid effectiveness. Various initiatives are currently trying to improve the situation by tracking and mapping donor engagement.
But what if donors’ funding bears zero relationship to the impact of the aid they finance?
Let’s take the case of food aid. In 2008-2009, following a brief war between Georgia and Russia, the World Food Programme (WFP) received donor funding to deliver food aid to tens of thousands of displaced people in Georgia. WFP’s food aid programme was the dream of every aspiring aid mapper. Numerous donors channelled their funds through a single UN body that had a clear mandate and a monopoly on providing a single type of aid, making it easy to track financial inputs. Further downstream, WFP only had four sub-contractors, all of them reputable international NGOs. Given the de-fragmentation of food aid at the sub-donor level, compiling and analyzing financial aid data was comparatively simple.
Even better, the relationship between financial inputs and aid outputs is seemingly straightforward. All food parcels delivered by WFP are standardized in line with global SPHERE standards. Within Georgia, all beneficiaries received identical food packages. Across countries, all food parcels contain the same amount of calories, albeit only if funding requests are fully met. In theory, this makes it easy to use donor data or WFP delivery reports to determine the aid-financed calorie intake of refugees in any given country.
Unless, of course, the food being distributed is not edible.
In early 2009, Georgian aid recipients discovered that something was wrong with the flour in their food aid packages. Bread baked with the new flour turned rock hard and was for all practical purposes inedible. One displaced Georgian described it as "not fit for animals". Despite widespread complaints, WFP ordered the flour distribution to continue. Over the following weeks, WFP and the NGOs handed out 800 metric tons, the equivalent of 1.6 million individual daily rations, to tens of thousands of displaced people.
While its ‘beneficiaries’ were feeding the flour to their pigs, WFP publicly maintained that “the quality and fitness for human consumption is good”. Food aid donors, including USAID and the European Commission, apparently remained unaware that WFP had just wasted over half a million dollars of their money. After all, each parcel was accounted for on paper, so the operation was officially a success.
Tracking donor finances can contribute to making aid more accountable, but aid mappers have to be aware of the limitations of their approach. While aid data can tell us a lot about some things, conclusions about outputs, impacts or effectiveness should be drawn with extreme caution – even where the links between inputs and outputs seem straightforward and crystal clear.