The Global Challenges Research Fund has engaged many researches with Official Development Assistance and the auditing and assessment infrastructures associated with it. In this post Valeria Izzi and Becky Murray outline how researchers can adopt a value for money (VfM) approach that can justify North/South research projects in a way that accounts for economy, efficiency, effectiveness, as well as equity.
Since its introduction in 2016, the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) has brought an increasing number of UK academics into contact with Official Development Assistance (ODA) and its funding requirements. The GCRF was set up to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries: and forms part of the UK commitment to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income as ODA. Part of the push for a stronger cross-government approach in delivering aid: the GCRF is led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), with UK Research and Innovation as a key delivery partner.
In the face of increasing aid scepticism, the pledge to achieve 100 pence of value for every pound of aid spent has become central to the political case for the aid programme as a whole. Thus with an increasing share of foreign aid being devoted to research, the question of how to ensure and assess the Value for Money proposition of ‘Research for Development’ investments becomes particularly urgent.
Each and every GCRF project team will have promised to deliver Value for Money as they signed the contractual dotted line, but what does Value for Money exactly mean when applied to research? And how can it be demonstrated, particularly in the current climate of Brexit-induced angst at shrinking resources for the UKs research & science base and ever-present scepticism of overseas aid?
Here, we share a few thoughts based on our experience of delivering the recently concluded nine-year, £43.9m Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme, which pioneered the delivery of interdisciplinary scientific research to secure positive development outcomes.
ESPA was set up in 2009, at a time when funders’ focus on Value for Money (VfM) was still in its infancy. Fast forward to the end of the ESPA programme in 2018, and VfM has become a central tenet of aid and stringent reporting standards have been adopted. Much of ESPA’s learning on VfM has thus been developed through the course of the programme and as such has much to offer GCRF-funded programmes seeking to incorporate a VfM lens from the outset.
Value for Money is a cornerstone of aid effectiveness and the Department for International Development (DFID) has been a pioneer in this field. The VfM framework used by the DFID emphasises three key dimensions:
- economy (minimising the cost of inputs)
- efficiency (achieving the best rate of conversion of inputs into outputs)
- effectiveness (achieving the best possible result for the level of investment).
DFID has also suggested adding a fourth E – equity, or the extent to which aid programmes reach the poorest and most marginalised, in keeping with their commitment to ‘leaving no one behind’.
Figure 1 DFID’s approach to Value for Money
Source: ICAI (February 2018), DFID’s approach to value for money in programme and portfolio management – A performance review
Though DFID is not directly involved in administering GCRF, it remains the UK’s primary channel and strategy lead for aid spending. So, even though it is unclear exactly how the performance of GCRF investments will be assessed, there is reason to believe that BEIS will draw heavily on DFID’s experience and learning. Certainly the scale of the GCRF portfolio will ensure that it attracts the attention of aid sceptics: programme managers therefore need to be prepared to justify their investment decisions with more clarity and detail than ever before.
We believe that – whilst the VfM framework may seem bureaucratic and perhaps a bit scary for those not acquainted with financial audit procedures or evaluation methodologies – the DFID-approach to VfM is an incredibly valuable tool. Specifically, it can help justify spending associated with (sometimes costly) activities that are critically important to securing the development outcomes.
Importantly, the VfM approach doesn’t mean focusing on economy, but it does mean GCRF contractors need to get better at understanding what is driving their costs and make sure that they are delivering high quality results (outputs, outcomes & impact) at the lowest price.
The clearest example we can give to illustrate this point is travel budgets, which are regularly singled out by aid critics as an unreasonable waste of money. For this reason, there is often pressure from funders to keep them as low as possible, for example, by conducting meetings by Skype, rather than in person wherever possible. Video conferencing is undoubtedly helpful, but it can also be difficult, as connections in the global South can be unreliable.
Looking at these decisions in isolation, through the lens of Economy and Efficiency, cheap may look ‘better’. However, funders want to prioritise the creation of equitable partnerships with Southern institutions and communities. These partnerships require significant time spent face to face, especially early in the project, to build relationships, trust and an appreciation of the research environment. If for example, you have an annual conference in the UK, it might be cheaper to have representatives from British partner institutions attend to represent each research theme; but this may disempower or disadvantage individuals working within Southern partner institutions, as well as potentially skewing the inputs to the conference proceedings. The ESPA programme clearly demonstrated that face to face work and the spend associated with it, is critical in enabling strong, sustainable impact for the ultimate beneficiaries of a programme of this kind. At which point you can start to draw considerations of Effectiveness and Equity.
Promoting fair and equitable research partnerships is a clear priority for GCRF research. The 2017 Rapid Review of GCRF by the International Commission for Aid Impact (the UK aid watchdog) identified both North/South partnership and Value for Money as areas in need of strengthening. In practice, these priorities are likely to find themselves in conflict, which suggests developing a framework that links VfM to equity from the outset of a project is critical to both project success and justifying costs.
Many (if not all) of the outputs, outcomes & impacts that are promised in GCRF contracts will depend on strong North – South partnership – and if the partnership proves to be inequitable and ineffective, it impedes the delivery of results. There will be many important areas of ‘conflict’ like this over the life of a GCRF contract, and programme managers need to be able to understand where trade-offs are being made and clearly articulate the logic of each decision in VfM terms.
This is where a strong, participatory Theory of Change becomes essential – especially when the theoretical logic of your project or programme has been used to create a monitoring and evaluation system that tracks the right things, in the right way, at the right time. It is the strongest possible way of articulating the various, interconnected components of a project or programme, and of illustrating the trade-offs to be made between economy, efficiency, effectiveness & equity.
Trust us… in pushing back against the sceptics, DFID’s Value for Money framework may turn out to be your best friend!
Image Credit: stevepb via Pixabay (Licensed under CC0 licence)
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About the authors
Valeria Izzi was the Impact and Learning Specialist in the ESPA Directorate. She has a background as a researcher and practitioner in international development, working with UN agencies and NGOs. She is now an independent consultant working on policy-oriented research, impact and theory-based Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning.
Becky Murray was the Impact Manager in the ESPA Directorate. She has a background in impact practice in the UK and internationally, having worked in the private, Government, and NGO sectors. Becky has recently joined LTS International as a Senior Consultant.
ODA = Official Development Assistance
Thanks for spotting this Joost! Now corrected.