Examining the secondary benefits of development assistance

In the modern development assistance environment, the subject of development money also benefitting the donor country has been a somewhat controversial reality. Aid and development assistance can bring economic and soft power opportunities that can sit uncomfortably with the primary intent of helping people in need. Controversial or not, it is vital for the UK aid and development sector to understand these benefits better – and that starts with understanding how to evaluate them.

In this blog, Marco Antonielli, a Senior Evaluation Consultant with Tetra Tech International Development, draws from his presentation at the UK Evaluation Society Conference 2021, and looks at the lessons we have learned on secondary benefits from our evaluations of a number of UK cross-government programmes.

While bettering the welfare of people in the partner countries should always be the primary purpose of development assistance, ‘secondary benefits’ can arise to the donor country too. For example, aid projects can create new markets and economic opportunities for international businesses, or boost the ‘soft power’ of the donor country’s institutions.

Evaluations of secondary benefits can improve transparency and accountability and enable a more comprehensive policy design – but evaluations have been rare to date. In the evaluation community, there is no shared understanding of the definition and types of secondary benefits nor the methods to use to evaluate them on a project-by-project basis.

To develop our understanding of secondary benefits in the evaluation community, I partnered with three evaluators to share lessons from evaluations of secondary benefits we recently conducted for three large UK aid programmes: the cross-government Prosperity Fund, BEIS Newton Fund, and the UK Space Agency Earth and Sea Observation System (EASOS). We learned the following key lessons:

  • We have several similarities in the concepts and meanings used to describe and define secondary benefits in the three evaluations. Specifically economic and commercial benefits were present in the three evaluations, for example through trade, investment and network effects or commercial linkages. Also stronger research capacity in UK institutions were identified benefits in for Newton Fund and EASOS. Soft power, i.e. the UK’s reputation and influence abroad, was explicitly mentioned in the Newton Fund and Prosperity Fund evaluations.
  • The three evaluations employed Theory Based approaches. This, however, was not enough in itself, because mechanisms and linkages were not initially well understood. Therefore evaluations had to be more explorative and qualitative in nature, as concepts and understanding developed and grew over time, based on the evidence collected.
  • Some challenges were also similar across the three evaluations, particularly the unfamiliarity of various stakeholders with the concepts. Soft power for example is subject to interpretations and difficult to measure. Also lack of access to primary data sources (for example in-country partners and businesses) as well as political, diplomatic and commercial sensitivity in accessing evidence limited the analysis.

The three evaluations show that there are a wide range of different secondary benefits that may arise from aid programmes for the donor country. Businesses, government, academia, and citizens can all benefit through different channels and mechanisms – but transparency is essential, which is where clear and consistent evaluations play an important role.

There is certainly room for developing a shared understanding and being more precise in defining concepts and types of benefits. The three evaluations had several similarities, and the evaluation community could build on these to standardise and classify the benefits. When presenting this to the UKES 2021 Conference, participants noted that the boundaries of secondary benefits are difficult to pin down, and we could perhaps talk instead of broader ‘global public goods’ arising from aid spending. Evaluators and evaluation commissioners will also need to discuss how to address political, diplomatic and commercial sensitivity of some of the secondary benefits to allow for transparent evaluations.

As the overseas development assistance priorities and objectives continue to shift, the importance of evaluating and understanding these benefits will only increase, underlining the clear need to continue a dialogue with evaluators, implementers and donors.