This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.
1. In a nutshell
What is the problem?
U.S. development assistance achieves less for beneficiaries than it conceptually could, due both to relatively poor cost-effectiveness and to limited funding.
Who is already working on it?
There are a variety of organizations working to improve or increase U.S. development assistance, with support from a number of foundations. We would guess that total philanthropic funding for this field is in the ballpark of $100 million/year.
What could a new philanthropist do?
A philanthropist could support a wide variety of advocacy efforts, ranging from grassroots organizing to lobbying to think tank research, aiming for more or better foreign aid. We do not have a good sense of the track record of or likely returns to these activities.
2. What is the problem?
Official development assistance from the United States achieves less benefit for beneficiaries than it conceptually could. 1 Opportunities for improvement could take the form of fiscally neutral improvements in the effectiveness of aid delivery (quality), or more aid (quantity). Quality improvements could be important in humanitarian terms, as the U.S. is the single largest provider of bilateral development aid, giving roughly $30 billion/year. 2 We would guess that increasing the quantity of altruistically motivated (as opposed to merely self-interested) official development aid would be welfare-improving from a global perspective because we believe that altruistically motivated aid is likely to have larger net positive effects in recipient countries than costs for sending countries. However, we do not believe there is rigorous evidence on the impact of altruistically motivated government aid, and some prominent development scholars disagree that more official aid is likely to be strongly welfare-improving. 3 Were the U.S. to provide the same level of aid proportional to GNI as the United Kingdom, aid spending would rise to ~$90 billion/year. 4
3. Who is already working on it?
The advocacy group ONE, which predominantly but not exclusively focuses on the U.S., appears to be the largest advocate for more and better foreign aid, with a (global) annual budget of roughly $30 million.
5 Other groups that do considerable advocacy or lobbying in favor of foreign aid programs include:
- RESULTS (2011 501c3 spending: ~$9 million; 501c4 spending: ~$200,000) 6
- Bread for the World (2011 501c3 spending: ~$9 million; 501c4 spending: ~$4 million) 7
- Friends of the Global Fight (2011 501c3 spending: ~$2 million) 8
- US Global Leadership Coalition (2011 501c3 spending: ~$4 million; 501c4 spending: ~$1 million) 9
- Large international NGOs like Oxfam and CARE that conduct some advocacy efforts in the U.S. and other high-income countries. We aren’t sure what portion of their funding goes to advocacy efforts. 10
There are also a number of organizations that advocate for international aid on specific issues, such as a particular disease. We have not tried to systematically survey such organizations. A number of U.S. think tanks also work on issues around foreign aid, including: 11
- Center for Global Development
- Brookings Institution
- Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
We believe the Center for Global Development, which focuses solely on development issues and has an annual budget of roughly $10 million, does more work on foreign aid than Brookings or CSIS does, but we have not seen figures that would allow us to make this comparison. 12 Major philanthropic support for advocacy and research related to foreign aid comes from the Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, which have each made sizable grants to both ONE and CGD. 13 We have not systematically searched for other foundation efforts in this area. In addition to funding advocacy groups such as ONE, we also believe that the Gates Foundation has played a role in directing aid agency funds through its role in the creation of and support for vehicles like the Global Fund and GAVI.14
Not counting the Gates Foundation’s contributions to the Global Fund or GAVI, we would guess that total philanthropic funding for this field is in the ballpark of, but probably less than, $100 million/year.
4. What could a new philanthropist do?
Advocacy to improve or increase U.S. foreign aid could take a number of forms, including:
- Think tank-style research and outreach (e.g. the Center for Global Development) 15
- Improving the amount or kind of media coverage of development or aid issues
- Media-savvy mass outreach and lobbying efforts (e.g. ONE) 16
- Grassroots organizing (e.g. RESULTS) 17
- Co-funding an international aid organization to attract funding from governments (e.g. the Gates Foundation’s funding for GAVI and the Global Fund)18
Specific philanthropic opportunities might range from general support for one or more of these approaches or organizations (e.g. funding RESULTS’ expansion to additional districts where it is not currently represented) 19 to specific programmatic support for work on a particular proposed reform (e.g. think tank work on additional funding for electricity infrastructure in Africa, grassroots organizing to support the Global Fund replenishment). 20
4.1 What has the track record of past advocacy efforts been?
We have heard or read about a number of claimed foreign advocacy success stories, though we are not aware of any cases of policy changes that are unambiguously attributable to efforts on behalf of advocacy organizations. A very incomplete list of some fairly recent claimed successes by foreign aid advocacy groups includes:
- Efforts by ONE and the Center for Global Development to shape President Obama’s recent Power Africa initiative. 21 (The Power Africa initiative includes more than $7 billion in financial commitments over several years, though the large majority of the commitments take the form of loans rather than grants). 22
- Re-authorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a multi-billion dollar aid program, in 2008. 23
- Multi-billion dollar U.S. commitments to the Global Fund and GAVI Alliance. 24
- Significant advanced market commitments from Canada for new vaccines. 25
- A major 2006 debt-relief deal for Nigeria. 26
We have not investigated any of these claimed successes in sufficient depth to feel confident that the advocacy groups involved played a causal role, but the returns on investment if these represent true cases of advocacy impact would likely be very large.
5. Questions for further investigation
Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation. Amongst other topics, further research on this cause might address:
- In which cases can claimed success stories be confidently attributed to the efforts of one or more advocacy groups?
- How would additional funding translate into additional advocacy efforts? To what extent is funding the bottleneck to advocacy success on foreign aid issues?
- How do the likely returns to advocacy efforts in the U.S. compare to likely returns in other high-income countries?
- Would it be better to focus on other policy issues in high-income countries instead of improving or increasing foreign aid? Should a philanthropist focus on other policy issues in low-income countries instead of focusing on aid?
6. Our process
We decided to investigate this area because we believe that advocacy to improve or augment U.S. foreign aid could conceptually have high returns relative to direct service efforts like our top charities. We spoke to three individuals with knowledge of the field, including:
- Ben Leo, Senior Fellow, Director of Rethinking US Foreign Assistance Program, Center of Global Development; former Global Policy Director of the ONE Campaign
- John Fawcett, Global Legislative Director, RESULTS
We also conducted some limited desk research on the size of some of the organizations involved in advocacy related to U.S. foreign aid.
|Birdsall and Kharas 2010||Source|
|Bread for the World 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990||Source|
|Bread for the World 501(c)(4) IRS Form 990||Source|
|Center for Global Development 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990||Source|
|Center for Global Development Homepage||Source|
|Center for Global Development: Evaluation of Impact||Source|
|Easterly and Williamson 2011||Source|
|Fact sheet: Power Africa||Source|
|Friends of the Global Fight 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990||Source|
|Gates Foundation grant to the Center for Global Development||Source|
|Gates Foundation grant to the Global Fund||Source|
|Gates Foundation grant to the One Campaign||Source|
|Hewlett Foundation grant to the One Campaign||Source|
|Hewlett Foundation match for gifts to the Center for Global Development||Source|
|Knack, Rogers, and Eubank 2011||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with Ben Leo on September 3, 2013||Source|
|Notes from a conversation with John Fawcett on September 3, 2013||Source|
|ONE ACTION 501(c)(4) IRS Form 990 Summary||Source|
|ONE IRS Form 990 2011||Source|
|Oxfam America Advocacy Fund||Source|
|RESULTS 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990||Source|
|RESULTS 501(c)(4) IRS Form 990 Summary||Source|
|State and USAID – FY 2013 Budget Fact Sheet||Source|
|The One Campaign 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990||Source|
|US Global Leadership Coalition 501(c)(3) IRS Form 990||Source|
|US Global Leadership Coalition 501(c)(4) IRS Form 990||Source|