Attribution and Contribution

Sonia Warner, SRO, DFID

Attribution or Contribution – in achieving value for money.
Donor agencies are often keen to document results attributable to their programmes and encourage commercial service providers to focus on attribution in defining results.  In other words, what resulted would not have happened without donor intervention. In some areas, for example, humanitarian assistance and direct service delivery, the relationship between attribution and results is relatively straightforward.  But for many development interventions, a strong focus on attribution can undermine sustainability.  Recently, I was speaking to a colleague who said that they were seeking results that would be attributable to their project.  I told them that I was more comfortable with contribution than attribution, once I am clear on the result I am seeking to achieve through my contribution.  What is more important is that my contribution is supporting national, rather than externally driven initiatives and that the effort I am making is understood and valued by beneficiaries.

Working in this way is more complex and challenging, but it is also more rewarding and can deliver more lasting results. However, it is important to really understand the value of contribution over attribution in development, as this is an approach which forces us to think about things quite differently. Attribution requires us to focus more on what we think we can achieve through our interventions, rather than placing value on what our partners are seeking to achieve and exploring where we can add value. 

Perhaps some discomfort comes from the fact that our interventions require us to spend large sums of money, rather than just the right amount of money needed to achieve impact. This overrides national leadership and ownership, as the primary aim can be skewed towards delivering a result that is attributable to the programme first and to the beneficiary second. 

What message does this send to beneficiaries? A focus on attribution can be disempowering as it devalues the critical contributions made by national stakeholders to bringing about change in their societies. We then wonder why any impact achieved from our development programmes often evaporates once the programme ends. 

I am always mindful of the need to consider local content first and carefully assess whether or not an external contribution is actually required. I firmly believe that the best development interventions are those that donors know nothing about.  The “do nothing option” should always be considered seriously by development practitioners.  It is far better than doing harm. 

We need to be mindful of our own limitations, rather than focusing on judging the limitations of beneficiaries – think about “assets” rather than “deficits”. We search for value for money in the 4Es: economy, efficiency, effectiveness and equity, but often overlook the basics of knowing the value placed on donor support by beneficiaries themselves.  Be more realistic about what development assistance can and cannot do. Focus on understanding national initiatives and what beneficiaries committed to national development value and are therefore willing to sustain.   Is this not the best way to assess value for money?