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Donors give about $5 billion a year - about a twentieth of all aid - directly to the government's budget, and this is increasing.  

This has been a controversial policy.  Supporters hope that budget support will focus attention on the government's own systems for managing public spending, improving the effectiveness of all public services and increasing the government's accountability to its own population.  They say that the usual alternative - to provide help in the form of stand-alone projects - tends to bypass, and may undermine, the government systems for financial management and accountability that are desperately needed.   On the other hand, opponents of budget support worry that it becomes impossible to say exactly how taxpayers' aid money has been used, and that there is no way to be sure that the aid has not gone into a black hole of a corrupt or dictatorial government.  With projects, they argue, the donor remains in control of ensuring that real benefits are delivered.

Much of the debate has been ideological, because there has been little systematic evidence on which to make a judgement.  But over the past 3 years, there has been an independent study under the auspices of the OECD, funded by a consortium of donors, to examine the effects of budget support, which has looked at its impact in 7 countries.

The evaluation finds that providing funds through national budget systems has produced
government-wide benefits for capacity, and particularly capacity for public finance
management, which the supporters of budget support predicted. While budget support is not a panacea, the evaluation found that budget support strengthens government ownership and accountability and that, in the short–medium term, there were useful effects on the allocative and operational efficiency of public expenditures (including those financed by foreign aid). These in their turn were linked with medium–longer term systemic effects on improving the links between policy and results.  The report concludes that budget support tends to enhance the country-level quality of aid as a whole, through its
direct and indirect effects on coherence, harmonisation and alignment.

The OECD evaluation finds that there is no evidence that money given directly to government budgets is more affected by corruption than other forms of aid.

It is too early to say whether budget support will be effective in the ultimate goal - which is to reduce poverty. The evaluation does not provide evidence on that. But the evaluation does find evidence for the improvements in public
financial management capacity and government accountability which were predicted by proponents of budget support.

The report makes a number of recommendations for how the operation of budget support might be improved, including better, shared analysis of political risk, and more attention to the way that budget support works with other forms of aid.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.