Aid Policy & Advocacy

It covers a wide range of advice, and is likely to be among the most comprehensive sources you’ll be able to find about this topic from an impact-focused perspective. It’s the result of considerable internal research, as well as consultation with the following domain experts:

Mathias Bonde


Center for Effective Aid Policy

Patrick Stadler


New Incentives

Ranil Dissanayake

Senior Research Fellow

Center for Global Development

Sam Anschell

Global Aid Policy Program Associate

Open Philanthropy

Note that the experts we consult don’t necessarily endorse all the views expressed in our content, and all mistakes are our own.

What is international aid?

Aid is assistance provided by high-income countries to support the development of lower-income countries. This is achieved through providing funding, technical expertise, and other resources to enable programs in health, education, infrastructure, gender equality, climate change, and other areas.

Aid is either given bilaterally from one nation directly to another or multilaterally, whereby nations pay into a centralized fund distributed by an international organization (like the World Bank or World Health Organization). 

International aid has achieved some huge wins, helping people and saving lives on an impressive scale. A couple of really impactful examples include:

The fact that aid has managed to help significant numbers of people shouldn’t be surprising. The world’s worst-off people live on a tiny fraction of the income of those in high-income countries. Because of these extra resources, high-income countries have been able to address problems that are still widespread in low-income countries. As such, money goes a lot further in the world’s poorest places.

For example, the UK’s National Health Service is willing to spend as much as £30,000 to save one healthy year of life for patients. In comparison, some of the most effective health interventions in low-income settings are able to save one healthy year of life for under $100, yet are often underfunded.

So, aid can do a huge amount of good. However, this isn’t the whole story. Although much aid provides vital help for people who need it, not all of it is spent as effectively as it could be—there is significant room for improvement in the quality of aid that countries provide. 

This article will outline the case for why you might decide to work to help improve aid through roles in policy and advocacy, helping to improve the quality or even the quantity of aid (or both!). We’ll also highlight some of the most promising paths you could take in this field if you want to improve people’s lives with your career.

Why work in aid policy and advocacy? 

There is a huge variety of career paths and cause areas you can work in to have a positive impact on the world. Why might you choose aid policy and advocacy? 

Large budgets 

To put it simply, the amount of money that countries spend on aid is enormous relative to other spending in global health and development. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), $211 billion was spent on international aid in 2022 by member states of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC)—a collection of 32 donor countries that agree to broad targets and strategies for their aid spending.

Putting this in context, the OECD also calculates that an average of $10.6bn per year of private philanthropy was spent in development towards the end of the last decade.

The image is an infographic comparing private philanthropy and international aid contributions. On the left, there are two labeled circles: a blue circle representing international aid and a gold circle representing private philanthropy. To the right is a matrix of 21 circles arranged in a triangular formation, 20 blue circles and one gold circle that is placed at the bottom right. The single circle representing private philanthropy is equal to 10.6 billion USD and the 20 blue circles representing international aid are equal to 211 billion USD.

It’s worth noting that the full quantity of aid spending is even higher than this $211bn figure, given that some donor countries are not members of the DAC, and that not all aid spending counts as “official” development assistance, even by members of the DAC.

In short, the largest share of money given to development efforts comes from international aid. Of course, no one person is able to influence all this money, and you won’t necessarily be able to influence larger sums of aid than you would working in private philanthropy. Regardless, aid is by far the most important force in global health and development. Therefore, it’s crucial to improve the aid sector if we want to accelerate increases in the well-being of people living in poverty.

Resource spotlight

Curious about which countries have aid budgets worth trying to influence in a policy or advocacy role? The OECD’s Development Co-operation Profiles provide great data on countries’ aid spending, as well as many of the largest philanthropic foundations.

Lots of room for improvement

As mentioned, international aid has funded several successful programs—saving and improving the lives of tens of millions of people living in poorer countries. 

However, much of the current aid spending isn’t quite as effective. Though this varies by aid agency, a lot of money goes towards programs that do little to improve the lives of the people they’re trying to help, and in some cases, they even cause harm

Additionally, there’s good reason to think the very best programs in global health and development are significantly better than the average program. For instance, the DCP3 report (an analysis of health programs in low-income settings) suggests that the most effective health measures can save 10x as many healthy years of life per dollar spent than the least effective measures. In some cases, the best measures and treatments prove even more impactful—potentially saving 100x years of healthy life as less effective treatments would.

If there’s such a big difference between the effectiveness of global health programs, what’s stopping aid agencies from working out which ones are best and funding those more often? Naturally, the answer to this is quite complex, though a few of the most significant reasons include:

  • Lack of expertise: Aid agencies simply may lack the internal expertise to sufficiently evaluate proposals and develop strong evidence-based strategies for their spending. Because of this, individuals with a strong background in relevant disciplines (such as development economics and monitoring and evaluation) could prove very valuable in filling this expertise gap within aid agencies, or in external advocacy roles.
  • Aid serves a plurality of goals at once: Aid proposals often need to demonstrate benefits along an array of dimensions, such as climate sustainability, gender equality, improvements to well-being, and promoting democracy. These are worthwhile aims for aid, but the pressure to meet multiple criteria at once can mean aid spending isn’t always optimized for cost-effectiveness across any dimension and ends up sounding good rather than doing good. 
  • Organizational culture: In addition to external constraints, some aid agencies prioritize cost-effectiveness more than others due to differences in personnel and culture. This means there can be internal resistance to investing resources in rigorously vetting proposals or evaluating programs. Even though these are essential processes for ensuring a positive impact, some would rather that these resources be spent on programs instead. Though it’s likely to be tricky, trying to reduce this internal hesitancy to pursue an evidence-led approach to aid spending could pay dividends in improving decision-making throughout organizations that distribute aid.
  • Political constraints: Aid spending is often limited by the donor country’s interests, making it difficult to provide aid to countries without historical alliances, shared political values, or material benefits for the donor country. This can make it harder to target groups who would benefit the most from aid, and so trying to loosen these constraints could allow for more effective spending of aid money where it’s needed most.

By pursuing a career in aid policy, you can help solve many of these challenges to effective aid spending. Some are surprisingly malleable—for instance, a single expert can drive significant improvement in an organization’s professional practices. Some are more challenging. Changing political constraints on aid spending would require a lot of exceptional advocacy. Even so, there are good reasons to believe aid policy and advocacy roles will have impressive scope for positive impact. 

For example, Japan’s main bilateral aid agency has just under 2,000 staff members. With a bilateral aid spend of over $15bn in 2022, this equates to an average of around $7.5m spent per employee. Of course, this doesn’t mean that each employee controls $7.5m. However, it’s a rough indicator of the (surprisingly high) expected leverage one might have within the organization.

This also aligns with the views of experts, who have told us it’s not uncommon for officials within aid agencies to have a fair amount of autonomy in deciding how to spend millions of dollars at a time. 

Though the above applies mainly to those working within aid agencies, it also gives a sense of how much good can be done working in other positions. For instance, an advocacy organization that’s able to find someone to champion one of their favored policies could end up moving tens of millions to an effective program that otherwise wouldn’t have received funding. Likewise, if a research organization’s report lands in the right hands, this can help change the allocation of significant aid funds to the most pressing areas.

Resource spotlight

This blog from the Center for Global Development gives a great overview of some of the barriers to cost-effectiveness in international aid and suggests some solutions for donors, researchers, and decision-makers in the field.

Additionally, despite the large sums of money spent on aid in absolute terms, even the largest providers of international aid spend only a small portion of their gross national income (GNI) each year. 

Most high-income countries have agreed on a nominal target to spend 0.7% of their GNI on aid. In practice, though, this target is rarely met, and if the world’s largest aid donors did more to reach this target, this would result in hundreds of billions more dollars going to the global poor. 

For instance, the US is the single largest aid provider in the world, providing $55bn of aid in 2023. This is a big spend in absolute terms, but it represents only 0.22% of its gross national income. Likewise, Japan, the third largest aid donor, spent only 0.39% of its GNI on aid in 2022. In fact, only six countries reached the 0.7% target in 2022. These were Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Turkey, and Luxembourg (who achieved the biggest spend of 1% of GNI). 

In short, though there are many reasons why countries allocate their budgets in different ways, if more countries were willing to meet the 0.7% target for aid spending (or even exceed it), this would significantly increase the resources going to some of the people most in need.

Which organizations can you work in?

Most of the roles available in this space are within organizations that influence or manage different components of international aid. These include:

Aid agencies: These are the official governmental aid departments of donor countries. They often have slightly different names but serve similar functions. A few of the largest include the United States’ USAID, Japan’s International Cooperation Agency, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and Germany’s Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit.

Think tanks and research organizations: Numerous think tanks produce research to help improve the quality of programs in global health and development, which can influence both private philanthropy and international aid. Well-regarded organizations in this space that focus on evidence-based approaches include the Center for Global Development, ODI, Copenhagen Consensus, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and the International Initiative for Impact Innovation, among others.

Multilateral organizations: Multilaterals are another important source of aid, distributing aid funds entrusted to them by national governments. Multilaterals also play a role in shaping the agenda of global development efforts, such as the UN’s influential Sustainable Development Goals or the World Bank’s promotion of the DIME model to increase impact evaluation and measurement in global health and development. They are also responsible for coordinating many larger cooperative aid efforts. 

Advocacy organizations: These organizations are exclusively dedicated to improving international aid. This can include communicating directly with policymakers and aid agency staff, publishing reports, and engaging with the wider public. A few organizations in this space include Friends of the Global Fund, Unlock Aid, the Center for Effective Aid Policy, RESULTS, and ONE.

Implementing nonprofits: Nonprofits that work directly in global health can also influence aid spending. The most direct way is by applying for funding from aid agencies to resource their programs. If you work in an effective non-profit, securing this funding for your programs can be a highly impactful way to influence aid spending. Some nonprofits can also play a role in research and advocacy, pushing for funding to be directed toward certain cause areas and interventions. 

Foundations: Philanthropic foundations also contribute to improving international aid through grantmaking and other support. A couple of examples include the Gates Foundation and Open Philanthropy.

There are a significant number of organizations across these categories (many more than those we’ve mentioned specifically). With this, there is also a wide range of potentially high-impact opportunities within them. These can include roles in grantmaking, policy, research, and communications (an especially important component of advocacy work). Additionally, each of these organizations needs to fill other professional functions to function smoothly and efficiently. Relevant roles here include operations staff and people managers, among others. These roles are important components of any organization and can be a critical factor in helping an organization operate more effectively.

Resource spotlight

Cultivating a strong, active interest in global health and development is likely to be a big help for people pursuing careers in aid policy and advocacy. Devex, a news site for the development sector, is a great place to start.

Where should you focus your efforts?

Improvements to aid can be roughly divided into actions that increase the quality of aid, and those that increase the quantity of aid. 

Increasing the quality of aid

Naturally, the best ways to improve aid spending will vary across countries. Some aid agencies might already excel in respects that others don’t, such as in the deployment of evidence-based decision making. Furthermore, some aid agencies may get comparatively little attention from advocates, potentially making it easier to get the attention of policymakers and program managers. 

It’s also worth noting that roles within aid policy and advocacy can grant surprising amounts of leverage in where resources are spent. For instance, as a program manager within an aid agency or multilateral, it’s not uncommon to be responsible for spending millions of dollars at a time (though, naturally, this varies hugely across roles and organizations). 

Likewise, if you’re working at an advocacy organization or if you produce research on relevant programs and interventions, your work could plausibly influence the expenditure of millions more. A great way to get up to speed on how aid advocacy can work is to investigate the work advocacy organizations are currently doing. Unlock Aid, for example, has a page dedicated to the current policies they’re supporting, and the Center for Effective Aid Policy’s blog outlines some of their processes and insight. 

With this in mind, here are a few priority areas that seem to be robustly promising for people working within aid agencies and those advocating externally for better aid policy:

  • Helping direct spending towards more effective programs. This could include directing money towards so-called “best buys” in health and development policy or other interventions that research indicates are cost-effective.
    • If you’re curious about exactly which programs may prove most cost-effective across various settings, consult the research of relevant organizations, including JPAL, CGD, IPA, and others we mentioned above who research the efficacy of many interventions within global health and development.
  • Pushing for rigorous impact evaluations and information gathering as a core part of an aid agency’s processes. This includes both instilling these practices in an agency’s operations, as well as ensuring that enough resources are dedicated to measurement, evaluation, and information gathering.
    • It may be especially promising to focus efforts on countries that have the most room for improvement in this regard. For instance, Germany (the second largest aid donor) is often referenced as a country that would particularly benefit from a more evidence-based approach to aid—and one that is also neglected by existing advocacy efforts. Korea and Japan are also countries that experts have told us may be particularly neglected by current advocacy efforts.
    • The Center for Global Development’s QuODA rankings, which scores aid agencies and multilaterals by the quality of their aid on a few metrics, is also a helpful indicator of which countries could improve the most.
  • Advocating for more prioritization of the world’s poorest people with aid spending. For a variety of reasons, those most in need of help—such as those living in the world’s poorest countries—are not always sufficiently prioritized by international aid

AIDDATA estimates that, in 2021, countries designated as ‘low-income’ received similar amounts of development finance to countries in the income bracket above them, even though low-income countries typically have more pressing needs and more cost-effective opportunities. For instance, Japan’s top four recipients of aid in 2021 were India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia—none of which are among the bottom 50 countries ranked by GDP per capita. (The OECD’s Development Co-operation Profiles allow you to see the top aid recipients of other countries, too.)

Increasing the quantity of aid

The other route to making a positive impact within aid is to try and increase the quantity of aid given by countries. As we discussed above, many high-income countries currently fail to meet the widely-shared 0.7% GNI target, which is already in itself a relatively unambitious target. 

For instance, if Japan were to increase its aid spend to just 0.5% of its GNI (up from 0.39% in 2022), this would amount to nearly $6bn in extra funding. 

Despite the impressive potential upside, persuading governments to increase or maintain aid spending could potentially be more difficult than increasing its quality (as competition for government funding and attention is high). However, the upside in the case of success is potentially vast.

A couple of areas to focus on could include:

  • Raising public awareness and support for increasing or maintaining aid funding. Research suggests that in some countries the public substantially overestimates how much their country spends on international aid, indicating room for more awareness and advocacy.
    • Wealthy countries that fall furthest short of the 0.7% of their GNI aid target include Greece (0.14%), Korea (0.17%), Portugal (0.23%), the United States (0.22%), and Spain (0.3%), to name just a few. (Note, this doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the most promising countries to focus on — just that they are among those with the most room for improvement). 
  • Directly influencing policymakers. Connecting with people who can advocate for increased aid spending within government, such as sympathetic politicians and ministers, or more senior members of aid agencies, may also prove a promising approach. Particularly relevant roles here could include being a member of staff for a policymaker, or working in an external advocacy organization that works with policymakers from outside government.
    • This approach, more than most, relies on personal networks. This means that it’s likely a great route for people who may already have experience in policy, and are able to use their existing connections—though it could be a more difficult route for those with less experience (perhaps unless you’re working in a supporting role within an organization that uses this approach).

Additional resources