The Labyrinth of Decision-Making for Effective Foreign Aid

Tetra Tech’s Travis Watters and co-author Professor Christopher Tofallis examine the meaning and process of multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) and how it is applied in international development contexts to improve outcomes.

Tetra Tech is an industry leader in the performance of feasibility studies for infrastructure investments. These studies are used to determine not only whether a proposed investment package is viable (i.e., will it work?), but also to measure its value relative to other investment packages (i.e., is it best?). Just as all of us might have a different definition of what constitutes best in terms of food, music, or movies, opinions abound when it comes to judging the merits of these proposed infrastructure projects. There is a need for a method for eliciting these preferences, bolstering them with the best data available, and aggregating them to guide decision-makers. In this paper, we discuss one such MCDA method.

The name may be unfamiliar, but you likely have been practicing MCDA all your life. Whether selecting a home, a job, a car, or just standing in front of the refrigerator trying to conjure dinner, many of us have encountered decisions where multiple variables tug us in different directions. As my co-author, Professor Christopher Tofallis, remarked during one of our discussions, nearly every important decision is a multi-criteria decision.

The concern at the core of MCDA is how we choose what options to define, what parameters to consider, and how to measure and weigh our preferences. The international development context forever challenges us to evaluate and propose interventions that consider health outcomes, economic efficiency, climate and environmental impacts, social and gender equality, and other concerns. In our personal lives, we are often encouraged to “go with your gut,” but such platitudes seem insufficient when weighing the implications of multimillion-dollar investments.

There is a better way. In this paper, we examine an application of an MCDA method known as the weighted product method, which aims to compile data and preference measures on multiple factors and transform this information into a single metric for comparison across multiple options. The method is gaining traction in the field of MCDA at large and in international development in particular; the Human Development Index, issued by the United Nations Development Program, recently adopted a similar scheme for its scorings and rankings. Read more to join us in our endeavor to, in the words of Galileo, “measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not so."

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Travis Watters headshot

Travis Watters

Travis Watters is a project manager with Tetra Tech and has more than 10 years of experience in hydraulic and hydrologic modeling; and planning and design of water, stormwater, and wastewater distribution systems in the United States and abroad. He has supported the U.S. Agency for International Development- and Millennium Challenge Corporation-funded projects in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Liberia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, and Zambia. Travis has a Master of Engineering in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.