Aid donors are interested in the arguments for allocating aid via bilateral versus multilateral channels, and specifically in understanding which channel is more “effective” at supporting positive development and social outcomes. We contribute to the literature on this subject by summarizing recent OECD data on aid flows and reviewing the theoretical arguments from the aid literature on the different characteristics supporting effectiveness of bilateral versus multilateral aid. We then review the empirical literature, analyzing 40 papers that study the effectiveness of different aid channels on various outcomes. Many studies do not directly compare the effectiveness of aid channels, and the studies vary in how aid channels are defined, measured, and evaluated. Further, these studies do not directly test the hypothesized advantages of one channel of aid versus another; rather they test bilateral versus multilateral aid flows associations with development outcomes, assuming some causal mechanism is at work to explain differences in impact. We evaluate studies reporting the impacts of aid on GDP growth, governance, government investment spending, health, the HDI, poverty, and private investment, and find no consistent evidence that either bilateral or multilateral aid is more effective. The lack of conclusive evidence supporting either aid channel is likely related to differences in the methodologies of the studies included in this review, but may also be due to differences in how the theoretical arguments for the effectiveness of either channel apply in different circumstances.
Read an updated version of this analysis as published in the Review of Development Economics.
Read a blog post discussing how findings of this paper relate to an Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report on how characteristics of multilateral and bilateral aid channels might influence donors' aid allocation decisions.