UNICEF: Ranking high on good

Do leaders, citizens and donors agree on the most important development challenges to solve in the countries where they work? Whose support and what conditions make progress more or less likely? Which international donors do leaders prefer as development partners?

To answer these questions, the Listening to Leaders 2018 report draws upon the unique experiences and perspectives of government officials, civil society leaders, private sector representatives, and development partners working on the ground in developing countries.


In a new survey from AidData, a research lab at the College of William and Mary, UNICEF is ranked as one of the most influential and useful development partners to leaders in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

AidData’s Listening to Leaders 2018 report leverages a unique sample of nearly 3,500 leaders in government, development, Civil Society and business positions in 126 countries. As part of the report, AidData tracked 35 global aid donors on two indicators of performance:

  • Influence on in-country policy priorities
  • Helpfulness in implementing policies

International and multilateral organizations earned high marks. The ranking places the IMF and World Bank first and second on perceived influence. UNICEF placed fifth, beating out several multilateral banks, United Nations Development Programme, and every bilateral donor nation except the United States.

UNICEF was also a fast riser, jumping five places from the 2014/15 AidData report, where it placed tenth on the influence metric.

In the area of perceived helpfulness, UNICEF rose from fifth to third place. Only GAVI and the IMF are seen as more helpful. UNICEF is ahead of the World Bank, IFC, and every bilateral donor nation. Globally, UNICEF ranked first in helpfulness among the development partner group, and first among policymakers working on economic issues. The agency was ranked second-most helpful among all respondents in sub-Saharan Africa, behind only the IMF.

AidData found that, broadly, money is an important tool for capturing the attention of policymakers, but UNICEF’s performance indicates that it is not the only determinant. AidData estimates UNICEF committed just over $6 billion from 2005-2013 to the 126 countries studied. This score compares to the World Bank and EU, which scored just behind UNICEF on the helpfulness ranking, but those agencies committed to spend over $100 billion in the same period. By this standard, UNICEF is providing high value for money to its diverse set of donors, as well as to the millions of beneficiaries who count on its work.

The researchers found several possible keys to UNICEF’s success. UNICEF’s global presence, and high brand recognition are a factor, but deep investment and engagement with leaders in poorer countries have led to high levels of trust and credibility. This latter point is borne out by the data: when AidData asked in-country leaders to rank the factors that make a development partner helpful, “working closely with government counterparts” was the winner, ahead even of the provision of financial or material resources.

AidData finds that donors who focus on a single issue or set of issues tend to do well, particularly in terms of perceived helpfulness: besides UNICEF, GAVI (first place overall) and the Global Fund (seventh), both of which are focused on a narrow set of issues or priorities, score highly.

A group of school children and David Beckham stand looking on at a girl kicking a football towards camera.
© UN0188665/Indonesia/2018/ModolaUNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham plays football with students and teachers at the SMPN 17 school in Semarang, Indonesia, March 27, 2018.

Elsewhere, AidData found that UNICEF is a go-to source for data and analysis – more than 20% of leaders reported using a UNICEF knowledge product in their work, making it the sixth-ranked source among donors, in terms of most frequently used or cited.

Prior to fielding its survey in 2017, AidData spent nearly two years preparing a systematic sampling frame of host government and development partner officials, civil society leaders, private sector representatives, and independent experts.

In 2017, AidData surveyed 46,688 people in 126 countries, mapping and measuring 22 policy issues (including health, finance, agriculture, water, education, etc.) during the period 2010-2015. The researchers asked leaders to describe the most important policy challenges to their countries, progress blockers and enablers, and how they assess the contributions of the international donors with whom they work. A total of 3,468 individuals responded to the survey.

The research serves as a “customer satisfaction survey” on foreign aid providers, and is unusual because it asks in-country leaders to assess not individual aid projects, but their overall perceptions of donor organizations or donor countries as a whole.


Alexander Wooley is Partnerships and Communications Director at AidData.

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