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Official Development Assistance – What is ODA and how can you ensure research is compliant? Part 2

In today’s blog, Dr Conor Snowden, International Development Research Manager talks about the learning from his recent training event “Official Development Assistance – What is ODA and how can you ensure research is compliant?”

We held an event on 17 December that looked in detail at Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding, and explored how best we can frame research to ensure it is compliant with ODA rules. In each submission the applicant is required to outline a link between the research topic and the development relevant impact suggested. It is not the role of a reviewer to presume any knowledge beyond the subject area so ODA statements need to be very clear.

Key to this, is understanding and writing to the OECD guidelines on ODA and looking at the following sentence:

(funding must be) “administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective”.

In the training workshop I explained that as well as the focus being on a Development Assistance Committee (DAC) listed country, the key principles involved with assessing for ODA compliance are all to be found through taking a closer look at the sentence above and these key pointers:

  • Promotion
  • Economic Development
  • Welfare
  • Objective


Impact is an important measure of the success of promotion, although the wording suggests that an immediate impact is not mandatory. Different programmes have different timescales and their impacts manifest in different ways.

The UKRI approach to impact states:

(impact can be achieved…) “through knowledge exchange, new products and processes, new companies and job creation, skills development, increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy, enhancing quality of life and health, international development…”.

To be ODA eligible the impact indicators must be in an area related to development as covered in the next two sections (economic development and social welfare).

It may be that some of the measures of impact mentioned above are included in the proposal outputs. However, with research immediate impact is often not possible. In these cases a plausible pathway to impact is required. By this we mean a convincing suggestion of how the outputs from the proposed research will lead to impact within a reasonable time frame (within fifteen years). To be ODA eligible we need the impact to extend beyond academic impact alone.

Economic development

Economic development is a broad term that goes beyond simple measures like GDP. In addition it is not easy to define in advance what may or may not lead to an economic benefit (increasing profits through an improved industrial process for example may not always feed back to the population and may even promote further inequality).

Whilst general economic benefit can be important it is a good idea that impact fosters economic performance that specifically benefits low income or vulnerable members of society. Examples could include research that could lead to the creation of jobs in rural, underdeveloped regions or improving efficiency/yield in a related industry.

Due to the broad scope for this definition it is important to avoid the following common pitfalls:

  • The proposal should not be too general (sweeping comments about benefits to the economy or GDP in general without substantiation are insufficient) – it must clearly demonstrate a pathway to economic impact for low income and vulnerable sections of society.
  • The central claim should not be unrealistic. In some cases it is clear that claims for impact are exaggerated or not likely to be realised within 15 years.

There must be a mechanism in place to ensure benefits are captured. For example a proposal with a theme strongly related to ODA is considered not eligible if the outputs are weak or restricted by intellectual property agreements, or if it is unlikely to influence policy.


OECD guidelines mention economic development and welfare. This applies at the call level, but individual proposals can be assessed as impacting economic development or welfare as these terms are not always mutually inclusive.

As with economic development, social welfare is broad term that roughly (but not exclusively) consists of enhancing quality of life (wellbeing), health and creative output. Pathways to impact in these areas could include increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy, or political representation of vulnerable populations.  Due to the broad scope for this definition it is important to avoid the following common pitfalls:

  • Proposals should not focus on general health benefits that don’t have a particular benefit for poorer/vulnerable in society.
  • Although it could be argued that someone who is ill is necessarily vulnerable, a case needs to be made for why underdevelopment in a particular region exacerbates the condition targeted. Where possible such claims should be justified with statistics.
  • The proposal should not confuse healthcare with academic enquiry. In the case of an academic enquiry into a medical issue, a plausible pathway to impact is still required. A proposal suggesting a study thematically linked to an ODA topic (such as dengue fever) is not by default eligible but must demonstrate a pathway to impact.


Research projects will usually include more than one objective. It is important to distinguish between primary and secondary aims of a proposal.

Applicants that understand ODA requirements often try to pass secondary objectives as primary objectives. We will be pragmatic in these cases and put the ODA eligible part of the application into perspective. An example could be in the case of a project that receives industrial sponsorship – a primary objective may be to improve a process and thereby make it more profitable. If the secondary objective has a particularly strong case for being ODA then the proposal can still be acceptable – but the judgement on eligibility (including the pathway to impact) will be entirely based on that objective.

With nearly £1bn available every year from the UK Government for research for international development there has never been a better time to consider how your research could help some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world and contribute to lower and middle income countries achieving their sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Further information

More information on the context of development funding as well as key information about specific UK Government ODA funding can be found in the PowerPoint for the event (University of Edinburgh staff access only).

The University of Edinburgh’s International Development Research Hub is part of the Strategic Research Development Team in Edinburgh Research Office. We provide help and support for the development aspects for any of our funding applications.  More information, including the broader expertise Edinburgh Research Office offers to help you win research funding, can be found on our website.

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Conor Snowden


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