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What’s the big idea? Nearly 15 years ago in Paris, the international community recognised that development assistance could and should work better and decided that applying a certain set of principles – later condensed into ownership, focusing on results, inclusive partnerships, and transparency and accountability – was the best way to do it. These principles soon became synonymous with effective development, the assumption being that applying them would undoubtedly lead to better results. Subsequent work tended to focus on if they had been applied or not rather than whether that application led to the predicted benefits. This assumption has been increasingly challenged in recent years however. While everyone still wants development cooperation that delivers, the question is whether the principles are fit for purpose. To try to answer it, the EU commissioned a study in the first half of 2019, looking at whether applying the principles on the ground has really led to better results. 

How did we go about it? Dedicated consultants looked at several hundred studies, evaluations and pieces of research, both at the macro level and on individual projects and programmes to see where the principles had been applied and what effect this had had. These were sourced from international organisations, bilateral DPs, partner country governments, CSOs, academia and think tanks. They were geographically balanced and covered a range of sectors, though placed a special emphasis on the SDGs for education, decent work, reduced inequalities and climate action. 

What did we find? Overall the principles definitely do seem to make a difference and where they are applied we see better results. For example: 

All of the principles can be embodied in budget support given that it lines up work behind national policies and results as well as using country systems. And the research shows that it works, leading to increased public spending and access to public services, especially for education and health, better public financial management, and strengthened domestic accountability. For example, in Timor Leste, it improved government capacity to undertake reforms, in Ghana it helped with responding to economic shocks, in Nicaragua it improved accountability, and in Zambia it contributed to an economic turnaround. These kinds of benefits have not been matched when the same amounts are spent using other aid modalities. 

Inclusive ownership of policy and plans was found to be key to success in many cases. For example, in Cambodia, government improved protection services for those living with HIV by giving them a role in designing new support programmes. In the Pacific, tapping into local knowledge and concerns and giving local people a role in implementation was crucial to the impact of initiatives to improve weather forecasts and alerts, facilitating faster and more comprehensive evacuations. In Afghanistan, putting together a nationally-owned education plan meant the country could gain access to funding from the Global Partnership for Education. 

A range of studies flag that fragmentation of development assistance impairs results, leading to gaps, overlaps, missed collaboration opportunities and a higher cost of doing business. It is an issue that is becoming even more pressing as additional providers of support come on stream and work increasingly outside of central governments. This means better joining up work can make a real difference. For example, introducing a nationally-owned social cash transfer programme in Malawi and requiring DPs to align to it turned around previous poor results from multiple stand-alone initiatives and saw beneficiaries increasing investment in agricultural assets. A sector wide approach in education in Nepal led to it outshining other sectors while in Cambodia it contributed to a doubling of the number of children completing lower secondary school. In Rwanda, government requirements for DPs to specialise under a division of labour led to greater focus, higher impacts, and lower administration costs, with an added benefit being that civil servants had more time to focus on their core business. 

The evidence shows that good partnerships are essential for bringing in more resources, increasing impact, and establishing checks and balances. For example, in Nigeria, government and DPs struck a deal with the private sector to purchase agricultural outputs before working with farmers to deliver the goods, benefiting over 20,000 of them. In Pakistan, the government paid private schools to accept those who couldn’t afford the fees, allowing half a million marginalised children to get access to education. In several African countries, civil society partnered with governments and DPs under an EU programme to promote responsible mining, ensuring that economic benefits did not come at the expense of social and environmental costs. 

A wide range of examples see transparency and good data helping to show who needs assistance, enable decision-makers to see where their support is working and where it’s not, and incentivise responsible behaviour by providers. For example, in Brazil, a network of civil society and private sector actors analysed the needs of hundreds of individual communities which led to a significant shift in priorities and targets by government and other development actors. In Cambodia, the ID Poor system established by government and DPs identified those at risk of being left behind, with government then mandating that all providers of support use it to target beneficiaries. In Indonesia, data was used to expose leakage in subsidised rice programmes and design more robust successors. 

A lack of predictability is consistently flagged by partner governments as one of the top impediments to effective support and, for ultimate beneficiaries, it is often the main source of their vulnerability. For example, a lack of predictability in education funding in Zambia was cited as the main impediment to progress, hindering planning and forcing short-term teacher hires which impaired learning. On the other hand, the Public Safety Nets programme in Ethiopia emphasised the importance of providing predictable cash transfers which could be counted on in terms of timing and size. These proved highly effective in preventing distress migration while at the same time helping re-establish faith in the state. 

Focusing on results may sound obvious but often the attention is on the wrong ones, comes too late, or is overshadowed by reporting on how much money has been spent. For example, education outcomes have been improved in several countries by focusing on literacy instead of enrolment thanks to the recognition that concentrating only on the former can lead to overstuffed classrooms and deteriorating learning. In Myanmar, the results of fisheries programmes are monitored in real time and used to shape the evolution of activities, as opposed to only appearing in an evaluation after work has been completed. Paying for results has helped incentivise progress in many countries, such as by helping meet exam pass targets in Ethiopia and Pakistan. And publicising results has been key to establishing trust and persuading marginalised families to join Brazil’s flagship social protection programme. 

So what’s not to like? The principles do work, and the study provides plenty of examples of this, but only when they are applied right. This does not always happen. By nature, the principles are broad, allowing perhaps too much room for interpretation. This can result in the establishment of structures and processes intended to further effectiveness that turn out to have little practical usefulness. This explains the onset of development effectiveness fatigue, as in its name people are hounded into participating in initiatives that are not making development either deliver more or cost less. Another round of generic insistences on the importance of the principles will not help. Instead, the focus now needs to be on exactly how to implement their laudable yet vague ambitions on the ground. To reclaim momentum and legitimacy, there is a need to acknowledge and learn from past failures as well as successes, moving away from the glossy, public relations, all-is-good model of development cooperation reporting that tends to prevail at international conferences. Crucially, specific examples of what works and what doesn’t need to be made much more accessible – the knowledge is out there but far too much of it remains locked up in lengthy documents that are rarely read. The emerging field of devtech offers an intriguing opportunity to crack this problem and mine what we already have. This will allow us to forge the missing link between sourcing the resources and leveraging them to meet the SDGs. It’s high time to take back ownership of what development effectiveness really means.