Author: Nilima Gulrajani, Senior Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute.


There is a fundamental challenge facing the development effectiveness agenda. While GPEDC stakeholders might be collectively committed to development effectiveness, their efforts are challenged by the fact that there is no longer a singular theory of development to which all countries subscribe. Past approaches where a 'developed' North served as a model and aid funder for a 'developing' South are discredited by almost everyone, everywhere.   

The wide-ranging SDGs are not gluing diverse partner countries and development partners together in a common enterprise. An expansive set out global goals permits a multiplicity of development pathways, which can leave some goals lagging (a recent assessment of around 140 targets shows that about half of them are off track).    

The global consensus on development effectiveness is constantly challenged by multiple understandings of what development is and how it should be realised. My recent paper suggests there are at least three archetypical narratives vying to frame development policy objectives and the causal relationships that lead to their achievement: 

  • A supra-nationalist narrative orients towards the provision of global public goods for the benefit of all, exemplified in the global effort to mobilise support for the pandemic preparedness fund or the $100 billion climate finance target.
  • A nationalist narrative seeks to cultivate geopolitical power and influence. This inspires multi-national development infrastructure schemes like the EU Global Gateway and the G7 Partnership for Infrastructure and Investment that are presented as direct responses to China's Belt and Road Initiative.
  • A solidaristic narrative tackles the global scourge of inequality. Ideas like Global Public Investment (GPI) draw on this narrative to suggest the reconstruction of aid as a permanent investment flow involving all countries oriented towards cultivating a shared, common good.

Contemporary development policy is animated by these narratives, in some cases drawing on several simultaneously (e.g. just transition draws from solidaristic and supranational narratives, while feminist foreign policy draws on nationalist and solidarities narratives). All three seek to reframe development as reconceiving the relationship between low and high-income countries. But such multiplicity can also fragment efforts, and result in little more than superficial support for global effectiveness norms. 


What can be done? 

In these polarised times, building a political consensus around development effectiveness requires recognising the legitimacy of the divergent objectives represented by each narrative. Development effectiveness objectives will need to be oriented towards the different goals, modalities and accountability relations in each narrative, at least until such time as agreement can be forged.    

For example, a supranational narrative underlines the importance of inter-governmental mechanisms for tackling global public ills like climate change. To date, there is no robust compliance mechanism to ensure duty bearers for ODA and non-ODA investments meet their quantifiable climate finance targets in a manner where responsibilities are shared fairly. Development effectiveness principles like mutual accountability could inform the creation of formulae to allocate differential responsibility for climate-induced loss and damage, as well as monitor compliance against these financing targets. 

Meanwhile, geo-political challenges created by the Ukraine war are amplifying the problem of coming together around shared objectives. There does appear to be a ceiling to Western donors' desires to support a collective vision of ‘principled nationalism’, which may put some critical development effectiveness principles like country ownership and transparency at risk. Tracking possible trade-offs, especially among development partners for whom development effectiveness ambitions have a twenty-year history and where formal commitments have previously been made, may be one way to ensure geopolitical goals do not overwhelm obligations towards effective development. 

We are well into the next stage of development co-operation, one where aid is no longer a credible or binding narrative for all countries but where a single, successor narrative remains elusive. Until such time as global consensus can be secured, development partners should be willing to deeply scrutinize their own roles and responsibilities towards development effectiveness from the vantage of their preferred narrative. Leading by example is likely the best way to encourage other development partners to deliver on their own global promises.  


The content of this blog article is based on the findings of the working paper Development narratives in a post-aid era: Reflections on implications for the global effectiveness agenda.

A version of this blog appeared on the ODI website.