NN47, April 2012

The Aid Industry is Threatening Partner Countries with its ROD… Results Obsession Disorder, Pages 55-56

Keywords: development; aid donors; results; accountability

Summary: By excessively focusing on measurable results, the aid industry ignores the essence of the development process and thus undercuts the very objectives it pretends to pursue: ownership, accountability and participation.


“In today’s world, development is about results.” Thus reads the opening sentence of a December 2011 brochure where the World Bank presents its new financing instrument called “Program-for-Results Financing”. The brochure is embellished with pictures of smiling Africans, delighted, one assumes, because they are the beneficiaries of value for (other people’s) money.

For, indeed, the “Value for Money” agenda aka “Results Obsession Disorder” is spreading fast. Confronted with incisive questions from sceptical citizens and politicians, the aid industry feels it has to prove itself and therefore takes the road of “performance indicators”, “aid that makes a difference”, “measurable results” and “Value for Money”. Where DFID has taken the lead, other donors, including now the World Bank, have followed.

It is hard to find a pithier expression of what “Value for Money” is about, than the opening sentence of the Bank’s brochure. Development, in that view, is indeed not more than the delivery of results. Every societal objective can and ought to be translated into a “deliverable”, a rational objective that has nothing to do with ideology and gets rid of the political or moral dimension of the issues involved. Results are judged independently from considerations of fairness, accountability or participation of the people involved.

In other words “Value for Money” ignores the essence of development in a very fundamental sense. It is based on a schematized and incomplete representation of the development process. In doing so it entails, knowingly or not, the additional risk of deceiving politicians and the public to whom it pretends to be accountable. Indeed, showing results based on such a defective picture of reality may create the impression that development is simple and straightforward, and that aid is a gigantic machine of money-in, development-out.

At the operational level, the “Value for Money” approach inevitably bears a number of important risks. As aid agencies will be assessed on their measurable results, they will be inclined to opt for activities whose results are easy to measure, regardless of their sustainable impact on fundamental developments in the society. This is outright deplorable because we know that those developments that are most easily measured are the least transformational while those that are most transformational are the least measurable. But even where agencies choose  programs that aim at fundamental societal transformation, there will be a high risk of indicatorism, that is indicators will tend to become autonomous goals. In practice, agencies will tend to focus on immediate, small-scale output rather than on long-term macro-outcome. And as they are aware they will be assessed on “Value for Money”, they will avoid risks and opt as much as possible for activities for which the results are assured.

The most pernicious shortcomings of “Value for Money” however are due to its strong donor-centric rationale. As is clearly visible in the Bank’s brochure mentioned above, at the end of the day, it’s the donors who will assess whether or not there is “Value for Money”. And they will measure it in accordance with their standards, their policy preferences and, ultimately, their ideologies. We should never forget that the power balance between a donor – who has the money – and a local partner – who is dependent on it – is always very asymmetric. Therefore, “Value for Money” will tend to cripple the sense of responsibility and initiative with local partners. Sure enough, they will direct all efforts towards obtaining the agreed figures within the given time-span, because that is how the donors will measure their performance (and eventually disburse their money). At a more fundamental level, this will tend to weaken the sense of accountability to local populations. “Value for Money” may thus undercut the very principles the aid industry pretends to promote: ownership, accountability and participation.

Should all this lead to the conclusion that we should not work towards results? Throw our indicators in the wastebasket? Abolish monitoring? Just do things? Of course not! Of course we should count and measure. But counting and measuring must be part of a dynamic process among partners, of joint learning and adjusting, continuous communication and interaction that goes well beyond the measurable elements of an aid program. The relationship with a partner in development must not be reduced to a disbursement-for-results relationship. For that is the antithesis of concerted action. Development cooperation is about patiently building trust and creating a shared sense of responsibility for common goals. And that takes time.


Cite article as: Leroy, M., (2012) ‘The Aid Industry is Threatening Partner Countries with its ROD… Results Obsession Disorder’, in NORRAG NEWS, Value for Money in International Education: A New World of Results, Impacts and Outcomes, No.47, April 2012, pp. 55-56, available: