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22 Feb 2024
Jean-Marc Bernard

Let’s Drop the “Driver’s Seat” Mindset in International Aid

This text by Jean-Marc Bernard marks the launch of a three blogpost miniseries within a new NORRAG blog series on “Financing Education”. The mini-series on “Rethinking international aid” highlights disconnections and sometimes contradictions between development processes and aid processes, advocates for a mindset shift, and explores how such a shift would require radical changes within international aid.  


“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves… There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.” (Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

We need to put the government in the driver’s seat” is a phrase I’ve heard many times in my 30-year career in international aid, including recently. Coming from international aid agencies, such a top-down language is rather problematic at a time when the sector is talking seriously about decolonizing aid. This mindset assumes there are people who know what to do (international experts) and people who don’t know or know less (governments and local actors in the developing world).  Further, those “who know” consider it their job to convince those “who don’t know” what is necessary to accelerate development. Nowadays most international aid professionals would strongly disagree with such a statement, however this mentality has been prominent for decades and is embedded in strategy, planning and operational processes that drive the daily work of all of us working in international aid.

Take, for example, our obsession with the concept of “ownership”. The convincing rationale behind this obsession is the idea that if people own a process, an initiative, a program (etc.), they will do their very best to ensure it succeeds. Statements of how “it is critical to ensure ownership by national/local authorities” are ubiquitous in meetings in aid agencies, yet this is paradoxical. Indeed, development is a process that originates within countries and can’t really be engineered externally, so don’t national and local authorities already own their processes?  Perhaps not, considering that “ownership” is generally used to refer to processes driven by aid agencies rather than to development processes initiated locally. Of course, we, in the aid community, like to think that aid processes support development processes led by local authorities and leaders. In my experience, this perspective is most of the time wishful thinking. In fact, the desperate call for ownership is an attempt to escape or even deny the reality of the principal-agent relationship that characterizes most international aid work. The archetypical example of this principal-agent relationship is the classic project of an aid agency that depends on national counterparts (local civil servants) to implement.

Thinking that any international aid agency has the power to put any government “in the driver’s seat” is not only offensive and naïve, it also demonstrates a total disconnection with the reality of development. This “driver’s seat” mindset is clearly inconsistent with what we know about development. First, development is fundamentally a change process that originates within countries, which implies that local leadership is the main driver of such process. It is leaders from the public sector, civil society and the private sector who initiate and drive development processes at country level. Second, development is a complex, messy, and nonlinear process marked by uncertainty and requiring time. There is no one expert solution or silver bullet. Don’t get me wrong, expertise is needed to tackle many complicated problems that countries face along the way, but it’s neither the driving force nor the key to success of any development process. Acknowledging that is an important step in the right direction.

From a development standpoint, it is time to replace the “driver’s seat” mindset with a leadership mindset.  I am not suggesting that we simply replace the word “ownership” with “leadership”. International aid agencies often adopt a new rhetoric without changing the way they operate. What I am really talking about is a mindset shift towards local leadership, which will make it a key driver of actual practice in aid agencies. Such a shift would require radical changes within the international aid sector.

What, you may ask, are these changes? Stay tuned for my next blog where I will take up the main implications of a leadership mindset. In the meantime, if you are interested in diving further into this topic, I suggest reading Stefan Dercon’s 2022 book Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose, Ben Ramalingam 2013 book Aid on the Edge of Chaos, and William Easterly’s spirited 2013 treatise The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor.


About the Author:

Jean-Marc Bernard holds a PhD in Economics and has three decades of experience in development, both at country and global level. He is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and an independent consultant advising multi-lateral, civil society, and philanthropic organizations.

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11 Responses

  1. Luis Crouch

    Thanks for this refreshing blog Jean-Marc. I am not sure there is anything wrong with the idea that countries should be in the “driver’s seat.” I think what is naive, or a sort of false piety, is the idea that donors or the aid agencies can have that much to do with it. And I think that is pretty much what you say. The paradox and irony that you refer to is, in my view, perhaps even a bit deeper, in that in some sense it is the countries that are already in the driver’s seat that need aid the least. And the ones that need (or at least in the aid agencies’ definitions of “need”) aid the most (low resources, weak governance) are the ones least likely to just *take* the driver’s seat without being too nice about it. How does one deal with that paradox? I think the first step is to dispense with false piety, and examime not just our motives, but also the motives and superficiality behind how we apply the slogans themselves. Anyway, thanks for being refreshing and having the courage to point to slogans that, while useful to some extent, become a sort of false piety and acquire a sort of incantatory power used in a superficial check-list mentality.

    1. Jean-Marc Bernard

      Thanks Luis! Some food for thought. to your point about countries that need aid the most being the ones least likely to “take the driver seat”, in my view governments are almost always in the driver seat, the question is more about where they are driving… I believe there is too often a confusion between 3 situations here: (i) governments not “taking the driver seat” due to extreme fragility and high volatility (e.g. conflict), but even in these extreme circumstances I would argue that they are in the driver seat but the car is broken; (ii) governments not committed to long term development, which questions and challenges aid agencies work, and (iii) governments committed to long term development but whose goals do not align to those of aid agencies. In my personal experience (ii) and (iii), where governments are driving in a different direction than expected by aid agencies, are much more frequent than (i). However, I think that the “driver seat” analogy even with a more appropriate take as you suggest has serious limitations to understand/approach a development process. I’ll try to cover that in my next blog!

  2. Thank you for calling out the “driver’s seat “ concept and its implications. Language has a performative power and this blog highlights the negativity of the concept.
    The phrase “learning poverty” falls under the same shameful category with even worse assumptions I cringe when I think of the humiliation caused by that term.
    I am looking forward to the next blog !

  3. Prema Clarke

    Hi Jean-Marc, after a long time. This is a fascinating exchange. Perceptive analysis using the car analogy. Every government whether driver or owner has a car for their journey. I would add that even if the car is completely or partially broken, governments would be reluctant to get into another car. This is because they have their own logic, reasons, persuasions, goals, destinations etc., that frame, design and characterize their car and journey. Aid agencies must understand how to repair the car and help them on their way to continue their own respective journeys. Repairing the car is the challenge. Aid agencies either don’t know how to repair the broken car or struggle to repair the car. It is easier for aid agencies to persuade the owner or driver of the broken down car to abandon the journey and join them. Thus the journey remains incomplete, unfinished and inadequate. My book “Education Reform and the Learning Crisis in Developing Countries,” which will be published in paperback next month, suggests a way for aid agencies to repair cars on the development journey in the education sector. Look forward to your next blog.

  4. Laura Savage

    Hey there Jean Marc. I used the drivers seat analogy in my thesis back in the day. It’s a good one. Who is driving? Is the person in the passenger seat giving directions? Is the person in back the one with the power? And so on (you might guess I was writing about power/the politics of aid). Hope you’re well – and to see you at some point this year!

  5. Hello, just practice what you preach dude, for 20 years you have been one of the corner stone of the colonial thinking of education aid in Africa, with GPE and also at PASEC and Pole de Dakar, along with other people and international consultants (that I described and named in the 2012 GPE results report but that was censored) and now you tell us your are the hero of aid decolonisation ??, I guess social networks are here for pretending, I think we need a big change in the staff of the education aid to change the mind sets and not just blogs , you can’t solve problems with the people who created them, and don’t try to retaliate, I will know, You intellectual abilities are clearly over estimated and it is clear in this blog, it is time to a big change in staff that have been acting at destroying the education systems in Africa, I count myself in this category

  6. Vicens Pierre-Yves

    The metaphor of the bus and its driver, the leader or the leaders, are a set of similarities that exclude passengers. When we take education assistance, from a financial point of view, GPE funding over 4 years for a country of 10 million inhabitants is equivalent to the resources granted in France to an association of 400 disabled people with 180 people for supervision. In this beginning, I didn’t say anything about the role, the function or especially who these 400 were! In the same way, passengers are ignored, invisible, denied. To think of help is to think of the people, those who live on earth, in countries. Not in statistics or concepts.

  7. @ Luis Crouch, half a billion dollars have been spent on EGRA (your project), no local capacities were built, only 30+ countries report on SDG 4 early grade learning indicator that is about to be dropped, total failure, so please don’t lecture us with your friends, egra is THE example of data colonialism and don’t try to retialiate neither like you did with colleagues

  8. jean bourdon

    In a short future no more drivers seat, an IA process will do the job ; nevertheless thanks for this nice post.

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