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21 Mar 2024
Jean-Marc Bernard

One Size Fits … One: International Aid’s Struggle to Adapt to Local Contexts

In this blogpost, Jean-Marc Bernard reflects on the tendency of international aid agencies to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to development. He argues that a “one size fits one” approach would be more appropriate and calls for a “leadership mindset”, which puts local leadership and context at the center of international aid. This is the second blogpost in the mini-series on “Rethinking international aid” within the NORRAG blog series on “Financing Education”.


There is a pervasive and longstanding bias towards treating the world as a simple, predictable place in which aid can be delivered as if on a global conveyor belt, to bring about positive changes.

~ Ben Ramalingam, Aid on the Edge of Chaos


In my previous blog post of this series, I discussed how development is essentially a process of change that originates within countries (the endogenous nature of development). This perspective implies that local leadership plays a central role in driving this process forward. However, this view clashes with what I referred to as the “driver’s seat mindset” – a predominant top-down approach to international aid that has prevailed for decades. For who, after all, can actually “put the government in the driver’s seat”? Certainly not external actors outside of the country. The hard news for many to hear: the government is already in the driver’s seat.[1] You just may not like where they are going.

In this post, I want to build on this perspective by debunking the “one size fits all” mentality that undermines the effectiveness of international aid.

A broader view of local leadership

In addition to their endogenous nature, development processes have two other fundamental characteristics: their complexity, and their long-term character. Development processes are inherently complex, marked by messiness, non-linearity, and uncertainty. And they unfold over extended periods.

The complexity and long-term nature of development processes show that they are a collective effort involving diverse stakeholders across different levels of society over an extended period. The belief that a single entity, such as a government, is the sole “driver” of these processes oversimplifies the reality. Local leadership needs to be viewed in a broader context beyond government involvement. It encompasses leadership across different sectors and layers of society over time.

Struggling with context

The non-linear and uncertain character of development processes make it essential to grasp the ongoing dynamics within a specific context at any given time. Interestingly, conversations within international aid agencies increasingly acknowledge the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling development challenges. There is a growing understanding that aid efforts must be demand-driven or country-driven, with the oft-repeated mantra being to “meet countries where they are.” This recognition reflects an awareness of the intricacies involved among aid professionals.

Despite this awareness, major international aid agencies usually struggle to translate this understanding into practice. Despite operating in vastly different environments, they tend to rely on similar and somewhat rigid processes and tools. Rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach, they’ll implement a two, three or maybe four-sizes-fit-all approach. What I mean by this is that, for instance, aid agencies will employ two different approaches to work in fragile contexts compared to non-fragile contexts.

Given the uniqueness of each development context, a more appropriate approach would be to adopt a “one-size-fits-one” mentality, tailoring interventions specifically to the needs and dynamics of each context.

Unfortunately, the sector presently lacks the necessary flexibility to attain this degree of adaptation. There is a lack of support for operational innovation in order to adapt to diverse contexts within these organizations, hindering their ability to effectively respond to the challenges of development.

You may wonder then, why the notion of aid being “country-driven” doesn’t always bring local context to the forefront of aid processes and lead to much-needed adaptations from aid agencies. Let’s dive into what “country-driven” means in practice. Picture this: a government eager for support from an international aid agency must jump through the hoops of a standardized process set by the agency itself. Sounds straightforward, right? But here’s the catch – these processes often reflect the top-down mindset that’s been around for decades. Instead of truly immersing themselves in the unique contexts of the countries they’re aiming to assist, aid agencies tend to offer ready-made solutions. To be fair, it’s worth noting that many of these processes do ask for some information about the country’s context. However, the scope of the information requested is often quite narrow, focusing primarily on specific sectors or areas of activity. In-depth analyses of the political economy with a historical perspective are seldom included in these requests.

In essence, the idea of aid being “country-driven” often ends up being more about navigating the aid agency’s bureaucratic maze than truly meeting the needs of the countries they’re meant to support. It’s time for a shake-up in this status quo.

The leadership mindset

Thus, understanding the endogenous nature, complexity, and long-term character of development processes is crucial for international aid efforts. This understanding must form the core of a new mindset, I call this a “leadership mindset”, which puts local leadership and context at the center. Adopting and applying such a mindset is the first step towards more effective international aid.

While international aid agencies face significant challenges in effectively supporting development processes, there exist clear opportunities for improvement. Supporting local leadership, adopting context-based approaches, and fostering flexibility and innovation within agencies to adapt to fast-changing and unique contexts are critical steps towards more impactful and sustainable development outcomes.

What practical steps can we take to implement these changes? Stay tuned for my next blog where I’ll delve deeper into these points, exploring practical opportunities for enhancing the effectiveness of international aid efforts. In the meantime, if you are interested in diving further into this topic, in addition to the books recommended in my previous blog I suggest reading Jean G. Boulton, Peter M. Allen and Cliff Bowman’s 2015 book titled Embracing Complexity, Strategic Perspectives For an Age of Turbulence,  Duncan Green’s 2016 book titled How Change Happens, and  Paul Watzlawick, John H. Weakland and Richard Fisch’s 1974 book Change – Principles of Problem Formation and Problems Resolution.


[1] There are of course some contexts where this is not true, notably humanitarian contexts where governments do not always have the ability to respond to needs.


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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