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09 May 2024
Jean-Marc Bernard

Revisiting International Aid: From Bureaucracy to Results

In this blogpost, Jean-Marc Bernard argues that international aid agencies must undergo radical changes in their approaches to development. What’s needed is a “leadership mindset,” one that prioritizes local leadership and context in aid approaches. This is the third and final blogpost in the mini-series on “Rethinking international aid” within the NORRAG blog series on “Financing Education”.

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

In my previous blog posts of this series, I discussed how international aid is often at odds with the nature of development as a process of change that originates within countries.

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.

While there is no silver bullet, I propose three pivotal shifts that could help improve aid effectiveness and remove some of the roadblocks discussed in my previous blogs:

  1. abandon the bureaucratic culture that has long hindered aid agencies and stifled flexibility and innovation;
  2. focus more on development results and boost organizational learning; and
  3. leverage local leadership.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

The major international aid agencies are large organizations, and there is much discussion about their capacity for reform. Can these large organizations become more flexible and innovative to tackle development challenges in a complex and rapidly changing world? Or are they simply too big to change? UNICEF and the World Bank, two of the largest international aid agencies, respectively employ more than 17,000 and 13,000 staff[1]. While these figures may seem substantial, in comparison to the most successful companies like Apple (around 161,000 staff) or Amazon (over 1.5 million staff), they appear rather modest. One might argue that it’s unfair or inappropriate to compare international aid agencies to for-profit companies, and indeed, such a comparison is never straightforward. However, in our case, we can agree that size is not necessarily the key criterion for flexibility and innovation.

Most international aid organizations were established in the 20th century and are bureaucracies designed to implement and enforce rules and procedures. They are characterized by adherence to fixed rules, hierarchy of authority, and red tape that hamper the ability to adapt quickly to changing situations. This is clearly at odds with the flexibility and innovation that are urgently needed in the aid sector. The one-size-fits-all approach, which is problematic for international aid, is a direct consequence of the bureaucratic mindset. Context matters and aid processes must adapt to them if we want to be effective and impactful. This demands both flexibility and innovation. In my view, the managerial culture of these organizations is far too rigid to foster the innovative mindset required to address current development challenges.

When we examine the most successful organizations[2], it is evident that managerial approaches have evolved significantly over the last decades; the same cannot be said for international aid agencies. While agile management has gained attention in recent years in many of these aid organizations, it’s doubtful that it has driven many significant operational changes. The current emphasis on delocalization in some major aid agencies is likely to yield little fruit if the managerial culture of the organizations does not undergo significant change. The phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast” underscores the importance of managerial culture in determining success, implying that no matter how well-planned a strategy may be, it can be overshadowed by an incompatible culture. It’s crystal clear: changing the managerial culture must be a priority for aid agencies. A crucial catalyst for this change stems from external factors, namely the demands and expectations of the donors who fund these organizations.

Getting to results

The international aid sector places considerable emphasis on evidence and results, often closely linked to the notion of accountability. These notions are scattered throughout organizational strategies and annual reports. But what do they mean in practice? Let’s dive into a concrete example from the education sector. In recent years, there has been a growing global focus on what’s termed the “learning crisis.” Data from lower-middle-income countries and low-income countries paint a grim picture: 7 out of 10 children aged 10 cannot read a simple paragraph, soaring to 9 out of 10 for low-income countries alone. This is a learning disaster that has unfolded over the past decade.

What’s intriguing is that, when looking at the evaluations of aid projects in education that have supported these countries during the same period, very few are found to be unsatisfactory[3]. How can the results of aid projects be largely positive when results in the sector are so dire? One key to understanding this might be the way in which results are measured at the project level versus how they are measured at the sector level. Rarely do projects—even those heavily focused on improving learning—measure and report on learning outcomes. Thus, education projects may be deemed successful even when the majority of children in school cannot read. Donors and aid agencies typically require that aid projects report only on results directly attributable to the project, such as teacher training or textbook distribution, in our example, and within a limited time horizon (typically 3 to 5 years). Such a narrow focus on accountability is pervasive across many projects and sectors and reflects an aversion to risk taking. Unfortunately, in many development contexts, the combination of attribution and complexity poses a significant challenge. For example, it’s generally impossible to precisely determine the impact of a project at sector level, especially when implemented alongside numerous other interventions and reforms. An evaluation can assess a project’s contribution, but direct attribution of impact remains elusive. Consequently, aid project results are often disconnected from key development outcomes.

By focusing on narrow project results, aid agencies are missing out on the learning from impact at sector-level. Also, the quasi-invisibility of development outcomes means that aid agencies lack the incentive to make changes to address the lack of impact. In most cases, the results collected by aid projects do not drive structural changes and innovation for international aid agencies. Organizational learning has a long way to go in most of these organizations.

So what can be done? When it comes to results and accountability, a shift away from “bean-counting” and toward independent evaluations of development outcomes would go a long way. The focus should be less about justifying how aid funding has been used, and more on the impact of the funding.

The leadership lever

As highlighted in the inaugural blog of this series, development fundamentally hinges on a process of change that originates within countries. This underscores the pivotal role of local leadership in driving such progress. This is why I argue it is impossible for external actors like aid agencies to “put the government in the driver’s seat”; they already are. If anyone is going to put a government in a driver’s seat, it is the citizens and constituencies within the country. The intricate and protracted nature of development processes necessitates a collective effort, involving diverse stakeholders spanning various societal levels over an extended period. Local leadership, therefore, must be construed within a broad framework that extends beyond mere government involvement. It encompasses leadership across different sectors and strata of society, unfolding over time.

Given the potent influence of local leadership on development, one may wonder why there’s such scant investment in this realm. It’s perplexing to witness sizable aid programs that support ambitious government reforms without a corresponding emphasis on fostering local leadership. Are we presuming that leaders at all levels within ministries, regions, and local communities, are inherently equipped to spearhead complex change processes? Or are we still laboring under the misconception that addressing technical challenges alone holds the key to success? Admittedly, aid programs often offer training for actors, albeit primarily focused on technical aspects such as planning and financial simulations. These efforts are largely targeted to ministerial actors. Leadership training or coaching is a glaring omission from aid programs; an anomaly given its critical importance. While leadership training and coaching have become commonplace in most aid agencies, they are rarely integrated into aid programs. Embedding leadership training as a cornerstone of international aid programs, particularly those supporting large-scale reforms, is a logical step forward. It’s high time to transform this imperative into reality.

International aid agencies must undergo radical changes in their approaches if they aspire to effectively support countries in their development journeys. Such transformations cannot occur without a shift in mindset; a shift that I believe is already underway. What’s needed is a “leadership mindset,” one that prioritizes local leadership and context in aid approaches. In this blog, I have proposed three actions to start: (i) shed the bureaucratic culture that has historically plagued aid agencies and stifled flexibility and innovation, (ii) prioritize pertinent development results and foster organizational learning, and (iii) invest in local leadership. These changes are not panaceas; rather, they are indispensable prerequisites to a more pertinent and impactful international aid.

If you are interested in diving further into this topic, in addition to the books recommended in my previous blogs, I suggest reading Daniel Coyle’s 2018 book titled The Culture Code, The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, and General Stanley Mac Chrystal’s 2015 book Team of Teams, New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.


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.


[1] These are figures for full-time staff only. They do not include consultants who are used extensively by these agencies.

[2] See Apple’s example here.

[3] You can find information on World Bank projects results here. This report from GPE provides an interesting overview.


Blogpost 1: Let’s Drop the “Driver’s Seat” Mindset in International Aid

Blogpost 2: One Size Fits … One: International Aid’s Struggle to Adapt to Local Contexts

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