We Need to Rethink Aid to Fragile Contexts

We Need to Rethink Aid to Fragile Contexts

Fragile countries are those which are most in need of development aid. But to what extent can aid be effective in highly fragile situations? A recent systematic review of 315 individual evaluations of aid to Afghanistan, Mali and South Sudan provides robust, clear and sobering conclusions: Development aid to the most fragile contexts does not work as hoped.

The most important finding of the review – and the most disappointing –is that development aid is not a suitable tool for addressing the core problems of such contexts. Aid does not improve governmental capacity, does not lead to better governance and does not provide more stability. 

The empirical base for these sobering findings is a new systematic review of evaluation reports of aid to Afghanistan, Mali and South Sudan. Systematic reviews identify and summarise all existing evidence on a given topic. This review covered evaluations published in English or French between 2008 and 2021. In total, 315 evaluations met a predefined methodological quality threshold: 142 on interventions in Afghanistan, 104 on Mali and 69 on South Sudan. All included evaluations were then distributed along ten predefined aid sectors: women’s rights, health, rural development and climate change, the rule of law, stabilization, education, sustainable economic development, nutrition, humanitarian assistance, and good governance. In the final step, the included evaluation reports were mined for evidence of effectiveness.

Humanitarian aid in Rajan Kala, Afghanistan (Flickr: US Army, CC)

So what did we find?  It turns out that interventions in education and health were reasonably effective, although results were likely not sustainable. Also somewhat effective were rural development programmes. These contributed to improved livelihoods and strengthened coping mechanisms but did not lead to sustainable economic growth, jobs or income opportunities. However, programmes supporting macroeconomic development, macroeconomic policies, financial management and support for the private sector were mainly ineffective. Likewise, interventions for promoting gender equality had little impact. Finally, and most importantly, interventions in stabilization, good governance and capacity building for the central government were ineffective in all three countries. 

Stabilization projects aim to restore basic services quickly, provide economic opportunities that work as a peace dividend and strengthen the conflict resolution capacity of political actors. The sample analyzed in the review contained 28 evaluations of stabilization interventions. None of these interventions proved to be effective.

Good governance includes public sector and regulatory policy reform, democracy promotion, election support, anti-corruption programmes, and the rule of law, among other things. The 30 evaluations of good governance initiatives suggest that effectiveness was very low. Factors that explain the lack of impacts included entrenched, patronage-based practices within the government; a lack of buy-in from the government; donor-driven, top-down project design with little regard for the core institutional requirements and demands of the partner institutions; and lack of political will of the government. 

Also not effective were capacity-building measures for central governments. Donors overestimated existing state capacity and the recipient government’s political will for reforms. As a result, programming for capacity building was overambitious, unsustainable and ineffective. 

In sum, the systematic review demonstrates that interventions in the three fields that matter most – stabilization, good governance and capacity building for the government –  were ineffective. Unfortunately, aid effectiveness in highly fragile contexts appears to be limited to the ‘basic needs sectors’ (such as health, education, resilience, and humanitarian aid). Furthermore, the review also suggests that the programmes that were most effective were typically relatively small, did not assume unrealistic partner capacities, were aware of the context and did not spend aid money too fast or in highly insecure regions controlled by insurgents.

The most important lesson from the systematic review is that aid should avoid sectors that are most probably not effective and prioritize sectors where the probability is higher that some results will be achieved. Every aid dollar that is spent on an ineffective intervention cannot be spent on an intervention that might be effective. Continuing to allocate resources to sectors where the probability of success is low is not only ineffective. It is also ethically wrong because it binds resources that otherwise could be used to improve people’s lives – for example, to provide shelter, increase food security, improve access to health, or teach children how to read and write. 

Unfortunately, aid effectiveness in highly fragile contexts appears to be limited to the ‘basic needs sectors’ (such as health, education, resilience, and humanitarian aid).

Thus, aid managers should always consider opportunity costs when making allocation decisions. It may be very tempting to allocate aid resources to where the greatest needs seem – a lack of security, a weak government, and appalling gender inequalities. But once the evidence shows that the probability of success in these sectors is extremely low, aid resources must be allocated to sectors with a reasonable probability of success. This is counterintuitive at first. Aid organizations usually allocate aid in line with perceived needs or, more often, in line with their ideological preferences. This leads, however, to ineffective aid. Instead, donors should allocate aid where it can be effective, hence, to sectors where the probability for success is high.  

Such principles amount to a new paradigm: Out with grand visions, in with local, tangible, and small gains.  Abandoning grand visions in favour of tangible local gains may be a bitter pill for many aid agencies and aid practitioners, who are often driven by a genuine desire to use aid to transform societies. Unfortunately,, the evidence clearly shows that aid has little transformative power in the most fragile contexts. This is a very uncomfortable truth that can no longer be ignored. What is needed now is an honest discussion about a new aid strategy in fragile contexts, one that starts with the acknowledgement that aid is not an effective tool for making a fragile state more stable, more capable, and better governed.

This blog is based on the author’s chapter in the 2023 OECD DAC  Development Co-operation Report 2023: Debating the aid system. The systematic review is accessible here. The Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands commissioned the review.

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