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Aid, institutions and governance: what have we learned?

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30


David Booth – Editor of DPR 2000-09, and Director, Africa Power & Politics Programme

Tim Kelsall – Author of ‘Going with the Grain in African Development?’ and Africa Power & Politics Programme Associate


Sue Unsworth – Co-author of ‘Politics and Growth’ and Upside Down Governance


Alison Evans – Director, ODI

As its contribution to ODI at 50, Development Policy Review (DPR) has produced a special issue containing a selection of reprints of nine key articles published over the last decade. The collection reflects some of the best of the new thinking about institutions, governance and aid. This meeting, co-hosted by the African Power and Politics Programme (APPP) launched the DPR supplement and extended debates about what we know, what gaps remain and what is emerging from current research.

David Booth, Editor of DPR from 2000-2009 and Director of the APPP provided an overview of the things we have learned in the past twenty years in regard to aid, institutions and governance. While there is much cyclical thinking within the development community, with the same ideas cropping up every ten years or so, there has also been innovation, and notably in relation to thinking on institutions and governance.

3 Things Learned about Institutions:

1)    Institutions ‘rule’ – The relationship between institutions and development outcomes is stronger than most other development relationships

2)   However we don’t yet know which institutions are the right ones to support in order to trigger development

3)   Institutions promoted by the good governance agenda and best practice are a misleading guide to the kind of institutions needed to create growth in very poor countries trying to get less poor

4)    Institutions are rarely the result of conscious design, but rather a spin-off from politics, borrowing from previous, culturally recognised structures and processes.

2 Things Learned about Policies and Institutions:

1)    Policy really matters in shaping development outcomes.

2)    Institutions frame policy choices in two important ways:

-      By generating a gulf between real policies and declared policies

-       Shaping regimes that have an interest in growing the national economy (and which therefore adopt good policies), as well as regimes that are predatory, with little interest in good policies. The APPP is conducting research on this issue of whether neopatrimonialism can be developmental, rather than just detrimental.

4 Things Learned about Ownership and Development Effectiveness:

1)   The aid-impact evidence is not very encouraging, whereas the evidence on country ownership remains compelling. This leads to the question: can aid help at the margin?

2)   Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) did not seem to work, as they engineered a kind of ownership but with new conditions attached

3)    Development practitioners need to become much more sophisticated in their understanding of local ownership

4)    It will be critical to understand how political systems work and how promising systems can be ‘nudged along’ towards improved development.

We can learn a lot from Tim Kelsall’s work on ‘Going with the Grain in African Development’ and Sue Unsworth and Mick Moore’s ‘An Upside Down Approach to Governance’.

Tim Kelsall - Author of ‘Going with the Grain in African Development?’ and APPP Associate, provided a more detailed examination of his ‘going with the grain’ framework.

‘Going with the grain’ sets out the starting point of the APPP team that the good governance agenda is not working because it is at cross-purposes with existing realities. The ‘grain’ refers to patterns of thought, organisation and accountability that have been durable across both time and geography. In sub-Saharan Africa, this centred on a ‘big man’ manipulating spiritual and material realms to bring about wealth and well-being for his subjects. The challenge the APPP face, then, is how this pattern can be harnessed by the development community (tapping, for instance, ideas about moral responsibility), suggesting that the ‘big man’ may not always be an obstacle. For example, in Somaliland extended family and ethnic groups work together in overseeing natural resources, and their cooperation can be seen to have a developmental impact. Similarly, in Benin and Nigeria, ethnic groups and extended families operate group businesses, also providing a development dividend. The same can be said for religious leaders, who are often the providers of key services such as education and healthcare.

These non-state entities have their own forms of accountability and responsibility which can be tapped by development practitioners. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, chieftaincy can be seen as developmental, as it provides security and justice services and maintains public infrastructure, such as roads. These local providers are under-utilised by donors. While many point to the authoritarianism of chiefs, when considered through a Presidential model, this authoritarian nature can also have a developmental impact, for instance in terms of monitoring and deterring corruption.

There have been some critical responses to the ‘Going with the Grain’ article regarding patriarchy, essentialising culture, etc. So what are the reasons for the APPP focusing on past institutions as a more effective basis for change than modern ones?

1)    Introducing new institutions is more risky, as the results are unknown

2)    The cost of updating old institutions is lower than importing new ones (where people must be trained to staff them, etc.)

3)    Legitimacy and ‘thinkability’ – People are comfortable with what they know and find it difficult to adapt to change. Institutions can, of course, evolve, but they are not easily replaced entirely.

Discoveries from APPP Research:

Results are still being synthesised, however some generalisations from the findings thus far can be drawn. Public services are provided most effectively when:

1)    Elements of ‘big man’ rule are combined with sound policy advice

Eg: Governments or regimes dominated by ‘big men’ that provide appropriate oversight of civil service staff (through training, discipline, corruption controls, etc.) perform better economically than many states that follow good governance agenda principles.

2)    Practical hybrids are in place that combine traditional practices with modern ones

Eg: Maternal mortality rates in Rwanda have decreased as women are now attending health clinics more frequently. One factor driving this is a performance based contract based on a traditional oath that was taken in pre-colonial times. While the oath is quite disciplinarian, the developmental results are there to be seen.

3)    Development solutions are locally anchored

Eg: Town chiefs in Malawi have emerged in the absence of local governance, based on long-standing chiefs in rural Malawi. The town chiefs are providing public services such as justice, security, infrastructure maintenance and funeral services. This example offers a template of how a pre-colonial practice can be successfully adapted to a modern, urban setting.

While this debate is often seen through a traditional versus modern lens, it is important to realise that what is considered ‘traditional’ is often in fact invented. The important aspect of those things denoted as ‘traditional’ is that people see them as locally anchored. ‘Going with the Grain’ is ultimately about combining old and new practices in ways that best promote development.

Sue Unsworth – Co-author of ‘Politics and Growth’ and Upside Down Governance, offered some reflections on how the APPP might go about turning their research findings into practice. There is a huge gap between the APPP research and most donor logics on how development can achieve good governance, growth, human rights, etc. The APPP’s work is innovative precisely because it questions standard operating procedures and takes a more pragmatic approach to clientelism. This argument will be a hard sell to donors, however experienced practitioners are becoming increasingly interested.

The greatest challenge facing the APPP is even if donors accept their messages, how do they start to work with local actors and operationalise their research findings? Some of the work conducted at the Centre for the Future State has begun work in this regard, highlighting the centrality of politics to development, the role of informal actors and the need for better design of development interventions to build in local ownership.

Three key messages from the APPP research appear to be actionable:

1)    The importance of a cohesive vision for donors

2)    The need for both top-down and demand side accountability

3)    The potentially damaging impact of donor efforts to strengthen civil society, which can increase inequality and corruption.

The quality of the policy-practice debate is high, despite difficulties in operationalising good policy and research. The pragmatic messages from APPP research need to continue to be pressed as donors are starting to listen. Ensuring there are more staff in donor country offices with better local knowledge will improve chances of donors taking the necessary steps to improve their development outcomes.


A lively discussion provided scope for a large number of questions, but revolved centrally around 4 key issues:

1)    Do the APPP’s findings about ‘going with the grain’ actually go against the grain of many development donors? And if so, can donor incentives be changed?

2)   How does an acceptance of neopatrimonialism as, at times, developmental affect issues of equality surrounding gender, ethnicity and class? How do we prevent strong leaders from becoming dictators?

3)    What are the implications of the APPP’s research for aid policy, trade policy and beyond? What does ‘nudging donors along’ look like? How do international and local drivers shape national institutions?

4)    How are strong leaders kept accountable to the public good, rather than to smaller interest groups? What role does domestic accountability play in local ownership? Why do some predatory leaders accept accountability measures? How do we encourage others to do so?


If understanding about institutions and markets had its big breakthrough in the 1990s, the last decade has seen several waves of fresh insight into the centrality of institutions in development. Genuinely cumulative advances in thinking are relatively rare in the field of development policy. So this invites celebration, and provides a fitting focus for activities to mark ODI’s 50th anniversary. 

As its contribution to ODI at 50, Development Policy Review (DPR) has produced a special supplement containing reprints of nine key articles published over the last decade. The collection reflects some of the best of the new thinking about institutions, governance and aid. It is introduced by David Booth, writing on the theme ‘What Have We Learned?’ It concludes with the 2008 DPR article ‘Going with the Grain in African Development?’ by Tim Kelsall. Booth and Kelsall are currently active in the Africa Power & Politics Programme (APPP), a multi-country consortium dedicated to new thinking about governance and development in Africa.

This meeting, co-hosted by the APPP, will launch the DPR supplement and extend the debate about what we know, what gaps remain and what is emerging from current research. Issues for debate include:

  • how and with what qualifications ‘institutions rule’ in development;
  • the limitations of standard instruments for influencing governance systems and the scope for context-sensitive facilitation of institutional change; and
  • the idea of ‘working with the grain’ as the key to governance for development in Africa.