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Unlocking the potential of cross border development programmes

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

Dr Vinod Thomas, Director-General, Independent Evaluation Group, The World Bank Group
Catherine Gwin, Lead Author, Evaluation on Regional Programmes, Independent Evaluation Group, The World Bank Group


Enrique Mendizabal, Research Officer, RAPID Programme, ODI


Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI

1. Simon Maxwell, in the chair, opened the meeting by introducing Dr Vinod Thomas, Director-General of the World Bank Independent Evaluation Group; Catherine Gwin, lead author of the Evaluation on Regional Programmes; and the discussant, Enrique Mendizabal, Research Officer in the RAPID programme at ODI. Simon Maxwell said that there has recently been a shift from national to regional programming and this was driving change in many other areas. With the global issue of climate change also putting pressure on many governments, this shift is likely to continue.

Dr Vinod Thomas

2. Dr Thomas began by outlining why regional programmes have increased in importance in recent times. Not only do they present an opportunity to benefit from trade – he suggested the EU as an example of this – but they also assist in identifying and implementing regional solutions to regional problems. Regional partnerships are difficult to establish because there are often conflicts of interest, and it can be difficult to balance costs and benefits for each member. However, regional programmes so far seem to have done ‘reasonably well’ in his opinion. Thomas cited examples of a regional trade and transport programme in south-east Europe and an HIV/Aids programme in West Africa. He claimed that many regional issues could be addressed by working across borders, though the level of funding for such programmes is currently too low. Simply scaling up this funding is not the only solution, however. Due to the inherently complex nature of regional programmes, there are also some issues of efficiency which need to be addressed.

Catherine Gwin

3. Catherine Gwin echoed Dr Thomas’ belief in the significant potential of regional programmes to solve regional problems and address regional issues. She split her subsequent analysis of regional programmes into four areas (details follow below):

     I.        What they are good for;

    II.        Areas of weaknesses;

  III.        Key components for success;

   IV.        Recommendations.

4. Gwin stated that regional programmes are particularly good for creating new structures. They have effectively established new services, new physical assets and new knowledge-sharing capabilities. Examples of this include the aforementioned HIV/Aids programme; using ICT to streamline customs procedures; and new transport links by sea.

5. Regional programmes are particularly weak at the national level. There are often difficulties when trying to establish national policy frameworks to complement and sustain regional development. Gwin reiterated the equity challenges faced when attempting to create regional programmes amongst individual national governments. Furthermore, even when co-ordination between national governments has been established, the subsequent co-ordination between regional and national levels is often weak. Gwin emphasized the need for increased ‘peripheral vision’, i.e. to identify when it makes sense to use a regional rather than a national approach. She cited the Lake Victoria environmental management programme and a regional power network around DR Congo as two examples of programmes which need to effectively translate regional information into national action.

6. Gwin identified five key components for successful regional programmes:

a.     Strong ownership by all participating countries. An example of where this was absent is the Aral Sea environmental project in Central Asia, where there was a lack of commitment from governments.

b.    Objectives must be matched to national and regional capacities. It is important to take account of differences in capabilities between countries, and adapt the implementation of regional programmes, and associated support offered to governments accordingly.

c.     Clear roles for national and regional institutions are required. The most effective division of roles is for national institutions to assume the largest portion of responsibility, and regional institutions to assume a modest support role.

d.    Accountable governance arrangements. Gwin warned that although time-consuming to achieve, programmes where each participating government has a voice and is not dominated by donors tended to be more successful.

e.    Sufficient planning to make program outcomes sustainable. Well-planned programmes can become self-funding. An example of this is a telecommunication project in the Eastern Caribbean, where licensing fees are now covering the costs of a new regional regulatory authority.

7. Gwin stated that the recommendations made in the evaluation report are threefold:

     I.        Initially, donor countries should be more pro-active in identifying promising opportunities for regional development programmes.

    II.        Donors should then co-operate to mobilise special financing packages required by regional programmes.

  III.        Lastly, donors should learn from previous examples of successful regional programmes, and help to strengthen capacity at both national, regional and international levels to support such programmes.

Enrique Mendizabal

8. Enrique Mendizabal outlined some additional benefits of regional programmes:

     I.        It becomes easier to share knowledge and expertise across borders.

    II.        It encourages greater cooperation – and interdependence – between the countries concerned, and between individual countries and donor countries.

9. Mendizabal also offered a few reasons to help explain the complexity of building regional programmes:

     I.        There is no clear link between inputs and outputs, making it difficult to measure effectiveness.

    II.        Developing regional programmes is not just about changing and developing things (i.e. roads and vaccines) but changing people (i.e. attitudes, behaviours, etc) – a process that takes far longer.

  III.        There are often far too many actors and interests involved.

10. Finally, he posed a few questions, including how regional networks are conceived. Whilst geographical groupings initially seem most appropriate, it may prove more productive to group countries that are, for instance, at similar stages in their economic development.


11. Points and questions raised in the discussion included:

  • The distinction between regional programmes and countries merely communicating about a problem or issue. It is important that the benefits of regional programmes are properly realised and that regions do not just exist on paper.

  • Reports on how developed countries have fared with regional programmes are lacking from the report. It would be useful to learn from these, as some have been in existence for many decades. Similarly, non-World Bank programmes would have provided a useful comparison.

  • The most successful regional programmes are those which develop concrete benefits, especially infrastructure, e.g. roads, energy, water, etc. These are benefits which some countries cannot realise themselves, and tend to be stronger than knowledge-based programmes.

  • Whether regional programmes can be either a zero-sum game or a positive-sum game. An example of the former is in the Nile basin, where either Ethiopia or Sudan can be irrigated, but not both. It was argued however that it could be possible for both countries to share the benefits.

  • The long gestation period for regional programmes can be attributed to the differences between countries, as outlined in the presentations, but also to the building of trust, and this must be factored into planning.

  • A comparison was made with trade programmes. These are more likely to be successful when the countries are roughly equal in size, rather than when there is one large, dominant country. Also, when there is an underlying political agenda, such as averting conflict. Catherine Gwin agreed that regional programmes were also more likely to be successful when these factors were present.

  • Regional programmes will become increasingly important in efforts to safeguard the supply of fresh water to many countries, as 60 percent of the world’s fresh water is shared across borders.

  • Bird flu represents a counter-example to regional programmes. Those countries concerned have acted in their own national interests, yet the benefits for all of cross-border cooperation outweigh those for individual countries.


Over the past 15 years, regional, multi-country programmes have emerged as a potentially vital instrument to tackle development problems and opportunities that countries cannot handle efficiently on their own.

Regionally coordinated investments in roads and rail, for example, are helping many of the world's 31 landlocked countries, of which 14 are in sub-Saharan Africa, to connect to wider markets. Regional programs are integrating the supply and distribution of electricity so that small countries can get access to reliable, lower cost energy. Co-operation across borders is also helping control the spread of communicable diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS, and managing 60 percent of the world's freshwater that derives from shared river systems. The opportunities for collaboration on issues of environmental protection are enormous. Yet, regional programmes account today for only 3 percent of total international aid.

The World Bank Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) report, 'The Development Potential of Regional Programs' is the most comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of regional programmes ever conducted. The findings are based on evaluations of 19 World Bank-supported regional programmes and a review of the Bank's total portfolio of some 100 regional operations.

The report explores conditions under which regional programmes offer potential for delivering strong development results. It discusses how individual regional programmes need to be designed and implemented to ensure country ownership which is critical to achieving sustainability. Drawing on recent programme experience, it also discusses how countries and the World Bank, together with other donors, could strengthen support for regional programmes.

At this ODI and World Bank IEG event, Dr Vinod Thomas, Director-General of the World Bank Independent Evaluation Group, together with the lead author of the report, Catherine Gwin, presented the findings of the report and responded to questions and comments from the audience.