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Wanted: Smarter aid to support political and institutional reform in Africa

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal


Prime Minister David Cameron ended his whirlwind trip to South Africa and Nigeria on 19 July with a speech at the Pan-African University in Lagos in which he argued that ‘Africa’s moment’ may be within reach. Emphasising the crucial role of aid (as well as trade and political reform) in enabling the leaders and people of Africa to seize this moment of opportunity, the Prime Minister reinforced Britain’s aid commitment to the region. Cameron was heavily criticised at home for being in Africa in the midst of the phone-hacking scandal and the Euro crisis. However, in this careful balancing act between different concerns and objectives, it was important for him to be there and make a strong case for continuing to support development (and trade) in Africa to signal the UK’s ongoing commitment to the region, even if he had to cut short his trip.

But Cameron’s case for aid was not ready-made for him. According to an  IDS study on public perceptions of international development assistance in the UK, there is an established downwards trend in previously strong public support for aid, due in part to the current economic context and widespread perceptions of corruption in the use of aid. And these trends have become apparent across other donor countries as well. Perhaps because of this, Cameron made a forceful argument that aid needs to be used differently if it is to be effective: ‘getting aid right’ should be the starting point.

This is absolutely true. But it is not just about  making aid more transparent and accountable, and ‘directed at those things which are quantifiable and measurable’, as Cameron seems to suggest. Fundamental as these characteristics are, making aid more effective is also about making it smarter – more politically aware, better attuned to context, and more pragmatic and flexible. This is critical especially if aid is to support political reform and more effective governance in Africa. State-building and ongoing processes of democratisation remain daunting challenges throughout the region, and they are particularly acute in conflict-afflicted states, which have become a priority in UK international assistance.

Cameron rightly argues that showing the results of aid is important. But this may be less straightforward than it sounds. As highlighted in the 2011 Word Development Report, a narrow focus on short-term and visible results – which donors tend to emphasise so that they can be accountable to their citizens – does not always provide the foundations to support effective, resilient and responsive states and institutions in the long term, an endeavour that is by nature more difficult to quantify and measure, and also more uncertain. In effect, many of the pathologies of aid, including, for example, the privileging of the form rather than the function of change (with an emphasis on formal institutions like elections or anti-corruption commissions without due concern about their substance and viability), and a reluctance to engage in riskier institution-building, are grounded in this tension between competing accountabilities to taxpayers on the one hand and to the governments and people of recipient countries on the other. (This challenge of competing expectations and multiple accountabilities is addressed in an ODI public event on 25 July 2011.)

Making aid smarter will entail, among other things, recognising this dilemma more explicitly and educating the public in donor countries more fully about how difficult, complex and long-term the promotion of sustainable change in many of these settings is. While accountability to taxpayers is obviously desirable, the challenge is to make domestic expectations fit with the needs and realities of assistance on the ground – a task that is made even more difficult in the face of an increasingly constrained context at home, with taxpayers unconvinced about the wisdom of promoting international development within the current fiscal environment (as per the criticisms Cameron received for being in Africa in the midst of a domestic scandal...).

In addition, smarter aid that can support processes of political and institutional reform in Africa calls for:

As the Prime Minister points out, (a large) part of the responsibility for changing the future of the region rightfully lies with African leaders and their people. But the donor community has a responsibility too: is it ready to deliver smarter aid, and to face the difficult choices and changes that this is likely to entail at the domestic level as well?