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Unblocking results: using aid to address governance constraints in public service delivery

Research report

Written by Helen Tilley, David Booth

Research report

Governance constraints and weak institutions are a major cause of poor public service delivery in developing countries, yet there is little evidence on whether and how aid can help to release or ameliorate such constraints. Evidence that does exist tends to focus on the impact of particular types of accountability structures (such as user committees and citizen report cards). In contrast, little research has considered the broader implications of governance constraints for the design and delivery of aid programmes.

To address this gap, this study looks at four aid programmes in lower-income countries that appear to have been particularly effective at addressing governance constraints. These include:

The study looks at how these programmes interacted with common governance constraints and what activities and enabling factors appear to have contributed to an effective engagement. It draws on an ODI classification of three common governance constraints: the degree to which sector policies and institutional arrangements are coherent; the strength of top-down performance disciplines and bottom-up accountability mechanisms; and whether there is scope for local problem solving and collective action.

The study looks at the activities that these programmes carried out and finds that six enabling factors appear to have been particularly important for success.

  • Responding to windows of opportunity for reform, be it a political transition or crisis, provides a stronger basis for reform than pure development needs.

  • Focusing on reforms with tangible political payoffs increases the likelihood of strong government ownership.

  • By building on what’s there aid can support the implementation of existing mandates rather than getting trapped in a cycle of perfecting policy and legal frameworks.

  • Moving beyond policy advice by supporting local problem-solving through coaching and mentoring can strengthen government implementation.

  • By acting as facilitators external partners can bear the transaction cost of bringing actors together to solve problems.

  • By being adaptive and responding to lessons learnt external partners can increase their effectiveness.

Heidi Tavakoli, Rebecca Simson and Helen Tilley with David Booth