Changing the aid system: 5 ideas from the inside

When I joined the international development blogosphere just two months ago, I was excited to join such a cacophony of voices ringing out with good, important questions and targeted, well thought-out commentary.

A question I’m reflecting on lately though…how do we get to the new ideas? How do we ensure the options for change that will transform the development industry and fix these problems that continue to plague us and perplex us are indeed surfacing?

Therefore I’m starting a small series that pulls together ideas from former colleagues, friends, and acquaintances around the world who responded to the question I sent out earlier to them:

If you personally could do one thing to change “the system” of foreign aid and development assistance, what would you do? (See post “A Question Resonates”)

We all know it’s easier to identify problems and offer critiques. My interest is in putting forth solutions for the way forward in development policy and practice.

As you review these ten ideas on what to address (and sometimes how), consider the following questions and please include a comment answering:

1)   What is the idea that could have the most impact?

2)   Which idea is most feasible?

3)   Which idea is most unrealistic and why?

Five ideas: A first list for consideration

(1) For me, the one thing I would change is the time-frame we use. The “system” needs to recognize that one-year projects rarely lead to change and that in most cases five or more years are needed. But, there are almost no five-year projects in development anymore. C.F., in Pakistan

I would take away the rush/need to “spend down” budgets or “spend money because it’s available now and can’t be carried over”- this results in great waste. A.J., in Rwanda

(2) I think in some cases we should be looking at more ways to directly reach beneficiaries (e.g. in the case of orphans and vulnerable children, might we not be better off doing a direct cash transfer?) This doesn’t necessarily work in the context of providing aid to the government (e.g. ministry of health) but may need to look at different modalities for funding effectiveness. M.H., in Mozambique

I would say pool resources similar to the Global Fund. With this type of mechanism, governments are more involved with the aid and the resources are great enough to make dramatic differences. They also reach numerous players from the federal down to community levels. K.R., U.S.

(3) What is currently happening is that the development donors are serving their own interest. They decide what the priorities are. They design the programme. They implement by bringing all the international experts who take back a huge proportion of the money back. C.D., in Swaziland

I think I would change the paradigm of the beltway bandits. It is crazy that firms in the U.S. suck up all the money and very little of it reaches the field. I work primarily with local nonprofits that would benefit tremendously from a relationship with USAID, but they can’t even get in the door! It’s frustrating. And the contractors really aren’t interested in what is actually happening in the field. They just want to check off deliverables that have been established in some conference room in Washington D.C. Why can’t local groups benefit directly from direct foreign aid? A.M., U.S.

(4) Foreign aid usually takes long to reach the intended beneficiaries and the bureaucracy involved does not give funding institutions direct contact with the implementation and the beneficiaries. I would therefore propose direct funding to the community-based organisations to reduce the so called administration costs charged at every hand the foreign aid passes through. B.M., Zimbabwe

(5) The master served is not the person who needs the support but the donor who gives the support. I have realised that the whole line up from a community facilitator up to the chief executives of big NGO corporates. We often in disguise say exactly what we want to finance through RFAs but is this what the community really want or the governments really want?  We pretend that it is local partners that write the proposals but do they have a choice to write a proposal about a road they need or to say no if they do not have alternatives?? E.M., in Mozambique

In most cases the grantee changes its business in order to suit the donor’s ambition. E.M., Malawi

Aid bureaucrats have incentives to satisfy the rich people doing funding as well as (or instead of) the most vulnerable.  The bureaucratic managers have the incentive to satisfy the rich [donors] with promises of transforming the rest rather than simply helping poor individuals. One thing I am certain of is–there won’t be much of a difference in foreign aid and development if the recipients are people who do not really worry about the needs of the most vulnerable. E.M., South Africa

As Goethe wrote, “Everything has been thought of before, but the difficulty is to think of it again.”

So let’s continue to identify and debate the options, my fellow bloggers and readers. Let’s advance those ideas that have a chance at changing this sector, which is so important to improving others’ lives, and so embedded in our own.


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  2. It sounds like a lot of these ideas come down to developing a strong relationship between the aid organization and the grantee. I see that it is important to have direct contact rather than layers of administration, and to build a long-term trust relationship so that both the aid organization and grantee can develop.

    Also, I think there is a need for donor education – to share with them what is important from our point of view and let them know that long, slow relationships and projects can make the biggest difference.

  3. Lalith Abeysinghe

    I think that we have not understand the ‘Donor” context, its purpose, the origins and the expectations of the whole ‘donor affairs’.

    The whole ‘Donor culture’ was created soon after the Second World War, to ‘help’ the war affected mainly the European countries. It then gradually moved to the ‘Third World countries’ and, they were originated from the ‘philanthropists’ , ‘Church based initiatives’ and later with European Civil Movements’, such as Oxfam. They were doing rather ‘helping’ the disadvantaged, ‘poor’ people all over. Then in 1990s the donor affairs of the ‘individual’ or church or civil organizations, co-opted by the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in the ‘first ‘world countries.They now use this as a tool of channeling their ODA s to the third world. Now the whole thing is based on the “strategy”, “purpose” and the intentions of the ODAs. Every one knows that the ODA is an extension of the colonization program.

    Hence all these things should be assessed on this understanding.

  4. Salem Ibrahimi

    I think the system is affected by a fundamental issue when it comes to relationships between donors and recipients; trust deficit, or in some cases even trust crisis. The many layers of bureaucracy are a direct symptom of this deficit and the rest of symptoms follow. In the current system, aid is expected to generate trust rather than meaningful and honest interaction between the recipient and the donor. This has to change; the horse should be put before the cart.

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