Development programs must capture local insights

New AidData research published by UNU-WIDER pinpoints how development partners can help countries more effectively plan, fund, and implement their development programs.

June 21, 2023
Ana Horigoshi, Samantha Custer

Editor's note: This blog was originally published by the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) at the following link:

In the paper Aid reimagined: results from an elite survey on perceptions of progress, capacity, and development co-operation, we tabulated responses from nearly 7,000 leaders from 141 countries and territories, and 6 stakeholder groups - government, development partners, civil society, academia, private sector, and parliamentarians. We aimed to understand how they viewed their country’s progress in development activities, constraints that inhibit development, and the optimal role of development partners in supporting their development efforts. The findings, presented in the paper, allow us to pinpoint how development partners can adapt strategies to help partner countries plan, fund, and implement more effectively their development programs.

The survey

The paper was based on a report titled Aid Reimagined, which draws upon the last wave of AidData’s Listening to Leaders Survey, conducted from June to September 2020. It includes input from a cross-section of public, private, and civil society leaders from 23 areas of development policy. The nearly 7,000 leaders who responded provide insights on three central questions:

  • Progress: How do leaders assess progress in advancing their national development goals?
  • Capacity: What key constraints do leaders see as hindering progress in achieving their goals?
  • Cooperation: How can development partners best support locally-led development?

Perceptions of progress

The findings reveal that leaders have a fairly negative view of progress in their countries across seven areas of development – business climate, government accountability, macroeconomic stability, physical security, service delivery, social inclusion, and sufficient jobs - and that insufficient jobs and lack of government accountability stand out as chronic sources of discontent. This finding is consistent across regions, but more pronounced in the sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East and North Africa regions.

We also find that objective measures of political legitimacy and technocratic governance largely align with the perceptions of progress. Higher levels of development, better equipped bureaucracies, and lower social inequality are associated with the leaders’ views of greater progress. Meanwhile, leaders from fragile states report lower levels of progress, reinforcing the concern that poor governance and persistent fragility can become “development traps.”

Furthermore, individual factors can also impact perceptions of progress, and while we find no evidence of an effect from experience level or gender, we do find that government officials consistently report a more optimistic perception of progress than their counterparts outside of government across all seven areas of development covered by the survey.

When comparing perceptions of progress according to the political system of the respondents’ countries, we find that leaders in federalized systems report higher levels of dissatisfaction with their countries’ progress than those in centralized systems. That is true, particularly in the perceptions of the delivery of public services, which calls into question the idea that bringing service delivery closer to the beneficiary will improve results and signal the potential limitations of decentralizing responsibilities to local governments without providing adequate resources and technical capacity.

Finally, we assess how working with specific development partners may impact leaders’ views. Here, we find that, while the variation is somewhat limited, engagement with multilaterals is associated with more optimistic opinions, a positive sign regarding the role of multilaterals in international development. In the same survey, we also found clear linkages between the types of development co-operation that leaders want from their partners and the aid effectiveness principles. For example, leaders said that their preferred development partners coordinated approaches with other actors (harmonization) and co-created solutions with in-country stakeholders (ownership). They felt that the most influential partners aligned their efforts to national priorities (alignment).

Key constraints

The survey further probes respondents on what they view as the main constraints keeping low and middle-income countries from achieving satisfactory levels of development. Notably, lack of prioritization is not seen as a major hurdle to development. Rather, insufficient resources and poor implementation were more frequently mentioned, highlighting the importance of development cooperation, be that in the form of project investment, budget support, or technical assistance. Nevertheless, lack of prioritization is a sizable concern in some specific areas of development, namely government accountability and social inclusion.

High levels of corruption seem to be a binding constraint across all areas of development followed closely by poor financial management. This finding suggests that insufficient resources may be a problem along with misallocation of resources, either by design (in the case of corruption) or as an oversight (in the case of poor financial management). Respondents also cite a lack of government capacity as a root cause for the lack of progress and point to that as an issue related to political appointees more often than civil servants or any other government actors.

Role of development partners

Given all these findings, how can development partners best support locally-led development?

Based on the survey results, we recommend that development partners should adapt their assistance to fit leaders’ diagnosis of constraints. Leaders generally say that their countries will benefit from a variety of contributions from development partners in supporting reforms, including financing, technical assistance on both design and implementation of programs or policies, training, and awareness-raising. However, they also feel that optimal roles for development partners can vary based on the problem domestic reformers are trying to solve.

Additionally, we find that development partners should be responsive to the specific preferences of leaders in fragile states. While leaders in both fragile and non-fragile states emphasize the importance of external financing in areas such as jobs and macroeconomic policy, the former group places even greater weight on this aspect. Furthermore, there is additional appetite from this group for development partners to engage in activities that create pressure on those blocking reforms.

Ana Horigoshi is a Senior Research Analyst in the Policy Analysis Unit.

Samantha Custer is Director of Policy Analysis at AidData.