New report on a global survey of developing country leaders reimagines aid

In late 2020, nearly 7,000 leaders weighed in on the state of reforms in their countries, key barriers to progress, and what they most want from development partners.

October 6, 2022
Alex Wooley

Developing country leaders crave more jobs for their citizens and more accountability from their institutions, but see high levels of corruption and poor financial management thwarting their efforts to make policy gains. Leaders who interacted with China in its role as donor tended to be more optimistic than their peers about their country’s progress in achieving development goals, but in somewhat surprising ways.

Aid Reimagined: How can foreign assistance support locally-led development?

These findings and more come from a new AidData report, Aid Reimagined: How can foreign assistance support locally-led development? The report is based on the third wave of AidData’s Listening to Leaders Survey, which received responses from close to 7,000 public, private and civil society sector leaders from 141 developing countries. 

Insufficient jobs and government accountability are chronic sources of discontent for leaders worldwide. This is most acutely felt in Africa and the Middle East, but across the board almost 80 percent of respondents said their country did not generate enough jobs to keep the local workforce productively employed. Fifty percent of respondents said their government was not sufficiently open and accountable.

Respondents from more democratic countries, with better equipped bureaucracies and lower social inequality, report stronger progress on development outcomes. Leaders in democratic countries are also  more optimistic about their government’s accountability; however, the opposite is true when it comes to jobs, as respondents in autocracies gave higher marks for progress on this measure. “This dynamic may reflect divergent priorities,” says Samantha Custer, director of AidData’s Policy Analysis Unit and lead author of the report. “Autocracies placate citizens with jobs to maintain regime stability, while democracies focus on perceived accountability and trustworthiness to appeal to voters at the ballot box.”

Respondents came from 23 policy domains (agriculture, foreign policy, health, employment, mining and energy, finance, etc.) that mirror the ministries or departments of most central governments. The most recent Listening to Leaders Survey was funded by the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development. It asked three central questions: How do leaders assess progress in advancing their national development goals? What key constraints do leaders see as hindering progress in achieving their goals? How can international actors best support locally-led development? 

Listening to Leaders is one of the few tried-and-tested tools for leaders in developing countries globally to reflect and give voice to their direct experiences in setting, managing and implementing policy.  


High levels of corruption and low government accountability are seen as obstacles with far-reaching consequences—not only affecting how much money is available to be spent on domestic programs, but also how countries set policy priorities and implement them. This single explanation was almost always the most-selected root cause leaders gave for lack of progress, chosen by between 44 and 79 percent of respondents, regardless of the area of development policy under consideration.

“This finding underscores the importance of strong public financial management and anti-corruption programs which build technical capacity and political will within governments and non-governmental watchdogs,” said Custer. “Ramping up technical assistance and incentives to fight corruption and improve financial management, supporting transparency initiatives and mechanisms, and funding programs that protect whistleblowers, journalists and NGOs tracking corruption should be a priority for donor partners.” 

But the authors note that the opposite is currently true: donors grossly underfund anti-corruption and financial management programs. According to 2021 estimates from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in the period 2014-2018 only 1.6 percent of government-directed finance from its member advanced economies was directed towards capacity building, including anti-corruption efforts and public financial management training. “Tying aid to government anti-corruption commitments or public financial management reforms has gone out of favor in recent years,” added Custer. “Yet in a previous Listening to Leaders report, we found that leaders have a revealed preference for projects with ‘conditionalities’ or strings attached over those without, perhaps because these terms provide political cover to pursue reforms that leaders want to advance anyway, and they bring with them the promise of aid, which offsets potential opposition.” 


The report explored how leaders—both inside and outside of government—think about their country’s progress across seven indicators: accountability, jobs, service delivery, social inclusion, macroeconomics, business environment, and physical security. As part of that analysis, the team explored whether respondents’ views varied depending on the donor partners with whom they worked. The researchers found that leaders who worked with multilaterals and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were more optimistic than their peers about progress made across all seven areas of development policy. 

“In some ways this challenges conventional wisdom,” said Ana Horigoshi, Senior Research Analyst and a co-author of the report. “The PRC has attracted criticism for the opacity of its overseas development programs, and scholars have raised the possibility that Chinese state-directed financing could facilitate a diffusion of authoritarian norms that may indirectly worsen human security. Plus, as we reported in Listening to Leaders 2021: A report card for development partners in an era of contested cooperation, leaders often have more polarized views about whether China’s high degree of influence on their country’s policy priorities is a net positive or negative.”

The most divergent results were in three areas: respondents who worked with the PRC were more likely to agree that their country had made progress on government accountability (+16 percentage points), physical security (+14 percentage points), and social inclusion (+9 percentage points) than those that did not. “There are several possible explanations. It could be that leaders are deriving value from their partnerships with the PRC that are aiding progress in these areas, from provision of scholarships and training to improve the capacity of law enforcement and justice officials in the Global South to responding to humanitarian crises and disasters,” said Horigoshi. “Alternatively, it could be that China is working with countries who have lower baseline expectations of reforms in these areas, hence even modest progress may be viewed more positively. Or it could speak more to the strength of domestic institutions in these leaders’ countries, than it does about the PRC’s contributions.” 

Questions on devolution and capacity

Devolution of public services and revenue from central governments to regional or local governments has become an attractive concept in many countries, with the promise of making governments more responsive and encouraging citizen participation. But despite being a hot topic, the survey found that leaders in federalized systems were more dissatisfied with progress than those in unitary systems. “This was most acute in the area of public service delivery and may signal the danger of devolving responsibilities to local governments without ensuring they have the necessary resources and technical capacity to discharge those obligations effectively,” said Custer. 

Respondents identified a dearth of general leadership and management acumen as a cross-cutting issue. This issue of lack of training and capacity was identified as a root cause for why policies fail to get implemented. Leaders said capacity gaps were most acute among political appointees, even more so than among career civil servants. They emphasized the need to build leadership and management skills in people, deeming it even more important than fixing structural problems or technological gaps. Local governments were the exception, with leaders identifying the need for building stronger systems and organizational (rather than individual) capacity.

How can donors help?

The short answer: Flexibility, responsiveness, tailoring aid to local needs. Most leaders agreed that there was a role for international actors to play in supporting their country’s progress across all seven areas of development policy. Only a small minority (between 3 and 9 percent) said that a given policy area was strictly a domestic problem for countries to solve on their own. Roughly 40 percent of leaders, on average, said their countries would benefit from a variety of contributions from international actors in supporting reforms. These included financing to crowd in resources; advocacy to mobilize pressure; technical assistance on both design and implementation of programs or policies; training; and awareness-raising. But leaders also felt that the optimal role for international actors varied on the basis of the problem domestic reformers were trying to solve, and should be customized accordingly.

About Listening to Leaders

The third and latest wave of the Listening to Leaders Survey was fielded between June and September 2020. 84,000 individuals received an invitation via email to participate in the survey and, of these, 6,807 leaders in 141 countries and semi-autonomous regions responded. The findings and conclusions of the report are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of its funders and partners. Planning for the next wave of Listening to Leaders, one of AidData’s six core research streams, will begin in early 2023.

Alex Wooley is AidData's Director of Partnerships and Communications.