New report on a global survey of leaders scores donors’ performance in an era of contested cooperation

Multilaterals such as the IMF and World Bank perform highly; China rises in influence, but the US and other G7 donors hold their own.

June 30, 2021
Alex Wooley
Leaders speak at a panel on the "Sustainable Development Goals - Making it Happen" at the IMF Headquarters during the 2019 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings. Photo by the IMF via Flickr, licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Leaders speak at a panel on the "Sustainable Development Goals - Making it Happen" at the IMF Headquarters during the 2019 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings. Photo by the IMF via Flickr, licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

June 30, 2021 – Today AidData released findings from the third wave of its Listening to Leaders Survey in 141 low- and middle-income countries and territories. Close to 7,000 leaders responded to the survey, which was fielded from June-September 2020. 

The report, Listening to Leaders 2021: A report card for development partners in an era of contested cooperation, comes at a point of increasingly high-stakes great power competition, expansion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), rivalries in vaccine diplomacy, and an invigorated push for decolonizing aid. It scores the performance of development partners based on the experiences and perceptions of leaders in the world’s poorer countries, and provides analysis and hypotheses on why some donors are doing better than others. 

While a primary aim of US President Biden’s recent summits with fellow G7 and NATO members was to galvanize Europe, Canada, and Japan into responding to a perceived growing threat from China by increasing engagement with and investments in poorer countries, the AidData survey finds the US still has a comfortable lead over Beijing across three important measures that AidData has been tracking since 2014: footprint, influence and helpfulness. The survey also found that some other G7 countries are also holding their own among the great powers—at least for now. 

While many donors perform program-specific evaluations of particular initiatives (say, a public health program or construction of a hydro-electric dam), most donors do not typically collect feedback on how the leaders they work with view the whole of a donor’s effort. Or, even if they do, donors seldom have the opportunity to see their relative performance compared to the diversity of development partners included in AidData’s survey. 

“This is a persistent blind spot: while bilateral aid agencies and multilateral organizations appreciate the need to think and work politically, many have woefully inadequate intelligence on how their efforts are perceived by those they seek to influence,” said Samantha Custer, Director of AidData’s Policy Analysis Unit and lead researcher on the survey. “If development partners are to architect aid strategies that are responsive to local realities, better information on the priorities and perceptions of the leaders they seek to influence and support is a necessary, though not fully sufficient, part of the equation.”

The survey of executive branch officials, parliamentarians, civil society and other groups found the top three donor influencers globally are the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the US. Three multilateral organizations—the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU— led the way in garnering universal acclaim as top 10 influencers in every sector and region. The UK also appears in the top 10, while the US was the sole top 10 bilateral in AidData’s separate helpfulness report card, coming in seventh.

The US charted the largest gains in reach in Europe and Central Asia, broadly in line with Washington’s stated policy priorities during the 2017-2020 period, which included curbing Russia’s attempts to “undermine the legitimacy of democracies.” 

For China, the results are a mixed bag, covered in more detail in an accompanying blog post.

The top three donors in terms of helpfulness were the Global Fund (a Swiss-based international organization that works to end AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria), the World Health Organization (WHO), and UNICEF. The WHO may be controversial to some, but the survey found it has the largest geographic reach of the UN’s specialized agencies: respondents in almost every country reported receiving advice or assistance from this institution. The WHO was also a top 10 influencer, most frequently mentioned by executive branch government officials (34 percent) and parliamentarians (42 percent).

The WHO’s performance cleaves to a pattern seen in previous Listening to Leaders surveys: multilaterals, international organizations that receive funding from multiple national governments, typically perform highly. These include the UNDP, UNICEF, and the EU, which once again were top performers in 2020. 

“The value proposition of these multilateral partners may become even more pronounced as competition rhetoric intensifies, with leaders in developing countries growing wary of having to choose between great powers and so instead looking for comparatively neutral players they consider to be trustworthy,” said Custer.

The single largest breakthrough by a multilateral organization was made by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which moved up dramatically in the rankings on both influence (+10) and helpfulness (+18). This comes at a time when there are deliberations about the future of the European development finance system and the role of the EBRD in particular.

“The strong performance of multilateral development banks and inter-governmental organizations is a good reminder that these organizations are durable and powerful levers to influencing policy change,” said Custer. “As long as they can move to be more responsive to local realities and inclusive of a broader set of voices, they will continue to have staying power as desirable partners to leaders in low- and middle-income countries. This makes investing in the continued capacity and position of multilaterals a worthwhile investment for nation-states.”  

The broader G7 also performed well. As an example, Japan saw substantial increases in its influence (+7) from 2017 to 2020, and was deemed to be among the top 10 most helpful in three out of six regions (East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa) and in two out of six sectors (environment and rural development). It is also the 4th most influential donor in East Asia and Pacific.

The 2020 survey asked leaders about their experiences working with development partners between 2016 and 2020. “This allows us to examine trends over time in comparison to past surveys, which covered the periods in office of 2004-2013 and 2010-2015,” said Custer. “Meanwhile, the survey’s inclusion of forward-looking questions about what leaders would like to see from donors is critical to informing not only the practices of individual organizations, but also broader public debates about aid in the national interest, the resurgence of great power competition, and decolonizing aid.”

For more, read the full report, Listening to Leaders 2021: A report card for development partners in an era of contested cooperation.

For media inquires, contact: Alexander Wooley, AidData Partnerships and Communications Director,; +1.757.585.9875

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