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 Observations on aid after over four decades of practicing development in Africa

by Mark Wentling

All agree that strong institutions are necessary for the achievement of lasting progress. It is widely recognized that strong institutions are essential for nation-building and the efficient utilization of external assistance. It is therefore surprising that donors seldom fund institution strengthening projects. The overwhelming demands posed by the needs of low-income countries cause donors to lose sight of the fundamental requirement of building the institutions required to manage aid and continue working after external funding has ended. Donors can accelerate the graduation of middle-income countries from donor dependence and thereby shift more funding to addressing the human needs of low-income countries. By joining together, donors can streamline assistance and consolidate their focus on the building of the institutions needed to ensure development progress on a sustainable basis. The goal is to enable key host government institutions to be certified as capable of managing funds and activities according to international standards. More work is needed to fund consistently long-term institution assistance frameworks that increase host country capacity to manage better its own affairs and respond to crises. In this manner, official development assistance will progressively be managed by institutions that have been certified. These certified institutions will be responsible for managing aid funds and implementing donor-funded projects according to a performance-based system. The institutional strengthening approach aims to become an integral part of a self-perpetuating development process that evolves and adapts as needed. Strong, pro-poor institutions are the best way forward in the 21st century for low-income countries.


It is a much different world today than when most development assistance organizations were founded. Yet, for the most part, too many of these agencies continue to do business as usual. The contexts of most developing countries have undergone many important changes, but a number of assistance agencies continue funding the same kinds of activities with the same mechanisms as they did decades ago. Reforms of the instruments used to deliver assistance need to be adopted and coordinated closely among all key donors if assistance efforts are to achieve durable progress. Above all, the best way forward requires that all donors join together to focus on building strong host country institutions.

All donors struggle to ensure their assistance has a lasting positive impact. This is understandable, but achieving impact requires a consistent focus on top assistance priorities. Maintaining such a focus is difficult because low-income countries need help in every area. Everything is priority, but by trying to do everything donors often find the funding they provided achieved very little. There are too many people with too many needs, making it a challenge to determine where it is best to invest limited assistance funds. Many of us are haunted by questions related to whether or not a country that needs aid to survive can successfully develop. Sadly, the results anticipated when this post-World War II development assistance effort in low-income countries began many years ago have not been realized.

The pressing assistance needs of many of these countries continue to be numerous and overwhelming. The following is an attempt to convey to the reader in a short speech format many of the key assistance needs that are begging for greater attention and funding.

Development Assistance Dream Speech
“I dream of a world where:

Every girl is educated, and all mothers are helped during the first thousand days of their babies’ lives, starting at conception, to ensure all children have a healthy start in life. All babies born are not in the low birth-weight range, and all mothers are old enough to marry and bear children. Every woman has access to modern birth control methods in order to lower high fertility rates and achieve a national demographic transition. The fast population growth rate in a number of countries is slowed so that it does not outstrip all assistance efforts and result in high population densities that exceed the carrying capacity of available land.

Every child has a good head start in life, including a birth certificate and the opportunity to go to pre-school. Public schooling is of high quality and free. There are no longer any stunted, permanently-limited children because of poor nutrition. Health care for mothers and children is free. The battle against all negative traditional practices is won.

Farmers, especially women, have access to improved seeds and other inputs needed to raise crop yields up to international averages. Agro-processing enterprises thrive and strong land tenure regimes are in place everywhere. The use of irrigation is optimized. Everyone has access to profitable markets for their goods and services so they can reduce their poverty by participating successfully in competitive markets.
I dream of a world where:

Free trade regimes and regional trade blocks function. Abusive roadblocks and unnecessary delays at borders no longer exist. People and goods circulate freely within regions. Customs duties collected at borders are no longer a major source of national income. Police and soldiers are no longer visible everywhere. Money spent on national armies is drastically reduced or eliminated. Key all-weather roads permitting easy circulation of people and goods are built and well maintained. Reliable and affordable electrical power, potable water and sanitation for all become the rule instead of the exception.

Good and competent governments that put the best interests of the people first become the norm. Strong institutions that can manage competently the development process over the long term are established. A robust justice system pursues effectively all those involved in corrupt activities. Equitable tax systems collect more from elites, thereby providing more funds to help create safety nets for the poor. The exploitation of natural resources is environmentally sound and their management is transparent, and a portion of the income generated by the sale of these resources is equitably distributed to poor people.

The outflow of foreign currency to offshore banks is tightly controlled. Legal impunity for any person is stopped. External security assistance is provided where needed to help countries fight trans-national crime, terrorism and internal civil conflict so they can maintain the peace and stability needed to advance. Government leaders who endeavor to stay in power for too long of a period, thereby preventing a true democratic transition, are not tolerated. Democracy is made to work to improve the lives of the poor, and justice and human rights are relentlessly pursued.

I dream of a world where:

Special attention is paid to what can be done and not be done in poorly-governed, fragile, failing or failed states. Emergency humanitarian aid is provided where and when needed to save lives and reduce excessive human suffering. Food aid is only resorted to when absolutely necessary, utilizing the nearest sources of surplus foodstuffs. Development assistance models are adapted to fit the context of any given country or region, and each country has a viable development model that clearly shows a path to achieving an acceptable level of equitable economic growth. These models show how to create jobs and wealth, and increase the resiliency of vulnerable households. Job creation remains one of the true litmus tests of development.

Development assistance models take into account the youthful structure of many national populations and the challenges posed by rapid urbanization. There is more purchasing power and less hunger for all. The scourge of malaria is eradicated, and the burden posed by HIV/AIDs, Ebola and other diseases is greatly reduced. Environmental threats and climate change are mitigated to the extent possible. Every effort is engaged to prevent or reduce the effects of natural and man-made disasters. An ounce of disaster prevention is always worth much more than a pound of emergency assistance.

With a critical mass of collective political will and understanding among donors, this dream of a better world is possible when strong institutions exist.”

Too Many Poor People with Too Many Priority Needs
Whew! It is obvious from the brief ‘dream speech’ above that the needs of low-income countries are weighty and all-encompassing. Everything is high priority and not everyone can be helped. Where should a donor begin and where can each donor derive the biggest bang for its investment? These are among the questions that keep development professionals awake at night. Hard and sometimes cruel choices need to be taken to decide who can be helped and who cannot.

As much as we would like to do all good things for all people at once, it is clear that doing everything for everyone is not feasible. Yet, a multitude of donors continue to work with host governments and a large cast of implementation agents …local, national and international… to respond to almost every human need. Bilateral donor agencies, multi-lateral assistance agencies, international organizations, private foundations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are all at work to assist low-income countries. The presence of these numerous assistance entities is easily noted by their informational signs that proliferate on many corners of capital cities in countries ranked low on the UN’s Human Development Index. Moreover, these diverse assistance efforts go mostly uncoordinated and sometimes they compete with one another. This overcrowding of the assistance stage by unrelated actors results in much confusion and waste.

An overly large proportion of assistance funds is used to pay for the administrative overhead of implementation agencies and high-paid technical advisors and consultants. The portion of total available assistance funding that trickles down for use in addressing the essential needs of poor people at the grassroots level is therefore smaller than it could be. This is something that needs to change if assistance is to become more effective and additional funds are released to help targeted beneficiaries. Donors and host governments need to concentrate more attention on their top priority foci if they are to improve the living conditions of the poor. This increased donor assistance concentration will require the existence of strong local institutions to be effective.

The goal of reducing significantly or eradicating poverty is overly ambitious. Therefore, it is recommended that this kind of language be banned from the development dialogue. Those people touting the end of poverty need to prove beyond doubt that it is absolutely possible in practical terms to make poverty history in our lifetimes. Too many times in the past the elimination of poverty has been heralded as being just around the corner, but the number of people living in abject poverty continues to grow in many areas of the world. Moreover, many countries will fail to achieve core Millennium Development Goals by the 2015 target date. A realistic focus is one that is of true importance and achievable over the coming generation.

There are not any quick fixes or magic remedies for ending poverty and the misery it causes countless millions of people. More attention needs to be paid to what poor people and development practitioners with years of first-hand field experience are saying. The views of academics are welcome, but their voices should not dominate the development discussion. The most important focus is on making the daily survival struggle of the poor easier. This focus requires giving the most vulnerable and marginalized populations special treatment. Those providing assistance need to ask constantly what the poor need and how their essential needs can be met in practical ways that work without fail over the long term. No sense fretting over approaches which are noble but not viable. Idealism is welcome, but realism necessarily rules.

Focus on Poor People in Low-Income Countries
It is clear there are not sufficient assistance funds to go around; therefore, it is logical that donor focus be on the poorest of countries where basic human needs are the greatest. A critical mass of funding is needed to make a lasting difference in these countries. Ideally, all assistance to these countries will be in the form of grants. All development loans, no matter how soft the terms, are not recommended for these countries. Exceptions can be made for important infrastructure projects, but host governments need to be helped with devising revenue-generating schemes that can pay back low-interest loans without over-stressing national budgets. Every effort needs to be made to reduce or eliminate the debt burden of these countries and to avoid increasing it. Debt repayments to regional or international development banks cannot be allowed to interfere with the funding of programs designed to make the lives of poor people better.

The aim is to graduate middle-income countries as quickly as possible from receiving donor grants while enabling them at the same time to attract private foreign direct investment (FDI) funds and loans from lending institutions. These countries will be tasked with making doing business in their countries quick and easy. No country can really advance if it cannot attract sufficient FDI funds. The situation of middle-income countries can serve to motivate low-income countries. The paths followed by middle-income countries to raise their economic status will be used as appropriate as examples to be followed by low-income countries.
Assistance funds currently used in middle-income countries should be shifted as quickly as possible to help low-income countries. Funds shifted will add to existing funds that are to be used according to a revised set of development assistance rules that focus on strengthening institutions. These rules need to take realistically into account an estimate of how many years it will take each low-income country to reach middle-income status, assuming good management, stability and no external shocks. The rules for assisting a low-income country which has good prospects of graduating to middle-income status in the near term would vary from those rules governing assistance to countries that will need decades to graduate.

The selection of countries to assist will be based on a handful of meaningful criteria. Among these criteria will be the level of child malnutrition and basic education in a given country. It is evident that no country can truly advance if a high percentage of its children suffer from stunting and a majority of the population has not benefitted from a quality primary school education. Consequently, high child stunting and adult illiteracy levels, particularly among women, will be among key country selection criteria.

Streamlining Donor Assistance to Make it More Effective
Donors need to join forces and decide what each will do or not do in each low-income country. An important question to be addressed is whether or not every donor can be meaningfully active in each country. Sometimes there are too many donor chefs in the assistance kitchen. The presence of too many donors in a country and their large number of assistance missions overwhelms host government officials whose weak institutions are stretched do deal with donor demands. This ‘congestion of donors’ results in host governments spending too much time and energy dealing with donors, thereby leaving little time to do their regular jobs. Donor demands, missions and visits need to be limited and well-coordinated.

Donors can decide which of them has the lead in a given country and which donors will work to support the lead donor. This scheme will require a designated donor group to be guided by a joint assistance strategy that has been elaborated with the host government. This scheme will only be workable if each donor divorces its interests from the internal politics of their respective agencies and governments, foregoing to the extent possible the mixing of development assistance with bilateral relations. Under this scenario, every effort will be deployed to rally donors around an institutional strengthening approach. Close donor collaboration in the pursuit of a common set of assistance objectives will also help prevent host governments from playing one donor against another. The common interest of all concerned will be the humanitarian well-being of the people and the development progress of the country they are attempting to assist.

As a number of issues are transnational and similar in scope across sub-regions, these country-specific donor groups can develop productive links with similar groups within their geographic sub-regions. These links will help ensure a reasonable commonality of approaches, thereby reinforcing national efforts and making regional cooperation more of a reality. Regional economic integration can help individual countries overcome some of the inherent economic constraints caused by small market size, border controls and distance from seaports. Regional integration will also be enhanced by the existence of like-minded, high performing institutions on all sides of national borders.

The success of aid depends on all donor missions and embassies in low-income, resource poor countries being organized and staffed to focus on overriding humanitarian interests. The people leading these missions need to be qualified development assistance professionals and not diplomats. Providing meaningful assistance and increasing the capacity of host governments to achieve developmental progress for its people entails abandoning traditional diplomacy. If a donor-nation has a higher strategic interest in a low-income country than the humanitarian needs of its people, it needs to define and justify this interest. This institutional development process will work better if every donor is open and frank about its assistance policies and regulations. If this transparent collaboration arrangement among donors cannot be achieved, there is little hope of improving the effectiveness of aid at the field level.

Aid effectiveness is also reduced in situations where host governments exhibit too much false pride and claim their national sovereignty is being compromised. Of course, extreme caution is to be taken when providing aid to those countries that are not fully willing and sincere about co-operating. Priority is to be given to initiating this institutional approach in countries where the leadership is fully supportive and committed to making it work, and host governments score well on good governance performance indicators established by credible, independent organizations.

Every organization providing assistance needs to reflect deeply on whether or not it wants to continue in the aid business. Some donor agencies may want to consider scaling back their presence on the development assistance scene and concentrating on tasks related to advocacy for human rights and development research, if needed. Perhaps a few UN assistance agencies need to be upgraded and given their full independence. The role and contribution of each development assistance agency needs to be closely examined by a qualified independent body and a determination made if its existence is justified. Some agencies may want to forego a presence in the field and channel their funding through other assistance agencies. Heads of aid organizations in-country need to refrain from being designated diplomatic chiefs of mission and insist on being recognized as professional members of development assistance agencies.

Building Strong Institutions is Essential but Seldom Practiced
There is much consensus around the central importance of assisting low-income countries build strong institutions. This is a topic much discussed and about which much is written. The surprise is that members of the donor community seldom support the kind of comprehensive institution strengthening programs that are essential to achieving development progress on a sustainable basis. Weak institutions impede development progress and contribute to creating fragile and failed states, making it more difficult for democracy to take root and bloom.

Much donor aid is used ineffectively because the institutional capacity of the host government is weak. Given the crucial role of well-functioning institutions, it is puzzling why donors do not do more to establish competent, pro-poor institutions that operate according to international standards. Strong institutions enable a poor country to make the most out of what it possesses. Resource-poor countries always perform better if they have well-managed institutions in place. Particularly, they are better able to respond when crisis strikes.

High-performing institutions create an attractive working environment that helps retain well-trained national professionals; thereby reducing the debilitating ‘brain drain’ that negatively affects many countries. Good working conditions, competitive salaries and attractive benefits are among the key hallmarks of strong institutions. These working conditions and the creation of a high level of employee morale and motivation are important factors in improving a country’s development performance. It may be over simplifying a complicated subject, but it is difficult to see how the development process can succeed without the existence of strong institutions. The absence of strong institutions makes providing aid something of a losing proposition.

Managing Aid through Certified Institutions
In an ideal situation donor assistance will flow through national institutions that have been strengthened by a comprehensive series of capacity building exercises. The end result of this process is the certification of institutions as being capable of managing competently the tasks assigned to them. These institutions will be subjected to frequent inspections by external teams composed of multi-donor experts who will evaluate their capacity to manage funds and implement certain types of activities. The main thrust will be to build over time strong institutions that are capable of managing competently external funding.

A certified institution will have full responsibility for implementing assistance activities as agreed upon with lead donors. As per written agreement, donors will have the right and duty to bring in a team of specialists to undertake periodic performance audits. If this team finds that funds are not well-managed and the implementation of the agreed upon activities is failing to reach planned performance benchmarks, funding will be suspended until the host institution can demonstrate that all negative audit findings have been adequately addressed.

Under this arrangement, the initial funding tranche will ideally come from the host government and be subject to reimbursement every quarter if it demonstrates full compliance with the agreement signed with the designated donor group. This compliance includes satisfactory performance in terms of meeting quarterly program progress targets. Donors need to put in place nimble funding mechanisms that allow for the timely disbursement of funds. Any gross failure on the part of the host institution to perform as agreed will result in a suspension of aid. In particular, any misuse of funds for purposes other than the approved program purposes will not be tolerated and will bring an end to the entire program. It will be important to apply strict accounting controls, spot audit checks and other safeguards to prevent the latter from happening.

Institutional Assistance Frameworks Govern
Long-term assistance frameworks will be elaborated with each institution selected and approved by the host government and the concerned donor group. These frameworks will describe in some detail the short- and long-term objectives of the institution and all actions required to empower it to play an effective and sustainable role. These objectives will largely be defined in terms related to providing essential goods and services to poor people while creating the conditions the poor need to raise themselves up. All internal and external funding received by a certified institution will support this assistance framework and be approved by a concerned donor group. All donors need to accept the obligation to support and respect the assistance framework and the performance contracts established with each institution selected for participation in the program.

Participating donors will need to be agreeable to supporting an assistance framework for the ten to fifteen years needed to make a lasting impact. Donors should not become involved unless they have a high level of certainty they can be a reliable partner over the long term. Annual funding appropriations and sole procurement sources regulations serve poorly this institutional approach. Agreeing with these frameworks also means that donors stick with an institution through thick and thin no matter what disaster happens in the host country. Even undesirable military coups cannot be allowed to disturb continuing this institutional support. There is no place here for fickle donors which are not able to hold the course. Host governments will come and go, but strong institutions with competent staff who are part of a high performing civil service meritocracy remain and endure. Issues of poor governance and corruption will disappear over time as key institutions are progressively strengthened and certified. Strong and high performing institutions are essential to the nation-building process and preventing instability.

The development premise at play here is that strong institutions are necessary for the achievement of lasting progress. Moreover, this institutional approach recognizes that building capacity is mainly what development is all about. As long as there is not an adequate capacity in a country to manage its own development process, there is little hope of making aid a success. Of course, any host government that is unwilling to accept the strict requirements of this institutional process will be excluded from consideration. The practice of frank ‘tough love’ with host government officials and doing what is right for the people will override traditional diplomacy. At the heart of the process are the fundamental rights and best interests of the people.

The initiation of this institutional, performance-based approach will entail determining which institutions to strengthen and certify first. The selection of which institutions to strengthen may largely be decided by the priority needs of a given country. Health and education ministries spring to mind as being among those that will be among the first to be targeted by this assistance approach. In those countries where a large part of the population is dependent upon agriculture, it is obvious that ministries of agriculture and rural development will be initial beneficiaries of this approach. Of course, little will work well if good governance does not prevail. In this regard, it will be of high importance to strengthen the judiciary system and ensure that the court system is independent and competent. The selection of which host government entities to strengthen will also depend upon the individual country context and donor abilities to provide the institutional strengthening support required.

In countries that earn large amounts of foreign exchange from the export of minerals or other commodities, it is recommended that new institutions be established to manage using a portion of these earnings to make social cash transfers to the poor. Every opportunity to narrow the income gap and increase the wealth of the poor is to be seized. In the initial stages, donors and their host government partners will need to review the viability and role of existing institutions to determine which institutions will be maintained, and if there is a need to create new ones. Existing institutions that are not functioning well and playing a viable role are to be closed.

In-Depth Sector Knowledge and Institutional Analyses Required
The strengthening of any institution will require an in-depth knowledge of the sector(s) it covers. Gaining this knowledge will entail sector analyses that provide the information needed to elaborate the institutional capacity building framework and program action plan that describes the role and tasks of the institution and the objectives of its operation. A detailed internal analysis of the institution’s current capacity will be needed. The results of this analysis will be compared with the capacity and resources required to perform successfully at a requisite level. This analysis will cover recurrent cost issues related to the host government’s national budget.

Every position occupied in the institution will be the object of qualification exams that will be administered to internal and external candidates. This testing process may result in some incumbent staff losing their jobs to better qualified people. Local labor laws and unions need to accept and support this process. These exam results will also be used to devise training programs that enable every member of an institution to work competently. In some cases, a major organizational restructuring or the combining of institutions may be in order. The goal will be to build institutions of excellence staffed by trained professionals that can be sustained over time.

Strengthening institutions will require devising tailor-made training programs and on-the-job training overseen by qualified specialists. The strengthening process will also require adopting efficiently the latest computer and communication technologies. The use of new technological innovations to make lives easier for poor people will be vigorously pursued. Institutional roles will be adjusted to enable the effective introduction and application of attractive new technologies. These technologies can also be used to consult with focus groups at the community and provincial level. These groups will provide the feedback and ‘ground-truthing’ needed to keep the concerns of the people at the center of the process. Involving the people in this way and others will also make this a popular participatory approach that ensures the ownership of the process by all concerned at all levels.

At the end of the lengthy capacity building process, an institution will be able to operate on par with any organization in the world according to international standards. A certified institution will gain international recognition and prestige, thus encouraging the donor community to increase their collaboration with them. This recognition will include receiving appropriate endorsements from regional and sub-regional organizations.

The Absence of Competent Institutions Requires Limiting External Assistance
Building the capacity of institutions is a long-term process and the results desired may take years to achieve. Donors will need to be patient and forbearing. Some assistance may be delayed or limited, and donors may want to call a moratorium on new official development assistance until there are institutions capable of managing competently donor aid. It makes little sense to keep providing assistance funds when there are not any institutions capable of managing these funds. All risks involved with providing assistance funds will be largely eliminated by having in place certified institutions that are regularly audited and evaluated by a lead donor group.

Too much time has already been lost by the constant changes in development assistance approaches and the arrival and departure of many donors at the host country level. Some low-income countries have received funding on a per capita basis that is the equivalent of providing several Marshall Plan’s over the past decades but few, if any, countries have much to show for this assistance largesse. Too much funding has achieved temporary and poor results because strong institutions were not in place to carry on the work started with donor funds. Too many times worthy and much needed activities stopped when the flow of donor funds ended. Donors need to work to provide the host country with the capacity it needs to manage well aid and keep pursuing the original purpose of the initial funding long after donor support has ended. Over the long term, the institutionalization process will result in reducing an over-dependence of host governments on outside technical assistants and NGOs.

Over time, this transparent, well-communicated institutional approach will give poor people more hope for a better future. The poor need to see a better way forward so they too can prepare themselves for the transformations they need to make to move toward more rewarding and productive lives. In the end, it will be the poor people, supported by high-performing institutions, who will raise themselves up to take advantage of the improved conditions that are more conducive to improving the quality of their lives. The overall aim is to make this institutional strengthening approach an integral part of a self-perpetuating development process that evolves and adapts as needed. The best way forward in the 21st century for low-income countries and their poor masses is through the building of strong institutions that endure at a high performance level from one generation to the next.End.


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American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Mark G. Wentling is a development and humanitarian relief assistance specialist with forty years of relevant experience. He has a long record of outstanding performance in the design and management of a diverse variety of complex development activities in Africa. His proven success as a senior manager and leader attests to his superb analytical, communication, marketing, supervisory, cross-cultural and interpersonal skills, and his ability to lead teams, formulate strategies and achieve results in challenging working environments. He has a strong technical background in a number of development sectors and is known for his professional writing skills. He has in-depth experience with food, agriculture, nutrition and strategic planning. He has led Peace Corps, USAID and NGO programs in a number of African countries. He has authored numerous articles and published two novels in his African Trilogy series. He is from Kansas in the US and, as of this date, May 19, 2015, works and lives in Burkina Faso.


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