Aid Effectiveness: Is ownership still a relevant issue in development cooperation?

Photo taken during the opening session of the ADEA 2017 Triennale held in Senegal from 14th to 17th March 2017. Copyright: ADEA

The 2030 Agenda, through its Sustainable Development Goal 17 (SDG17), seeks to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” To achieve this goal, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) refers to development goals that are “country-led and country-owned” and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG-F) emphasizes that “efforts to increase the effectiveness of development cooperation should be based on basic principles of country ownership, inclusive partnerships, transparency and accountability.”   

“Discovering” ownership as fundamental for effective development cooperation

Ownership: One would think that the word, the concept has always been central to the discourse and practice of international development cooperation. Not so. Ownership first appeared in the development discourse around 1992-93 as a result of a World Bank report that focused on the performance of the Bank’s portfolio management. Using the Bank's own criteria for reviewing projects, the report found that that 37.5 percent of the, then, recently evaluated projects were unsatisfactory. That’s a huge amount! 

The report concluded that poor implementation of the Bank-financed projects was largely to blame for this poor performance of the projects reviewed. Indeed, the first two (of five) conclusions this report were: (i) “The Bank's success is determined by benefits on-the-ground – sustainable development impact – not by loan approvals, good reports or disbursements;” and (ii) “Successful implementation requires commitment, built on stakeholder participation and local ownership”. In other words, the problem was that these projects were seen as World Bank projects, not government projects. The poor effectiveness of these projects was attributed to poor implementation, which flowed from low levels of beneficiary participation and government commitment to the projects. The World Bank recognized that lack of government and beneficiary ownership resulted in poor commitment to the projects’ objectives.

A major reason for this situation, according to the report, was that Bank staff were more concerned with the internal Bank “culture of approval” than with country-specific considerations such as the country ownership of what, in theory, were their projects, the cost of which they were expected to reimburse to the World Bank. 

After that report, “ownership” became a buzzword throughout the development cooperation community. ADEA – responsive as ever to the issues-of-the-day – addressed aspects of the implementation-ownership nexus at its 1993 Biennial Meeting (held in Angers, France). The theme of that meeting was “Improving the implementation of education projects in Africa through ownership.” Many of the issues that are still haunting development cooperation in education were brought up at that 1993 meeting. They include; designing projects whose implementation exceeds national capacities; aid management which is not country-led; donors’ time frames and constraints that trump those of the countries and, even, the internal logics of the education systems and cycles; and the lack of true partnerships between donors and the recipients (which was the topic the theme of the 1997 Biennial held in Dakar).

And yet, progress on these, and related issues is still wanting. Indeed, effective national ownership is still an issue, even these days of programme and budget support – i.e., where the external financial support is founded on overall, multi-year, evidence-based policy documents and the sector or policy analyses on which they are supposedly based.

The critical link between “partnerships” and “ownership” 

The Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) addressed one aspect of this issue at its 1997 Biennial meeting held in Dakar (Senegal). That meeting, and the book that came out of it, explored the theory and practice of “partnerships” for capacity building and quality improvements in education in Africa. One paper in that book (by J. Samoff) focused on work done by the former ADEA’s Working Group on Education Sector Analysis (merged in 2006 into the Working Group on Education Management and Policy Support, WGEMPS and now re-named Task Force on Education Management and Policy Support, TFEMPS) which had undertaken an in-depth review of nearly 240 sector analysis studies and reports. This review found that “notwithstanding the diversity of the countries studied and the agencies that initiated the studies, [the documents reviewed] had generally similar assumptions, methodologies, observations, conclusions, and recommendations.”  Samoff concluded that “far too often, [the process of doing sector analysis] has remained driven by the agendas and procedures of the funding and technical assistance agencies, with constrained national participation, limited national control, and very little sense of national ownership”.

Has there been much change since then (hint: not much)? Is it still reasonable to think that national ownership, effective implementation and, therefore, aid effectiveness are linked, as per the analysis of that 1992 World Bank report (hint: yes)? Subsequent blogs in this series on aid effectiveness will explore these questions and look into: the reasons why ownership matters; factors that may explain how and why it still looms as a major issue a quarter century after being “discovered” as important for effective implementation and project performance; and ways to promote ownership in the context of development cooperation for education in Africa.