Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 36 Nos. 3

Aid Ineffectiveness in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Problem of Donor Capacity

Published on 1 July 2005

The reports of the United Nations’ Millennium Project recognise that proposals to increase aid could be hampered by lack of capacity in recipient countries, but say very little about the capacity of donors.

This article seeks to demonstrate that donor capacity warrants equal concern. It focuses on subSaharan Africa, which is the region where there has been least progress in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to which much of the increased aid is thus likely to be channelled.

There is substantial evidence to suggest that, while the problems of capacity in African countries are great and cannot be ignored, the manner in which aid is delivered is just as much a problem. Van de Walle and Johnston (1996), summarising a study of aid effectiveness in seven African countries, show how aid often weakens rather than strengthens local institutions. Similarly, Lancaster (1999: 3–4) concludes from a study of the performance of eight major donors in Africa that, ‘contrary to widely held views … the main problem is the lack of capacity on the part of aid agencies to undertake the kind of interventions they have attempted’. These agencies, she says, ‘have often lacked the technical experience, local knowledge, staff, and appropriate processes to manage such projects and programs effectively’. Bräutigam and Knack (2004) conclude from an analysis of data for 32 African countries, that aid has a negative impact on the quality of governance and that this is due in large part to the manner in which it is delivered.

As the quotation from Lancaster implies, the question of whether donors have the capacity to deliver increased quantities of aid effectively is not just about whether sufficient financial and manpower resources can be mobilised. As with recipient governments, it is also necessary to ask whether donor agencies have the necessary organisational structures and procedures, knowledge and skills, and attitudes. In our view, the answer to this question is that they do not. We shall demonstrate this by examining five aspects of the design and implementation of donor-funded interventions that we consider particularly critical in determining aid effectiveness, namely:

  1. The extent of ownership of, and therefore commitment to, the intervention in the recipient country
  2. The appropriateness of the intervention to the environment of the recipient country
  3. The organisational structures and procedures through which interventions are implemented and monitored
  4. The degree of flexibility in programme design and implementation
  5. The quality of technical expertise within the donor agency. We shall support our argument with references to the literature and with examples of both good and bad practice drawn from our own experience in sub-Saharan Africa over the last three decades.

Related Content

This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.3 (2005) Aid Ineffectiveness in Sub‐Saharan Africa: The Problem of Donor Capacity

Cite this publication

Conyers, D. and Mellors, R. (2005) Aid Ineffectiveness in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Problem of Donor Capacity. IDS Bulletin 36(3): 83-89


Rob Mellors

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies


About this publication

Related content