Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 36 Nos. 3

Donors’ Learning Difficulties: Results, Relationships and Responsibilities

Published on 1 July 2005

The UN Millennium Project Report looks at what is wrong with the aid system, including bilateral aid from governments. It notes that such aid is highly unpredictable, poorly targeted, frequently tied, badly coordinated, driven by donor rather than recipient objectives, influenced by the donor’s geopolitical interests with resulting policy incoherence and not systematically evaluated (UN 2005).

Of this long list, it is with this last point that the present article concerns itself. Why do donor governments have problems with learning and how can they help themselves do better?

Carlsson and Wohlgemuth (2000) present the following reasons why learning is difficult within the aid relationship:

  • Political constraints
  • The unequal nature of the aid relationship
  • Problems internal to the organisation of the aid agency
  • The organisations and capacities on the recipient side
  • Sources of knowledge and the quality of information.

In the present article, a further reason is proposed, connected to the unequal nature of the aid relationship noted above. I build on an argument made by Curtis (2004), namely the presence of a mindset that seeks control through linear planning, supported by the instruments of performance management.

In exploring the question, I look at the world of aid rather differently than does the Millennium Project Report. It emphasises the need for more strategies and coherent programming, I respond that this is like recommending brandy as a cure for a hangover. I suggest that donors have overemphasised target orientation to the detriment of relationships and that although working in and contributing to a highly turbulent environment where today’s “weak but willing” recipient becomes tomorrow’s “corrupt government”, donors, as powerful actors have always done, construct a history of that environment that suits them to justify future actions (Nietzsche 1873). They do not learn from history, only abuse it.

As the rationale for aid is to support change for the better, I am interested in why donor governments appear to be ignoring the intellectual developments of the last 20 or so years concerning concepts of change, particularly complexity theory and ideas about improvisation. Is it the absence of an imperative? Organisational and systems learning has developed within the for-profit sector. They have learnt the danger of ‘the simplicity trap. By ignoring the contradictions and paradoxes of their environment, businesses are liable to “plot their own demise”’ (Clegg et al. 2004: 487). In theory, the public sector equivalent of business’ bottom line are citizens to whom governments must learn to respond to stay in power.

Even so, Whitehall, for example, is not very good at learning. The political environment that shapes public sector cultures is averse to experimentation, requires negotiation and compromise between competing power centres in government, suffers from short-termism related to the electoral cycle and maintains traditions of control and secrecy that stifle feedback (Chapman 2002; Common 2004). Nevertheless, the ballot box does help reality to break in. It is absent in the relation between donor governments and the end users of aid.

In what follows, I look at the interplay between accountability, learning and relationships. I suggest that donors might be able to enhance their performance more through improvising rather than through greater efforts at strategic control, and that they can do this responsibly by strengthening their accountability to all stakeholders in the aid system through investing in relationships. I conclude with some practical tips for action that donor organisations could start trying straightaway. As complexity theory tells us, small changes can have big impacts.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.3 (2005) Donors’ Learning Difficulties: Results, Relationships and Responsibilities

Cite this publication

Eyben, R. (2005) Donors' Learning Difficulties: Results, Relationships and Responsibilities. IDS Bulletin 36(3): 98-107


Rosalind Eyben

Emeritus Fellow

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies
Eyben, Rosalind
IDS Bulletin, volume 36, issue 3


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