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Donor Bureaucrats As Obstacles To Reform Initiatives

Sina Odugbemi's picture

For two days last month (June 21-22) CommGAP and the Governance Practice in the World Bank Institute organized a workshop on the theme: The Political Economy of Reform: Moving from Analysis to Action. In attendance were practitioners and academics from around the world, including several leading donor agencies. While the insights from the very productive workshop are being organized - they will be made available as soon as they are ready - I want to share this report regarding an unanticipated leitmotif of the meeting.

Without prompting, several donor agency officials, and they were senior ones, turned their attention to the challenges posed to reform efforts by the behavior of donor bureaucrats. I have just been through the notes I took during the meeting, and what follows are some of the  comments that were made. The meeting took place under Chatham House rules, so no names will be mentioned here:

  • 'Politics has more to do with change than economics, but we are not yet ready to let politics out of the closet.'
  • 'We tend to focus on best practice solutions rather than best local fit. The ideology of best practice reigns regardless of local context.'
  • 'Donors are practicing policy and politics but doing it badly. We need tools and proper staffing. We need multi-disciplinary analysis.'
  • 'Finance ministers know that they can usually get us to backtrack, a real problem when you are pushing for reform.'
  • 'We under-invest  in the demand side of governance, thus hampering our ability to produce change.'
  • 'We don't do public sector reform well'.
  • 'Donors are part of domestic politics in a developing country, and the role is not always benign. We focus on what works for our careers. And we push our dollars relentlessly.'
  • 'For reform initiatives to work, a donor agency bureaucrat has to find a way to ignore the incentive structure and act benevolently.'


I remember suggesting that perhaps we were all struggling with a paradigm shift, watching inconvenient facts pile up, and looking for the contours of the new paradigm. But a colleague replied that the real paradigm shift occurred about ten years ago, from a technocratic approach to governance reforms to a results-based approach. The problem, he said, is that donor agencies are still not doing what the new paradigm requires in terms of tools, approaches and staffing. As a result, we the organizers of the workshop were asked repeatedly to 'send a message to senior managers'.

Well, here is hoping the message gets through!


Picture: Flickr user Kongharald


Submitted by Rikke Ingrid Jensen on
Dear Sina Odugbemi, as an expert in the field of PE I find you summary of donor behaviors intriguing. But what happened to the workshop report? I am still waiting ever patiently... With best regards Rikke Ingrid Jensen

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