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Development Assistance in Governance and Public Sector Management: Does It Ever Make a Big Difference?

Nick Manning's picture

Mother and boy being attended to by Health Education nurse

Are there examples of large scale development achievements which are likely attributable to development assistance? At the least there is the Marshall Plan (1948-1952), the “Green Revolution,” and global health programs which largely eradicated smallpox. At the country level, Korea, Taiwan, and Botswana are often cited as aid success stories with remarkable economic progress following significant aid infusions. So the summary answer is probably (and the answer might be more affirmative if we addressed the perennial problem of poor data collection). But if we apply the additional filter of “what did this have to do with assistance concerning governance and public sector management?” the answer is, at best, maybe.

Taking the example of the major public health advances supported by donors, advances in the measurement of health impacts in the early 2000s led to major costs savings and efficiencies in HIV/AIDS and malaria programs, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative had clear impact, the annual Human Development Reports have charted some truly outstanding areas of progress and there has been some, halting, progress towards attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.  However, it seems that few of these gains seem have deep roots in the improved performance of governments. Development assistance seems able to trigger improvements through standalone arrangements outside of the public sector and through logistical efforts to move material (pumps, vaccinations, and medical supplies). It does not seem to be so good at large scale governance and public sector management (GPSM) improvements.

Now it might be that we are not measuring the right things and so the impact is eluding us.  Maybe governance and public sector management assistance has had some sort of thinly spread impact across the board – so everything has got a little better but nothing in particular stands out.  Maybe the big impact is really in the first generation of macro-reforms which we subsequently take for granted, for example the work of the Ford Foundation and the role of the “Berkeley Mafia” in Indonesia in the 60’s. Maybe the community of governance and public sector management specialists working in development have done their part and GPSM reforms are doing what they can but, as highlighted by Kharas, Makino et al. in 2012, interventions that only address the public sector, without accompanying actions that support a productive and inclusive private sector, are insufficient to make a difference at scale. But it might also be that our work on governance and public sector management is really not making a substantial difference at any sort of scale. 

I suspect that while some of us might support the first explanation, pretty much all of us working in this area have a lurking suspicion that we are not having large scale impact; that the increased emphasis GPSM in donor priorities which emerged prominently in the 1990s has not been matched by concomitant results in any simple way – a point made in “the Big Stuck” some years ago by Pritchett and de Weijer.

Now this might simply be inevitable. Can we really expect donor-supported projects to have an impact at scale on state institutions with their deep historical, cultural, and political roots? Well, at the least shouldn’t we see some signs of movement that we can take some credit for? If the issue is that isolated projects could not be expected to do much then the most likely evidence of progress would come from larger multi-year programs such as those supported through budget support operations. Again, Bank reports over many years suggest that the facts are against us here.
If we conclude that projects are simply the wrong order of magnitude as interventions to ever achieve some sort of transformative GPSM effect at the country level then that’s fine – but let’s get a bit more honest about the GPSM field and see it as a sort of technical support to other sectoral development endeavors; an endeavor which removes technical constraints to service delivery as they are uncovered and so is intrinsically reactive rather than transformative.[1]

For myself, in an undoubtedly self-justifying way, I would like to think that GPSM reforms can be more than filling pot-holes in the road to better provision of specific services. This position would be more plausible if we could envisage some GPSM projects as being catalytic – that somehow they were addressing a binding constraint which, if eased, would really unleash the potential of the public sector to better deliver a range of outputs that directly matter to citizens and firms today (whether through funding or directly providing better services, through more effective management of infrastructure or other public investments for which the private sector is unable to provide financing or bear all the risk or through better regulation) – or as being systems and processes that better ensure sustainable outputs in the future (whether through improved management of revenues, expenditures and debt or through more effective cooperative and constructive engagement between levels of government).

I’m curious about others’ views on this. In a subsequent post I will be asking whether, in addressing our concerns about the lack of significant impact, rather perversely the community of governance and public sector management specialists working in development is getting less ambitious rather than more.

[1]     In retrospect this was certainly the message of “The World Bank’s Approach to Public Sector Management 2011-2020”. I was very much involved in developing this and, in retrospect, it is remarkable the degree to which it was built on minimalist, incrementalist assumptions with no concerns expressed about the absence of any more proactive, transformative claims for the field.


Submitted by Nick York on

Thanks for a really interesting article.

Perhaps one way of squaring this circle is not to look for impact of GPSM in itself but to recognise it as a joint product ie. its impact comes from how it enables and complements the impact of other types of interventions and aid channels. For example, the impact of health finance on service delivery and health outcomes depends on health systems reform, which to some extent depends on better public sector management and governance. This would tend to make it difficult to identify a separate impact of GPSM, yet it might be crucial underpinning anyway.

Another point is that GPSM is sometimes about risk management and preventing problems from getting worse, eg in fragile states, which means that measuring its impact depends on a well specific counterfactual at country level, which is inherently difficult.

Submitted by Roberto Tejada on

A candid reflection on one of the most elusive targets is very much appreciated to step back and rethink whether we were actually trying to solve the right problem. Indeed, so much effort has ben invested on shoving in company-inspired management practices into institutions and realms (having little to show after the fact) ignoring their real incentives and dynamics... which, for instance, should have been used to set the design parameters on the first place. Examples, anyone?

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