Book Review: Why We Lie About Aid by Pablo Yanguas

Guest post by Tom Kirk, of the LSE’s Centre for Public Authority in International DevelopmentWhy-We-Lie-About-Aid

Every so often you read something that brilliantly articulates an idea or issue you have been struggling with for a while, but could not properly capture. Why We Lie About Aid is one of those books. Full of pithy quotes, punchy anecdotes and insightful case studies, it draws upon an eclectic mix of ideas from across the social sciences to craft an argument that the public and institutional discourses surrounding aid and development interventions are reductive to the point of self-harm. That is both because they make aid spending a political football and because they force practitioners to focus on what can be measured. This prevents donors from seizing opportunities for transformational change in recipient countries and does a disservice to reformers who could use their support in contentious political struggles.

Yanguas, a practitioner and academic, begins by stating that he agrees with much of the criticism levelled at aid and development by the likes of James Ferguson, Tania Li and William Easterly. Yet, he does not subscribe to Dambisa Moyo’s conclusion that the system as a whole is ‘dead’. This is a defining feature of his approach, which is as much about showing how aid can drive longer-running transformational ‘episodes’, as it is explaining the reasons for its failings. However, before getting to this, he devotes the book’s first two chapters to grounding aid interventions and organisations in the politics of their donor countries. This allows him to show how aid can variously be the darling of, or scapegoat for, both right and left leaning politicians (think of David Cameron’s commitment to 0.7% and George Bush’s HIV/AIDS programmes). This arises because aid currently has no permanent electoral constituency past those that work in the sector and a small number of committed idealists. This makes if perfect fodder for politicians looking either to prove their credentials as humanitarians by increasing budgets or as fiscal disciplinarians by slashing them and imposing rigorous auditing procedures.

The latter, Yanguas argues, has been the driving force behind a push towards the ‘results’ and ‘value for money’ agendas amongst some donors in recent years. Although taxpayers have a right to expect that their money be well spent, the contemporary need to quantify programmes’ impacts focusses practitioners on quick, technical wins or low hanging fruit, such as infrastructure and service delivery programmes. This is more of a concern now that the payment of practitioners’ own contracts with donor agencies often relies on neatly demonstrating programmes’ successes. The effects of this can be seen within the public documents that aid organisations produce, which are aid workersstripped of political conflicts and of programmes’ failures, thereby removing the chance for honest conversations about the obstacles to development and negating opportunities for learning lessons. It is also present in evaluations’ focus on programmes’ quantifiable outputs, rather than their wider societal or political outcomes. Yanguas argues that this leaves ‘donor publics’ (tax payers) with a superficial understanding of aid and forces the use of tools such as political economy analysis to the margins of programmes, where they cannot easily support ongoing interventions.

The book’s strongest chapters are the case studies of efforts to support anti-corruption bodies in Sierra Leone and Liberia. They are rich in detail and told through a persuasive style that moves back and forth between debates in the social sciences and events on the ground. For Sierra Leone, Yanguas shows how the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development’s (DFID) long engagement with the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission, its commitment to putting out sometimes explosive data and its location outside of the wider bureaucracy’s compromised accountability structures gradually changed what citizens expected of their political elites. For Liberia, he shows how an ever-expanding coalition of donors were, somewhat unwillingly, drawn into the country’s political conflicts through their sponsorship and tutelage of the General Auditing Commission. It was, however, ultimately unwilling to defend the Commission’s work when its head was replaced with an ally in 2011, overturning years of gains. In both cases, Yanguas shows how key individuals drove reforms with the support of donors, often at great risk to themselves, and how their combined actions had widespread, mostly unmeasurable, political ramifications: ‘whatever form aid takes, it will always have a profound effect on local actors, legitimising some and delegitimising others’.

The penultimate chapter further explores the ongoing struggles within donor organisations to ‘think and work 100117-N-6247V-155politically’. It covers the emergence of bottom-up movements (mainly the PDIA and DDD groups) to rethink how aid is understood and delivered, and how they are increasingly being taken seriously. Most interestingly, he shows how DFID has, somewhat subversively, financially sponsored outfits within the notoriously technical World Bank to promote more politically attuned ways of approaching developmental challenges. In a startling later section, Yanguas turns his attention to the contribution of academics routinely celebrated by development studies departments such as econometrician Daron Acemoglu and anthropologist Tania Li. He argues that their insights have very little practical application for ongoing reform processes in developing countries; something he declares ‘an abdication of the legitimate role that development scholars can play in advising officials or engaging in the public debate on aid’.

Yanguas concludes with a rallying cry to reinterpret aid as ‘contentious development politics’ or, put another way, as an asset for disrupting entrenched elites. This is what I have long been struggling to articulate. Indeed, he is surely right that if we want to secure the future of aid and development, and ensure it has the potential to contribute to transformative change, we must begin with our own discourses around it. To do so, Yanguas argues we should agree that both more markets and more state would be a good thing in most developing countries, thereby moving beyond tired left-right debates, and we should frame this as a moral imperative rather than a utilitarian calculation based on value for money. Abroad, we must support reformers, giving them the diplomatic cover and legitimation required to push through changes that threaten to upset debilitating status quos. We also must acknowledge that their actions and successes are unlikely to be measurable within five-year programme spans. This requires new ways of judging their intended and unintended impacts, with an eye to how they change others’ political calculations. Anything less, Yanguas argues, would be to let down brave individuals in difficult contexts and to continue to tell ourselves lies about the thing we call aid. I suggest that to get the ball rolling you should leave this book everywhere, from your friend’s bedside table, to DFID’s tea-room and the doorsteps of the Daily Mail.



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7 Responses to “Book Review: Why We Lie About Aid by Pablo Yanguas”
  1. Paul Spray

    Aid as disrupting elites …. I have long thought that, at key moments, six week high level golf coaching at St Andrews for prominent ministers, away from the decision making, would be an excellent use of aid resources.

  2. Steve Golub

    Duncan, this post exemplifies why I subscribe to From Poverty to Power: I don’t have time to keep up on all of the developments in international development – who does? – and the blog introduces and summarizes some valuable thinking and initiatives. Many thanks to Tom Kirk for this review, though I realize I really should read the book itself.

    That being said, a few thoughts on Yanguas as summarized by Kirk:

    1. I agree with Yanguas’s critique of aid, but still see reforms as often being blocked by aid’s subservience to foreign policy. For the long term (and sometimes even for the short term), it by all means makes sense to back reformers, be they in government or civil society. But short-term foreign policy considerations frequently, perhaps even typically, overrule support for reform.
    2. In a related vein, it is politically difficult or even impossible to back reformers. Corrupt and/or repressive leaders correctly don’t see it as in their interests.
    3. Even putting politics aside, let’s not underestimate the role of path dependence and related institutional and professional incentives in shaping development aid. To a considerable extent, aid agency personnel (and the consulting firms that increasingly dominate development programs and approaches) have a vested interest in not acting or thinking politically. For instance, lots of folks who advise or implement purely technical police or judicial administration programs would be out of their jobs if aid really shifted in the direction Yanguas laudably favors. The same goes for the whole cottage industry (or I really should say, villa industry) of so-called M&E experts. There are many honorable individual and organizational exceptions to the rule I’m suggesting here – but they are indeed exceptions.

    I’m by no means saying that Yanguas’s points are pointless. And I applaud the aid initiatives that run counter to the obstacles I’m highlighting. But we need to be clear about what good ideas such as his are up against.

    • Dear Steve,

      Thanks for sharing your reaction to the key points, and raising interesting questions. The middle and later chapters of the book cover some of them: how the odds are stacked up against reformers, how donors tend to undermine each other (or themselves!) with problematic preferences, and how the promise of politically-informed aid continues to crash on the iceberg of organizational inertia and professional silos. I don’t have solutions for any of these problems, but I would still consider myself a pragmatist: these are constraints we have to work with, and it is up to us to find better framing strategies and entry points.

  3. Tom


    Glad you enjoyed the review – the book really was a pleasure to read.

    On point 1, of course you’re right, but I think if we did have a different / more nuanced public discourse around aid, then perhaps short-term foreign policy goals would not be so determining. Imagine a critical Daily Mail headline about politicians interfering with DFID’s work and directing money away from reformers and towards SRR / private sector reform / loans etc That could happen if the public began to see aid as about disrupting elites / contentious politics…. if there was a domestic feeling of ‘ownership’ about how and what the money is spent on, rather than how just much is supposedly wasted on programmes that are rarely properly explained to tax payers.

  4. Steve Golub

    Thanks, Tom. There really is a need for an advocacy agenda to reform aid. A big problem is that all too often the debate falls into pro-aid and anti-aid camps. Thus, all aid gets lumped together so that it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in such debates. But the fact that the big problem exists doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be very valuable to address this issue, not least through advocacy that moves the Daily Mail needle.

  5. Jake Allen

    Great review. I’m really looking forward to reading the book.

    The politics of this are so interesting. Even in this review this is illustrated, from starting with the point of development funds being used as ‘a political football’, ot the point that funds inevitably influence in-country actors, to then the description of it as ‘contentious devevlopment politics’. I also think the point in the comment above about aid being subservient to foreign policy raises lots of questions about aid and development’s place in the overall and ongoing process of engagement between countries.

    I’m of the view that development can be nearly apolitical, but never completely. It’s always on the spectrum somewhere. And i’m always a bit surprised when people are surprised that development funds are treated like political footballs – so is every area of spend. Substitute ‘development’ for ‘the NHS’ or ‘social services’ or anything else, and you’ll find no shortage of people from those fields making the same complaints. Perhaps it’s time development-ers were a bit more switched on to this; perhaps it would then enable us to be a bit more savvy at navigating some of the (usually poltical) challenges we face, which manifest in things like the results agenda.

  6. Meera

    Yes! Finally a book that seems to talk about things that are usually whispered in conferences or acknowledged as the only way–thanks, Tom! I know we’ve spoken about this before, but a results-based approach to any kind of aid will spur action to, as rightly pointed out, work with the lowest hanging fruit. Perhaps, after the lower fruit is all used up, aid will look at the higher ones!

    Aided countries are usually extremely complex politically and socially and it is often a question of advocacy vs. relief/services. While politics is always on the table, as Jake rightly points out, the other side of the debate needs to be looked into too. Activist/reformist groups are sometimes loathe to publicly align with aid organizations (for various reasons), and in places where political and social instability are rife, polarization is intense as well. It’s impossible to predict where a backed group might eventually land. In practice, it then becomes a matter of “backing the right horse.”

    Can’t wait to read the book!