Is it time for the Aid Community to Explain Itself to Developing Countries?

Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace introduces his newly released report, tom carothersNavigating International Aid in Transitions:  A Guide for Recipients, written with Mark Freeman, Cale Salih, and Robert Templer

While interviewing the director of a women’s rights NGO in Zambia some years back, I asked her why she thought various foreign groups supporting her organization were present in her country. Her initial answer centered on the UK government, which she suspected of wanting to regain control of Zambia’s copper mines. Not wanting to touch that minefield (sorry), I mentioned her Nordic funders, noting that that they had less of a colonial legacy and, in my experience, a tradition of notable idealism. She smiled ruefully, shook her head, and then offered her own explanation:  “I have heard that the weather is very cold in their countries. I think they come here to enjoy the beautiful weather in Lusaka.”

This was from an individual with extensive direct contact with aid providers, in a country where donors had been present for decades. In countries experiencing a sudden aid rush after emerging from dictatorship or civil war, the aid community is often even less familiar to those on the receiving end. Sorting out the different kinds of organizations offering help, their motivations, and their methods—not to mention their underlying interests and longer-term objectives—can be a bewildering challenge.  This is true whether the recipient is a newly-minted minister with a waiting room crowded with aid officials, a civic activist pondering the pluses and minuses of seeking foreign help, or an ordinary citizen wondering what all these newly present foreigners are doing in his or her country.  And the impact of the frequent misunderstandings is hardly benign or transitory. Dozens of governments are actively demonizing aid providers these days, accusing them of all sorts of nefarious schemes, while taking steps to limit their efforts to work directly with civil society actors or anyone else outside their direct control.

How often and how seriously does the aid community try to explain itself? Not just one institution introducing itself to its intended local partners, but the community as a whole explaining its methods and goals to a wide range of people in a country where it is arriving to help?  Or in a country where aid is systematically being misrepresented and vilified?

Intriguing choice of cover image
Intriguing choice of cover image

Several colleagues (Mark Freeman, Cale Salih, and Robert Templer) and I have taken what we hope might be a modest step in this direction by writing a guide for recipients of international aid in transitional contexts. We focused on the areas of aid we know best—aid for democracy-building and peace-building—with the hope that what we put forward on those areas would largely read across to other parts of the aid enterprise.

It was a relatively straightforward idea, but proved less so in practice. Early on, a friend at DFID listened to our plan and exclaimed, “You could get sued!” Though we think that won’t happen, her intuition that trying to “explain” the aid community has many potential pitfalls was correct. A sample of some of the challenges with which we struggled:

  • Presenting enough information about what is truly an immense community of aid organizations and individuals without burying readers in numbing detail and producing a guide of backbreaking girth.
  • Identifying the interests that the many different types of aid organizations represent. How, for example, should a potential recipient try to assess the interests represented by a private aid organization that has multiple government funders, a multinational management team, and an independent board of directors made up primarily of diverse financial and political notables?
  • Finding the right balance between painful descriptions of ways the aid industry sometimes behaves badly and does harm, and heartening assurances that aid can in fact often be helpful and sometimes even invaluable.
  • Suggesting some genuinely useful ways that aid recipients can push providers to live up to their stated principles and intentions without indulging in unrealistic hopes about sudden improvements in aid coordination, transparency, partnership, and all the rest.

We finished the guide wondering whether and how the aid community can take on the challenge of explaining itself more regularly and thoroughly to those it tries to help, especially in countries where it arrives in a hurry without much prior history.  With many decades of aid already behind us, the guide comes terribly late in the game, but aid rushes in transitional countries do keep occurring (Myanmar and Ukraine a few years back, and perhaps Cuba soon?) with all the attendant misunderstandings.

We are strongly convinced of the need to think of these issues in reverse. Trying to solve all (or even most) of the problems on the supply side of international aid has repeatedly failed. Empowering recipients with better information about aid’s many peculiarities, and encouraging them to be more active drivers in their relationships with donors, may be a more promising avenue.

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8 Responses to “Is it time for the Aid Community to Explain Itself to Developing Countries?”
  1. Chris Roche

    Important stuff Tom and very timely. I have often thought not enough was made of – or learnt from – attempts to strengthen the ability of governments to hold donors to account in mid 2000s (for example by Gerry Helleiner and others see

    I think the idea of having independent advice and support from what some at the time called ‘marriage counselors for governments’ remains an interesting idea.

  2. How little transparency and accountability exist in our industry can be astonishing. Some good news recently at least in US’s adoption of the International Aid Transparency Initiative. There are many funding issues, assumptions and fears that keep us from returning to see the extent to which our aid ‘pans out’ (these are as rare as gold nuggets):
    Duncan, thanks for reminding us…

  3. Gareth Price-Jones

    An interesting start, look forward to reading it, though the title reeks somewhat of aid-speak – I can’t imagine any ministry official, let alone aid beneficiary/recipient/participant finding time to read this. But its a genuine problem. The best explanation I heard was from a Bangladeshi engineer. On a field trip to a nearly-completed Oxfam-led program, we’d discovered a series of outlandish rumours. Oxfam would come and collect peoples bodies after they’d died. if not that, there must be some kind of secret debt! As Oxfam is secular, affected people explained, they couldn’t be helping us in return for us converting to their religion like a certain other INGO, so what was the deal? Our engineer simply asked them what they would do if a thirsty person came to their door? ‘Give them a cup of water’ – ‘Right. Its the same thing. For these wealthy donors, a latrine and simple (but flood-resilient) house are as simple to provide as a glass of water is for you. They see a thirsty person they can help, so they do so.’ Not entirely a full explanation, but it made sense to them.

    • Thomas Carothers

      Gareth, Thanks for the illuminating account of the Bangladeshi engineer and the Oxfam program. I understand your instinct that people in aid-receiving societies won’t have time to read the guide. But at Carnegie we’ve been pleasantly surprised in the last five to seven years to see a rapid increase in readership of our publications–on a wide range of topics form development to hard security–by people in developing countries, to the point where several developing countries eclipse most major developed countries on our list of highest number of visits to the publication pages on our website. Also, the guide is not just a publication but one part of a multipart process that will include taking the ideas in it more directly to people in some key transitional countries through workshops and direct conversations.

  4. Does this guide challenge the centrality with which many (most) aid providers place themselves in the social change equation? If we don’t overcome the hierarchy-ness of funders/civil society relationships, then we don’t see how the larger, more formalized organizations must also change, i.e. having local leaders evaluate the funding agencies or weighing in on their strategies or campaigns, or building aid agencies’ staff’s capacity to begin to learn what the local NGOs know (recognized for their own, unique expertise). Without this analysis, we run the risk of focusing only on what the people “need” and what the funders “have.” There are concrete things we can do to address power inequities (See:, and it doesn’t involve burdening every day people with having to know about us outsiders.

    • Thomas Carothers

      Jennifer, Thanks for the question. The central philosophy animating the guide is that a rebalancing of traditional donor-recipient relations is necessary and that greater knowledge on the part of recipients about the aid industry can help them change some of the unhelpful dynamics that you highlight.

  5. Thanks for sharing this informative article on the relationship between aid donors and aid receiving countries. I strongly believe that your guide for aid recipients explaining all the important features of a aid donor will help them to understand all the factors that are associated with aid grants. There should be absolute transparency between the two parties.

  6. Geoff

    Great arrivle, I just wonder if the aid community can actually articulate its agenda to recipient communities given the number of agencies, agenda’s and donors all tied up in the game. How would that look in Myanmar? Clear as mud