Policy Brief
Building evidence around the effectiveness principles

Findings from an international research conference

This policy brief draws on the studies presented at the International Research Conference on the Effectiveness of Development Cooperation on 17–18 November 2022, in Brussels, Belgium and jointly organized by UNU-WIDER and the European Commission (DG INTPA) under its capacity as the leading entity of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC) Action Area 1.1 on ‘Demonstrating the impact of effectiveness’. 

The effectiveness principles remain an important reference point for development practice

Research on diverse development cooperation activities offers solid evidence that country ownership, focus on results, inclusive partnerships, and transparency and mutual accountability are conducive to better outcomes  

However, research to date does not demonstrate conclusively a strong causal linkage between measures of adherence to the principles and better development outcomes at a global level 

Obstacles and contextual factors such as fragile institutions and chronic insecurity seem to be what is most important to shortcomings in putting the principles into practice 

The effectiveness principles —country ownership, focus on results, inclusive partnerships, and transparency and mutual accountability— represent a globally agreed framework for maximizing the impact of aid on economic development. The Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC) —a multi-stakeholder platform bringing together governments, bilateral and multilateral organizations, and representatives from civil society, the private sector, parliaments, local governments, and trade unions— supports the implementation of the principles, promotes mutual accountability, and works to sustain political momentum for more effective cooperation and partnerships. 

On 17–18 November 2022, UNU-WIDER, together with the European Commission (DG INTPA) under its capacity leading the work of the GPEDC Action Area 1.1 on ‘Demonstrating the impact of effectiveness’, organized the International Research Conference on the Effectiveness of Development Cooperation in Brussels, Belgium, with the aim of furthering the evidence on development effectiveness. Over 70 papers were presented at the conference, selected through an international call for papers from a pool of over 250 submissions. They provide a rich resource of evidence and analysis on development cooperation around the world.

The effectiveness agenda in 2022

Since the Fourth High-level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, in 2011, some concerns about the effectiveness agenda and waning momentum have been raised.1 Nevertheless, the effectiveness principles have been an important reference point for development practice.  

In one study, which draws on data from two surveys, the authors find clear agreement by officials from development agencies and partner countries that the principles remain relevant today.2 There is some evidence, too, of progress towards more effective development cooperation, such as improved development planning by partner countries.3 

Furthermore, the effectiveness agenda has itself increased awareness about the challenges to effective development cooperation and generated a flourishing debate on how to overcome these challenges. 

Photo: Kaung Myat Min / Unsplash
Photo: Kaung Myat Min / Unsplash
From more effective development cooperation to better development outcomes

One of the ways in which GPEDC has sought to generate enthusiasm for the agenda has been to strengthen the evidence base around the ‘why’ case for effectiveness. Alongside other literature, studies presented in the conference provide some evidence that, across diverse domains, activities embodying the principles are linked to better development outcomes.  

For instance, a study of development cooperation in the health sector in Malawi suggests that strengthening accountability mechanisms and investing in interventions against medicine theft improves effectiveness.4 Indeed, some of our own previous work highlights how local ownership is an important contributing factor in successful aid projects.5  

The case for the effectiveness principles also can be seen in their reflection of shared global commitments around self-governance and building public institutions that are inclusive, effective, transparent, and locally accountable. For instance, the norm of inclusivity, despite being difficult to operationalize in certain contexts, embodies many of the key issues critical to successful contemporary peacebuilding, such as empowering the disempowered, renewing the social contract, and improving public institutions.6 

Yet, the evidence to date does not show a strong causal link between adherence to the principles and better development outcomes at a global level. In particular, our study considers currently available GPEDC monitoring data against diverse social, economic, and institutional development outcomes and finds no statistically clear relationship between adherence to principles and better development outcomes.7 

One of the main reasons for this lack of empirical findings may be issues with the GPEDC’s currently available effectiveness indicators themselves, including their validity and reliability. These indicators offer a useful working framework for comparative consideration of the implementation of the principles, but can be improved with a more rigorous data generation process and a better concept-measurement fit. GPEDC’s monitoring reform is important in this regard. 

Identifying and overcoming challenges to implementation  

That said, it is not clear that strengthening the ‘business case’ for the effectiveness principles would help much to strengthen adherence to them. Research suggests that lack of adherence may have more to do with contextual obstacles to implementation and lack of clarity about how to operationalize the principles.

Multiple studies illustrate how a country’s political system and institutional capacity can affect the actual implementation of the effectiveness principles. For example, a study on development cooperation in Bangladesh, explores how the effectiveness principles were not implemented well because of contextual factors such as a poorly coordinated, inefficient, and politicized public administration.8

Build the evidence base around how the effectiveness principles have been successfully operationalized across diverse contexts. What specifically has worked, and how? What has not worked? How scalable and transferable are these findings across contexts? 

Focus on a better understanding of the case-by-case constraints and contextual influences on effective development cooperation, rather than on building the ‘why’ case for the principles.

Currently available GPEDC monitoring indicators can be improved through a more rigorous data generation process and a better concept-measurement fit. Consideration of what can be learned from these indicators is relevant to ongoing discussion of the GPEDC’s new monitoring methodology. 

Studies also point to other factors that might improve effectiveness. These include, for instance, increased donor coordination,9 and integrating the activities and goals of international humanitarian aid with those of international development cooperation.10 One study argues that aid fungibility —the idea that aid allows recipient governments to alter their planned expenditures in such a way that the incoming aid is not spent in the allocated sector/region but may be diverted elsewhere— conventionally assumed to reduce aid effectiveness, may actually increase it by contributing to greater overall welfare.11

  1. Gulrajani, Nilima. ‘Making Sense of Multiple Narratives for Global Development in an Age of Polycrisis: Reflections on Implications for the Global Effectiveness Agenda.’ Forthcoming WIDER Working Paper. 

  1. Calleja, Rachael and Beata Cichocka (2022). Good for now but not forever: officials’ perspectives on the relevance of the effectiveness agenda and the need for change. WIDER Working Paper. 

  1. OECD/UNDP (2019), Making Development Co-operation More Effective: 2019 Progress Report, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/26f2638f-en

  1. Ryan Jablonskia, Brigitte Seim, Mariana Carvalho Barbosa, and Clark Gibson. 'Using Remote Tracking to Identify Medicine Theft in Malawi'. Draft 10 September 2022. Forthcoming.  

  1. Gisselquist, R.M. (2015). Third World Quarterly: Special issue on Aid to Support Fragile States: The Challenge of Chronic Weakness, 36 (7).  

  1. Donais, Timothy and Alistair Edgar. Confronting the Inclusivity Paradox in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States. Forthcoming WIDER Working Paper. 

  1. Rachel M. Gisselquist, Patricia Justino, and Andrea Vaccaro. 'Indicators of Aid Effectiveness: Empirical Linkages between Principles and Outcomes'. Forthcoming WIDER Working Paper. 

  1. Molenaers, Nadia and Mohammad Mizanur Rahman. The Aid Effectiveness Principles Implementation Gap: Insights from the Bangladesh Case. Forthcoming WIDER Working Paper. 

  1. Gulnaz Isabekova. The (Un)intended Effects of Harmonization among Development Organizations. Forthcoming 

  1. Leiderer, Stefan and Helge Roxin. Effectiveness of German Development Cooperation in dealing with conflict-induced migration crises. Forthcoming WIDER Working Paper. 

  1. Rana, Zunera and Dirk-Jan Koch. Can Fungibility of Development Aid Lead to More Effective Achievement of the SDGs? An Analysis of the Aggregate Welfare Effect of Aid Fungibility. Forthcoming WIDER Working Paper.