Adapting development: improving services to the poor

Leni Wild, David Booth, Clare Cummings, Marta Foresti, Joseph Wales


This report argues that if we are to avoid reproducing the pattern of uneven progress that has characterised the MDG campaign, there must be more explicit recognition of the political conditions that sometimes enable, but so often obstruct, development progress. In this context, domestic reformers and their international partners must pursue innovative and politically smart ways to tackle the most intractable problems.

Key findings:

  • The global discussion around the post-2015 agenda has recognised the need to adjust to a changed and changing global context. However, there are key areas where the SDG discussion is not inviting different commitments, but is still focused on more of the same. A key danger is that discussions of what it will take to achieve the new goals will, once again, centre on financing gaps. During the pursuit of the MDGs, this focus reinforced the belief that inadequacies in provision could be dealt with easily enough if there was enough new funding on the table. Today, with higher rates of economic growth in many parts of the developing world, there is a new temptation to assume that growth, by itself, will take care of the problem.
  • There is also a growing recognition that it is the function as well as the form of institutions that matters for translating resources into results. But, on international platforms, there is a lack of realism about the type of change processes and the institutional adjustments that have been linked to development breakthroughs in recent times and in past history. This fuels illusions about how easy it is going to be, in a typical poor country, to tackle gaps and inequities. The evidence base for doing things differently needs to become stronger, and more needs to be said and debated about the scope for taking these different approaches to scale.
  • Changes in domestic politics and policy processes are by far the most important drivers of development outcomes and improvements in service delivery. Donors can help reform processes to adopt a problem-driven and adaptive approach, but if they are to be effective they must act as facilitators and brokers of locally led processes of change, not as managers.


  • Aid should do more to support initiatives that are problem-driven, adaptive and locally led. These initiatives need financial and other support that is fit for that purpose. This means not only tracking MDG-type development outcomes but also monitoring and building up an understanding of the intermediate changes in process that are most effective in improving those outcomes. Measures of how ‘adaptive’ or ‘locally led’ aid programmes are would be a good start.
  • There are many areas where spending that benefits poor countries could be increased, but the current debate about targets for aid spending is too focused on the ability of the donor country to pay, rather than whether those funds are used effectively. Looking at how aid works is more important than how much to spend.
  • According to recent evidence, ordinary citizens in donor countries are often irritated by simple ‘heart strings’ appeals. Many would welcome a frank discussion on how development happens, why it is often difficult and how aid can best support development that is both genuine and lasting. Efforts to support such a debate should be scaled up.


Wild, L. et al. (2015). Adapting development: improving services to the poor. London: ODI.