Unblocking Results: Using Aid to Address Governance Constraints in Public Service Delivery

Heidi Tavakoli, Rebecca Simson, Helen Tilley with David Booth


What can be learned from aid packages that appear to have successfully engaged with governance constraints in public service delivery? This ODI report draws on four case studies from Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Uganda. The findings suggest that external actors can play a beneficial role in supporting government efforts to address governance constraints, if an appropriate approach is adopted. This includes: a) strengthening government prioritisation in addressing implementation gaps; and b) brokering arrangements to promote collective action and local problem solving. It also includes facilitating the realisation of six enabling factors: 1) identifying and seizing windows of opportunity; 2) focusing on reforms with tangible political pay-offs; 3) building on what exists to implement legal mandates; 4) moving beyond reliance on policy dialogue; 5) facilitating problem solving and local collective action by bearing the transaction costs; and 6) adaptation through learning.

The study looks at four aid programmes in lower-income countries that appear to have been particularly effective at addressing governance constraints:

  • a rural water programme in Tanzania
  • a pay and attendance monitoring programme in Sierra Leone
  • a project supporting the Strategy and Policy Unit in the President’s Office in Sierra Leone
  • a local government programme in Uganda.

The study considers not only what aid-funded activities were financed, but also how those activities were identified and implemented. It examines how these programmes interacted with common governance constraints and what activities and enabling factors appear to have contributed to effective engagement. It draws on an ODI classification of three common governance constraints:

  • the degree to which sector policies and institutional arrangements are coherent
  • the strength of top-down performance disciplines and bottom-up accountability mechanisms
  • whether there is scope for local problem solving and collective action.

The case studies suggest that certain aid-funded activities have engaged successfully with the governance constraints, although the effects may have been modest and incremental. This is most notably achieved by supporting government prioritisation efforts with particular focus on addressing implementation gaps, as well brokering arrangements to promote collective action and local problem solving. Six enabling factors appear to have been particularly important for success:

  • Responding to windows of opportunity for reform, be it a political transition or crisis, provides a stronger basis for reform than pure development needs
  • Focusing on reforms with tangible political payoffs increases the likelihood of strong government ownership
  • By building on what’s there, aid can support the implementation of existing mandates rather than getting trapped in a cycle of perfecting policy and legal frameworks
  • Moving beyond policy advice by supporting local problem-solving through coaching and mentoring can strengthen government implementation
  • By acting as facilitators external partners can bear the transaction cost of bringing actors together to solve problems
  • By being adaptive and responding to lessons learnt external partners can increase their effectiveness.

These findings suggest that external agents may be most valuable when, acting more as a technical facilitator than as a policy advisor, they bring domestic and donor stakeholders together behind a common agenda to facilitate a sufficient momentum for change. Further implications include the following:

  • Donors and implementing agencies should focus on bridging the gap between policy and practice. Supporting compliance with existing frameworks (in a way that encourages incremental improvement) is more effective than trying to perfect the framework itself.
  • As the concept of problem-driven iterative adaption (PDIA) advanced by Andrews, Pritchett and Woolock (2012) suggests, developmental change is really achievable only when space is given to country actors to tackle problems in an iterative and flexible way. This study’s findings go further to suggest donors and implementing agencies are best suited to help facilitate PDIA when they themselves emulate these characteristics.
  • The findings challenge but do not displace some standard propositions in the aid effectiveness literature. They do not contradict the idea that financial aid to public service delivery objectives is often best delivered through budget support-style modalities. They do suggest that other ways of using aid may provide essential complements to standard financial assistance modalities, as they specifically target constraints to delivery while at the same time strengthening government functions.


Tavakoli, H., Simson, R., and Tilley, H. with D. Booth (2013). Unblocking results: using aid to address governance constraints in public service delivery. Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure. London: ODI