Southern perspectives on technical cooperation

Technical assistance and technical cooperation (hereafter referred to as TC) are forms of foreign aid, where expertise is provided to developing countries in the form of personnel, training, research, and associated costs. Typically, it is associated with the placing of consultants in positions where they can advise and support counterparts in developing countries.

The literature on TC is a small subset of the aid effectiveness discourse. Over the last 10 years academics and experts have broadly been critical of TC, with repeated claims that it is costly, largely ineffective and donor-driven. Southern contributions to this literature are very limited, and information on Southern perspectives tend to be buried deep within broader reports. During the course of this review, no single resource was found that specifically focused on presenting Southern perspectives on TC. This paper aims to fill that gap.

The analysis draws on a wide range of papers and case studies from all over the world and aims to synthesise the articulation of Southern perspectives. Whilst there are obviously diverging views and an extremely broad range of concerns, several themes consistently emerge across the literature, regardless of geographical continent or level of aid dependency, listed below:

Judging the impact on capacity building

There is a broad consensus amongst the Southern literature that capacity building is the most important aim of TC and that all TC should be linked to capacity building. There is however less consensus over whether TC has achieved that aim. Most authors seem to think that, with a few notable exceptions, TC has not generally achieved that aim.

Preference for National or South/South TC

By far the most oft cited complaint against TC is the use of international consultants above national or regional counterparts. There are repeated expressions of preference for national or South/South TC, even to the point of respondents saying they would rather a reduction in TC than have Western consultants.

Improve TC provision

Another key complaint in the literature is against TC „bundling? where TC comes as part of a package of foreign aid. This is in-keeping with the broader Southern literature on aid effectiveness where the bundling of all aid and the attachment of various conditionalities is heavily criticised.

TC Pooling

A mixed picture emerges over the question of TC pooling arrangements where donors „pool? their resources and governments therefore only have to deal with one mechanism for TC, rather than multiple donors with differing agendas and processes. Amongst recipient governments pooling is sometimes resisted, sometimes disliked and sometimes welcomed.

Government leadership of TC

There is a clear desire for governments to be able to take a lead in all aspects of TC initiatives. The general perception across the literature then, is that demand-driven TC largely does not exist and that government leadership of TC is theoretical rather than practical. Donors are seen to strongly „guide? the process, even if they do not explicitly lead on it.

Alignment with government processes

A further frequently mentioned aspiration, which links with the paragraph above, is the desire for TC to be aligned with government priorities and processes. The need for alignment is obviously a well-documented issue in both the Northern as well as the Southern literature on aid effectiveness.


There is a strong desire for TC consultants to be accountable primarily to government rather than to donors. Authors argue that the threefold nature of the TC relationship (i.e. client / donor / provider) confuses accountability systems and perceptions and leads to consultants showing greater accountability to donors rather than to the ministry in which they are working. This impacts on ownership and leads to friction and confusion.

TC is a ‘free good’

Some resources mention that there is a widespread perception amongst Southern nationals and government officials that TC is a „free good? – i.e. it has no effect on the government budget as it is funded by donors.

Northern dominance of development knowledge

Another concern is the fundamental principle that TC is based on an inherent assumption that Western knowledge is somehow paramount and superior to Southern, regional or indigenous knowledge. TC reinforces the idea that knowledge is exclusive, development is a straight-forward, non-collaborative discourse and that there is only one meaning of and route to „developed? status.

Key policy recommendations

Strengthening ownership is a key issue that is currently dominating the aid effectiveness policy agenda. Researching, listening to and profiling the views of Southern nationals and governments are clearly actions that need to take place within donor policy circles for ownership to be enhanced and developed. It is ludicrous to talk of „ownership? when Southern perspectives are currently so overlooked and disregarded.

  • Donors should prioritise using national or regional consultants wherever such local resources are available. Donors should develop policies in line with this guidance and should conduct political economy analysis of their own institutions to further understand the attitudes and incentives that lead to a bias towards using international consultants for TC work.
  • TC aid should be unbundled from other types of aid, and be accounted for and presented to country governments in a transparent format.
  • In situations where donors have to use international consultants, they should prioritise cultural awareness, collaborative approaches to working and strong communication and interpersonal skills alongside technical skills and qualifications. Organisations supplying TC international consultants should be made aware that these skills are highly valued and they should adjust the personal development plans of their staff accordingly.
  • TC consultants should be required to undertake regular training in cultural sensitivity and capacity building techniques and approaches.
  • Donors must begin to understand that TC reform is deeply linked with the need for civil service pay reform. Without reliable, adequate pay, civil services in Southern countries will always be lacking in capacity and there will always be a reliance on TC for „gap-filling? rather than for more developmental capacity building. Donors need to fund more research on pay reform and the links with TC reform.
  • There needs to be a development of forums in which Southern perspectives on TC and other aid modalities can ongoingly be heard.
  • Country governments should follow the example of Cambodia in developing public policy papers detailing how they want TC to be conducted in their country. They should be willing to turn down TC that does not conform to these guidelines.

Suggested citation

Scott, Z. (2009). Southern Perspectives on Technical Cooperation. Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham