Working Paper


Development Aid: What Can Go Wrong and Why?


Image of Susan Watkins

Susan Watkins

Intellectual Leadership Team

University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)

Brokers are crucial linchpins in development aid: they are tasked with connecting the deep-pocket institutional donors with those in poor countries whose lives the donors dream of transforming. Low-level brokers are particularly important, since they implement programs and projects on the ground, and thus have an outsize influence on whether a donor goal is achieved - or not.

Much of the development community’s talk of transformation is at a high level of abstraction: How can we do development differently? How do we choose the most promising theory of change? What do agencies need to get serious on changing social norms? and What about Problem-driven Iterative Adaption? These questions are formulated and discussed in the corridors of power of the vast international organizations, thousands of miles from the beneficiaries they hope to help. In the end, however, the principals will have to depend on their agents: brokers, guides, translators, fixers, or go-betweens. Here, I use the term brokers to refer to those who implement donor projects on the ground.

This paper provides a worm’s eye view of brokers along the aid chain in Malawi between 1998 and 2017. I take a bottom-up view of the development aid chain that starts with donors at the top and citizens at the bottom. In the simple motels in rural Malawi where I stayed, along with various colleagues and students, we observed and talked with NGO brokers and, less frequently, government brokers (civil servants). I also worked as a consultant evaluating NGO interventions in rural Malawi. From these experiences, I learned what can go wrong when the organizations that dream of helping the poor attempt to turn donor dreams into reality. Understanding what, and why, things go wrong requires getting to know brokers along the aid chain: What are their aspirations? Their insecurities? Their familial obligations?

In Section 1, I describe the local understandings and practices of education in Malawi. In Section 2, I introduce the various layers of brokers along the development aid chain who would implement educational reforms; in Section 3, I provide examples of what can go wrong when brokersimplement donor projects; in Section 4 I comment on the implications of this paper for attaining the RISE goal of improving the quality of education for all.


Watkins, S. 2017. Development Aid: What Can Go Wrong and Why?. RISE Working Paper Series. 17/014.