Jonathan Glennie: What’s really needed to boost aid effectiveness

Jonathan Glennie, Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute. Photo by: personal collection

Jonathan Glennie isn’t afraid to speak his mind on development aid – so long as he has the evidence to back up his arguments.

The Overseas Development Institute research fellow is the author of the much-talked-about “The Trouble with Aid,” a book that challenged conventional philosophy on development assistance to Africa. At the upcoming 4th High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, his work may just steal the spotlight: He oversaw the writing of 83 country chapters for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Paris agenda monitoring survey; findings will be revealed at that summit.

Glennie, who blogs for The Guardian’s global development website, is one of today’s most influential development leaders under 40 in London. He and his peers have inspired change that transcends borders.

Devex is recognizing 40 of these young London-based trailblazers in international development. They are social entrepreneurs, government leaders, development consultants, business innovators, advocates, development researchers, nonprofit executives, philanthropists and investors.

We asked Glennie what’s really needed to improve aid effectiveness, and what it take to change development business. Here’s what he said:

You’re currently reviewing the progress of 83 countries covered by the OECD Paris Agenda Monitoring Survey. What are the three main things aid organizations can do today to deliver assistance more effectively?

Most important is to recognise that the so-called “aid effectiveness” agenda is not necessarily related to change on the ground for poor people. Which is not to say that it isn’t important. But we have to get politics back into a predominantly technical agenda if we are going to ensure equitable and sustainable change.

Second, accountability is the be-all and end-all. Not only between governments, but from government to citizen. We have seen too many examples of apparent progress, particularly when measured in purely economic terms, which is anything but for the people who pay the cost for a one-sided view of “development”.

And third, recognise that aid is only a small part of what the international community needs to do to defend the rights of the marginalised. It is great that so many groups are now looking “beyond aid” – the future of development will be about correctly discerning new threats and responding imaginatively and powerfully. Aid agencies need to become Solidarity agencies.

How do you remain influential in a sector you’ve criticized repeatedly for many of its common practices?

I have found that people don’t mind criticism as long as it is fair. Most people are in this work for the right reasons, and they want to improve the impact they are having. Senior people in the OECD, World Bank, NGOs, developing country governments have said to me, “We can’t say what you are saying, but keep it up”. Also, it is important to be generous as well as critical, recognising that the job we are engaged in is really hard to get right.

Ultimately you are influential if people think you are on the right lines. For instance, when I published my book (“The Trouble with Aid”) a couple of years ago, friends said to me (only half-joking) that I could say goodbye to a policy job in the sector. But what seemed controversial then is almost the conventional wisdom now – that taught me to stick to my guns and say what needs saying, as long as you have evidence to back it up. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I don’t shy away from asking the hard questions.

As Christian Aid’s country manager in Colombia, were you able to implement some of your suggestions on improving foreign assistance?

Christian Aid already had a great programme in Colombia, with intelligent staff and partners who were close to marginalised communities. I just had to make sure that amid the clamour for results and evaluations (which I totally support if done sensibly) we didn’t lose sight of the political nature of our work. It is not just about numbers of beneficiaries, it is about empowerment of communities, so that they can respond to an unknown future.

Our partners said to us, “Of course your money is useful, but more important is your solidarity, your international network, and your experience”. Foreigners have a huge role to play in supporting the development of poor communities, but only when we enter the equation humbly, willing to learn as well as confident of what we have to share. I visited Colombia again recently and the programme is still going strong, defending poor communities against attempts to grab their land.

Read more about the Devex 40 Under 40 International Development Leaders in London.

About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.