What really works in development cooperation?

What really works in international development? We asked a new generation of global leaders that is shaping the way we approach foreign assistance. Photos by: IRRI; USAID; DfID

What really works in international development? The question has occupied the minds of world leaders and aid workers for decades – and that’s a good thing.

We asked a new generation of leaders in international development cooperation to weigh in. Here’s how some of the Devex International Development Leaders in London completed this sentence: “One thing that works in international development is…”


… the indomitable talent, energy and optimism of young people.

  • Eric Levine, CEO, Restless Development

… the true application of “21st century leadership” skills — those of innovation, collaboration and forward-looking leadership — to help redefine growth and build a more sustainable world.

  • Clare Melford, CEO, International Business Leaders Forum

… the ability to recruit people in the sector who have a genuine passion for what they do. Whether we have the answers is another matter!

  • Danny Sriskandarajah, director, Royal Commonwealth Society

… good leadership. A person with a clear vision, who can lead effectively and inspire people to achieve a shared goal, is invaluable – at local, national and global levels. I would like to pay tribute to all those working on the ground, in the frontline of development who daily seek to put these values into practice.

  • Rosemary Nuamah, senior policy officer, The Elders

… grassroots women’s organizing and leadership. All over the developing world, there are dedicated, inspirational women working to improve their communities and challenge the attitudes that hold women back, from the mother-teacher associations in Ghana that are encouraging more families to send their girls to school, to the market ladies in Liberia who helped end the civil war. I believe we need to change the way the aid industry views women. Instead of seeing them as passive recipients of our help, we need to recognize women as agents of change, and support them to be in the driving seat of development.

  • Kathy Peach, former head of external affairs, VSO

Economic growth and private sector engagement

… economic growth, when well-managed and evenly distributed.

  • Jo Cox, on maternity leave (past director, Maternal Mortality Campaign, and head of policy and advocacy, Oxfam GB)

… when private sector development is regarded as one of the main pillars for lifting people out of poverty.

  • Charlotte Wolff, head of corporate responsibility, ArcelorMittal

… partnership-based, business-oriented solutions to poverty reduction, such as social enterprises with support from visionary private companies.

  • Matt Mitro, founder and board chairman of Indego Africa

Country ownership

… real country ownership. Why should any country follow a development agenda imposed from outside? For change to be sustainable it has to come from within. We know this, but the development community isn’t as good as it could be at making country ownership more than a watchword.

  • Kate Gross, co-founder and CEO, Africa Governance Initiative

… ownership: The best ideas and models will fall apart if they aren’t fully owned by the people they are intended to help.

  • Truman Packard, lead economist, World Bank Group

… a willingness to learn from households and communities in low-resourced settings how to accomplish much, despite having very little.

  • Peter Williams, executive director, Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments (ARCHIVE)

… when donors lend support to development programs which have been designed by government with genuine civil society input.

  • Matthew Smith, principal advisor in the international development services practice, KPMG

… innovation at the grass-roots level — nobody can address the needs of the developing world better than local people with the right support and encouragement.

  • Joel Roxburgh, head of sustainability, Vodafone

New expectations and partnerships

Controversially, I’d say that African government is working. It is notable that since the West stopped intervening in proxy wars in Africa and elsewhere, development, governance and growth are all taking off. This points to a broader lesson — that an aid system that works needs to be empowering, and that when we mix it in with other foreign policy objectives it really doesn’t work. Aid needs to be driven by a deep understanding of what is actually going on in the places we are working and spending money. The ultimate aim of aid should of course be to ensure that it is no longer needed, to build the system and institutions of governance and accountability in countries that mean people can grow out of aid dependence. Too often the focus of these sort of debates is on corruption or poor governance at recipient country level, while donors could do a huge amount more to improve the way they give aid and therefore help poor countries to really help themselves. Aid transparency won’t make any of that happen, but it’s very hard to see how it can happen without it. Aid transparency has to be the place to start.

  • Karin Christiansen, outgoing managing director, Publish What You Fund

… budget monitoring. It’s often hard to know whether the advocacy and policy development that I do at international level is having much of an impact or not — but having watched my wife work with southern civil society organizations to help build their capacity to ask tough questions about whether they receive government spending that they’ve been promised, I’m convinced that this is one driver of on-the-ground political transformation that really delivers.

  • Alex Evans, nonresident fellow (and head of program, resource scarcity, climate change and multilateralism), NYU Center on International Cooperation

… aid. It’s by no means the whole solution, of course, but I have seen on countless occasions the massive difference it can make to people’s lives when governments and donors get it right. The commitment of the current and previous U.K. governments to deliver 0.7 percent of income as aid by 2015 is to be applauded, as is the compassion of the British public, which time and again gives with overwhelming generosity in response to emergency appeals.

  • Rob Bailey, senior research fellow on energy, environment and resource governance, Royal Institute of International Affairs

… realizing there is no “one thing that works in international development.” It’s a process, not a toolkit or a blueprint. IFIs and rich countries respecting the right of poorer countries to have control over their own policies and priorities would be a good start.

  • Jesse Griffiths, coordinator, The Bretton Woods Project

What do you think is one thing that really works in international development? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

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About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.