Traditional Foreign Aid

Traditional Foreign Aid

Title: Traditional Foreign Aid

Writer: Sebastian Tansil


Aid usually comes in the form of Official Development Assistance (ODA) which is defined as “flows of financing administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of development countries as the main objective and which are concessional in character with a grant element of at least 25 percent.” (OECD 2003)

ODA has been criticized for a variety of reasons. Some of them include: the potential mal-intent of traditional donor countries who inscribe their foreign aid within a broader foreign policy agenda based  more on their national self-interest rather than on the genuine welfare of recipient countries, the risk of the aid being “captured” by corrupt bureaucracy instead of it actually going to the poorest, the “waste of aid” because of a lack of institutional capacity in distributing the money to the poor, and maybe sometimes the burdensome series of conditions attached to aid by Northern countries which are bureaucratically challenging alongside it being ideologically imposing to reflect more the neoliberal market-based political economies of Northern donors.

This “top-down” approach to foreign aid has been criticized for its lack of equal “partnership” between donors and recipient states, leading to a lack of effectiveness in policy coherence between the aid and non-aid policies of donor countries in actually bringing about long-term development. This stubborn power relationship between donor and recipient countries has made it difficult for developing countries to achieve genuine “country ownership” – the ability of recipient states to effectively take ownership over its own long-term development needs and processes (Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness 2005). The necessity of country ownership is important for truly effective aid and long-term development. This requires recipient states to have the needed capacity in its institutions and governance to manage the humanitarian, capital investing, development needs of its own country.

Unfortunately, the principle of country ownership is very hard to achieve in crisis zones where “fragile states” do not have the institutional or governance capacities to steer their own policies and implement/apply mechanisms of foreign aid onto their local populace. In crisis zones, foreign aid becomes difficult to manage by the recipient state and harder to manage in assuring it trickles down from state bureaucracy and into the most poor and marginalized individuals and communities of society.

The Fragile States Principles (2007) drafted by the DAC Fragile States Group gave a nuanced analysis on states with limited institutional capacity – evaluating the “deterioration of state-society relations, at the exclusion of constituencies such as women, the poor and ethnic minorities.” Northern donors in response have sought to assure more “effective” management of its own aid to recipient societies by “bypassing the state” altogether through non-governmental channels where arguably “compliant” NGOs faithfully execute the services and aid in a manner which reflects Northern interests. This bypassing of the recipient states arguably further exacerbates the capacity of states in crisis situations to build its own governance capacities.

Knowledge Sharing, Discourse Change and Empowering Social Change Leaders

Phronesis is “the practical wisdom born of an intimate familiarity with a practice that could help people act effectively in particular situations”. (Schram 2013, pg. 369) This technique “features a problem-driven approach that mixes methods to address issues of power involved in specific public problems people are struggling to address” (Schram 2013, pg. 360), and aims to identify tension points within social and political relations that admit of possibilities for change (Schram 2013, pg. 371). Phronesis seeks to directly meet the needs of communities and “prioritizes working alongside marginalized and ordinary people and communities to build knowledge, working from the assumption that “ordinary people, provided with tools and opportunities, are capable of critical reflection and analysis” (Maguire 2014, pg. 421).

Although the development community has a lot of expertise and wisdom on advancing social change, that knowledge often resides in silos, either locked in individual heads or buried within organizations. This limited access to learning, insights, evidence and best practices constrains what a lot of local actors can achieve–both individually and collectively as a community sector seeking to create impact and bring about change.

I’ve found while researching for CMIC that there is a large wealth of organizations which tackle this exact development need/area. A lot of grassroots knowledge sharing organizations have the objective of surfacing these ideas, experiences and practices, so that they can be equipped to tackle the real-world reality of social change and community development. As a grassroots organization, they have the unique ability in highlighting voices on various relevant issues facing all kinds of local leaders.  In other words, there is a substantial portion of independent grassroots knowledge-sharing organizations which seek to bring about best practices in community development and social change tailored to empower social change local actors in their particular context.

One such example is the India’s Development Review (IDR). The IDR is “India’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. [Their] mission is to advance knowledge on social impact in India by publishing ideas, opinion, analysis and lessons from real-world practice. [Their] job is to make things simple and relevant so [Indian community development leaders] can do more of what they do, better.” (

Their founding team is composed of four women who have a combined experience of more than 50 years in nonprofit, private sector, CSR, consulting and journalism. They bring to light narratives of social exclusion and marginalization in different aid programs, provide practical tips and share experiences on how various nonprofits and companies can partner with the government from the grassroots level to achieve sustainable development goals and long term social change.

Their articles and content have assisted many local Indian community leaders running nonprofits, CSR, and consulting firms in mobilizing local actors to participatory social change. Their content has also affected mainstream western academia as their articles are featured in The Economist, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Times of India, The Economic Times, Mint, the Guardian and Next Billion, among other publications.

Similarly, the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) “is a non-governmental African organizational advancing conscious and continuous learning about development processes and art of intervention. They do this through organizational interventions, training, accompanied learning and collaborative explorations. Out of active reflection on different experiences, and through writing and disseminating, they share insights and lessons gained, seeking to impact on wider development thinking and processes. They strive to bring to birth new consciousness, creativity and strength in those with whom they work (on the grassroots), thus facilitating a more collective development” (

With founding members with different professional experience and from different parts of Africa, the CDRA researches extensive policy analyses on sustainable development strategies alongside planning, monitoring and reporting mechanisms for various community development actors. It provides training material for change agents to be equipped with policy and reporting tools from the various articles and tutorials they provide. It wouldn’t be until 2007 when the Barefoot Guide launched an alliance among the major knowledge sharing grassroots development policy organization.

Barefoot guide, originally stemming from CDRA, would amalgamate the wider community of community development practitioners to bring about extremely accessible resources for social change actors. They publish Barefoot Guides through collaborative Writeshops focusing on different spheres of social change practice with the participation of over 240 practitioners from all continents. Each Barefoot Guide describes on the ground experiences, deep analyses and helpful frameworks, written in straightforward language and artistically illustrated with images and poetry. For them, “accessible practice description is key to enabling the full and joint participation of a wider variety of stakeholders, particularly to include leaders at local or community level in practice dialogue with government officials, donors and NGO practitioners. Academic texts, while helpful for some, often serve to exclude and undermine the participation of community stakeholders in their own processes of change” (

If we take a constructivist/de-constructivist lens, emphasis is placed on the expression of pervading ideas and norms which focus on aid practices as discourse and ways of exerting power. The aid industry continues to struggle with the question of how research influences policymaking, while it is equally possible that policy influences research, particularly when much of the development research is traditionally directly funded by the Northern aid industry itself.

“For many European countries the aid industry had its origins in the colonial period, and early development projects were set up by colonial administrations. Academic research informed the colonial administration and western anthropologists were the ones who educated administrations about local populations.” (Haan 2009, pg. 65)

Photo taken in Jan 2007, In Ramallah/Al-bireh, on the main street heading to Jerusalem/Qalandia Checkpoint of a poster on advertisement space, printed as an advertisement for the USAID.

Thus, it is interesting to see how research and articles from non-Western sources originating from grassroots offers a form of “resistance” to traditionally dominant Western conceptions of aid and effective development (who have also dominated the discourse and terminology of the aid regime). Knowledge sharing grassroots community development organizations have the potential of decolonizing knowledge practices and subverting the hierarchies of global power that are at work in how research is structured.

Scholars have emphasized the importance of developing and articulating new ontologies and epistemologies that better reflect non-western viewpoints. The global political economy of scholarly knowledge demands that work be produced in English for an audience in the Global North (Hanafi 2011), just as the global aid system demands that NGOs and groups working for change in the Global South spend a disproportionate amount of their time translating their work into English, and into frameworks most relevant to their Northern funders, in order to continue to exist.

Organizations like CDRA, Barefoot and IDR contribute to a growing resistant literature who seek to publish research and resources grounded in the experiences of conflict and displacement, supporting local community development actors with the grassroots connected work they are already doing. They provide new narratives and discourse of engagement that arguably “reflects the reality of the ground as barefoot as possible” ( This counter-narrative can change the way aid is structured and the way aid is perceived by DAC countries that have a narrow-minded view of how they want to administer ODA. This narrow-minded view suits the “West knows Best” dogma that has generated multiple criticisms from the development community and grassroots actors who are radically more connected with the needs of the recipient state and local community.

In other words, Foreign aid doesn’t simply need to look like the form of giving financial transfers but can also be knowledge and information sharing to local grassroots actors to do their own unique development work. This allows them to be locally rooted and internationally connected, providing them with the tools to address more “endogenous” issues of under-development. These tools will help community development actors be leaders. Leadership is approached not as a position, but as a practice, helping the local community accept responsibility for enabling others to achieve solutions under conditions of uncertainty. This sort of practice is a way of allowing more people to join in the work and to take part with their own creative ideas, identities and aesthetics.

A portion of traditional ODA could be used to support these endogenous locally rooted research knowledge-sharing initiatives and scholarship money could be re-directed from Western pre-colonial aid institutions to partnered universities in recipient states. This allows for a change in culture from the bottom-up regarding ownership, equipping local actors to take their own initiative in bringing about social change and advocating as well for their own long-term development needs. It is recognizable, however, that those Western research institutions in recipient states will continue to advocate for their own self-generated material. Higher education institutions and universities in DAC countries can counter this work by leveraging the work and research of grassroots communities, giving it credence and value. A bottom-up change in Western academia from Western-centric models of community development (which has exclusively focused for instance on North American impoverished communities) to the work of local community development actors in these crisis zones could change the culture in how aid is perceived and understood.

It is good to see that many news article agencies (The Economist, Globe and Mail, etc.) and universities like Harvard, University of Toronto and University of Ottawa have started the work of bringing about that perspective change. As community-based approaches become useful to how the international community responds during crises, the scholarly community is coming to realize that we lack the research to understand how these factors matter to organizing and mobilization processes. The North needs to have a clearer comprehensive understanding of how community mobilization can be a key element in bottom-up development which can work in tandem with top-down approaches of the recipient state to achieve overall country ownership.