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Zambia: TC Reform on the Rocks?

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24 March 2010

Nils Boesen PortraitMaking technical cooperation more effective cannot be separated from making all Commission support effective and this requires profound changes in how EuropeAid operates, writes Nils Boesen after an intense and productive learning event about technical cooperation in Lusaka, Zambia.

In early March, I spent five days in Lusaka listening to country partners and donors discussing how to make technical cooperation (TC) more effective in sectors including, agriculture, livestock, statistics, civil aviation, water and aid effectiveness.

European Union delegation staff participated enthusiastically, all positively engaged in seeking to apply the principles of the TC reform in the sectors they work in. And there are very encouraging examples of support that try to adapt the spirit and letter of the TC reform, where country partners are prepared to take the lead. So Zambia should, over the next few years, produce some good test cases that could show us if TC reform has got it right.

But the week also showed that in some sectors, the dialogue between donors and country partners is really weak, and a familiar ‘aid dependency syndrome’ is still alive. A high ranking official explicitly stated that he wanted to know what the donors expected from the government. While donors, of course, say that they are waiting to hear what the partners want from them!

So there is clearly an issue of aligning expectations and having a frank and real dialogue about them. And it’s not a TC-specific issue. This is a central theme that concerns the broader aid relationship.

I have been closely involved with the Commission’s TC reform - and this is the elephant in the reform room that can no longer be ignored.

Donor machineries, including the EC’s, are built around expectations about and incentives to spend money and achieve results in the very short term (three years is the time limit after signature for spending on an EC action). In contrast, the heart beat of development processes – and sustainable capacity development - spans several decades. It’s clear that there is a fundamental mismatch, here. A mismatch that I believe is utterly destructive for the relations between country partners and donors.

Let me offer an example. In Lusaka, we were sitting in a very informal small circle. There were no papers, no tables - only people, chatting. Most in the group agreed that the existing partner-government dialogue is not good enough. But then a senior director from a government ministry leaned forward and remarked that the fact that he was even participating in such a discussion, was remarkable. Only 20 years ago, the government was highly suspicious of donors. The colonial times remained a not-too distant memory and Zambia was, in many respects, a closed society. For him, positive change was evident. But he was taking a 20-year view, not making a three-year assessment.

If donors want to align themselves with a partner country’s heart-beat, rather than accommodate their own impatient and stressful hypertension, then they need to recognise that their machinery needs a fundamental overhaul.

To do this, I suggest they look at four issues:

Remove the disbursement pressure. I have worked with donors where it was in reality forbidden to discuss this – and most senior donor staff continue to pretend that the disbursement pressure is manageable. Yet I have never, over more than 20 years working of intensively with donors, met any field staff who did not complain about the disbursement pressure. It is there, it is real, and it is destructive. Spending big sums of money faster than it can be absorbed effectively can be outright harmful. Budget support modalities are not exempt from this curse – they just make it easier to spend the cash.

Adapt business processes to country cycles. The TC reform argues for a mental shift in how we work. Donors have to focus on the partners’ programmes and help the partners in getting their programmes right. Then, they have to define their support to these programmes and not, (as implied in some donor-speak) see the partner as a ‘counterpart’ to the donor project. But this mental shift is hardly compatible with compressed identification and formulation procedures which, at fixed calendar times every year, have to produce identification and action fiches according to a Brussels-convenient calendar. The standard operating procedure of calling in consultants for three weeks to ‘do’ the identification and formulation is yet another mismatch: they do, nearly by default, end up being driven by the donor’s priorities and demands, not by the country partner’s.

Recognise that field staff are doing development work, not (supposedly less worthwhile) administrative work. If staff have no time to get out of the office and engage in informal dialogue and networking, they cannot add the needed value to the money transfers. As said in Lusaka, we are in the relations-business – and that takes time.

Spend small when opportunities are limited. Adapting to the heart beat of those we seek to assist implies sometimes spending very small catalytic money (and a lot of staff time). There must be room for that.

These four themes are not particular to TC support. But if donors want to spend more rapidly than their partners are willing and able utilise those funds – then we will continue to send in the consultants and send out ownership, sustainability and capacity development. And it would be unfair to blame TC for that!

Donors can rightly wish to speed up things here and there. Why else are they there? But aligning better to the rhythm of our partners is the starting point for doing that – and that requires more than TC reform.

Nils Boesen assisted in drafting of the EC’s Guidelines on Making Technical Cooperation More Effective and is presently coordinating the support in this area from the Aid Delivery Methods project to the Commission.


DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.


Based on my 25 years of experience, I totally agree with Nils Boesen's insight. Especially his points about pressure to spend and about facilitation by country staff and their relationships on the ground. In that context, I would also like to add the importance of staff pro-poor committment and passion. the personal dimensions of professional practice are always important. This needs to be recognised.


Dr Mansoor Ali

Practical Action, UK


being a development consultant since 1996 I fully agree to your statements but want to add something to it.
You say "Recognise that field staff are doing development work, not (supposedly less worthwhile) administrative work." AndI fully agree.

But I also have a question to it. When I work on a project I have to write a lot of regular reports. My colleagues and I have often asked ourselves the question "Who reads all this large amount of reports and what is the impact of these reports to new projects?"

Often our answer was "Nobody reads, and nobody takes care for the results that we gather in our reports." I don't want to be misunderstood, I fully agree there must be a regular evaluation of projects. It is the tax payers money that we spend.

But than on the other hand I want to start my project using all the experience that has been gathered during certain projects in a beneficiary country. How can I do this in order either not to repeat something that had been done already long ago, or how can I avoid pitfalls from other projects that had been acting in the same sphere?

If I want to read project reports from ancient projects I am sometimes glad to get these reports in the local EC Delegations - in Tashkent for example, excellent. But I have seen already Delegations that either don't open their libraries and make a big fuzz from it (argument: copyright is with the EC) or have even thrown those reports away (no, I will not tell where, but it happened to my surprise).

I think this is only a small part in TC reform, but we shouldn't forget about it. What do you think?

Thank you for your comment!

I think that one of our problems is that we produce reports more for accountability purposes than for learning purposes. And we - the TC, or the donor staff - tend to accumulate the learning, rather than the partners. Again reflecting that in far too many cases, it is "our" projects.
Real learning requires more than reports - and sometimes very different reports, more honest reports. It requires dialogue, and time. And, again, that is development work, not administration.

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