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Gdn Essay

Making Details Matter: How to Reform Aid Agencies to Generate Contextual Knowledge

Winning Essay of the 2014 GDN Essay Competition on "The Future of Development Assistance," in partnership with the Gates Foundation.

16 PagesPosted: 13 Jun 2016  

Yuen Yuen Ang

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Department of Political Science

Date Written: 2014


My essay considers a central problem of reinventing foreign aid in the twenty-first century: how to reform aid agencies to enable a “best-fit” approach to development assistance. For the past decades, the aid community has tried to transplant best practices from the developed world to the developing world. Increasingly, however, it is recognized that copying best practices does not work and may even backfire; rather, aid programs work best when they are tailored to local contexts. Yet while the idea of a best-fit approach is widely embraced in principle, actualizing it is easier said than done. For meaningful changes to take root in practice, we must first identify the obstacles to localizing development assistance and suggest ways to address these problems.

To this end, I propose a three-pronged strategy to promote the generation of contextual knowledge among aid professionals, a necessary condition for crafting solutions that can fit various local contexts, namely: (1) build a bank of knowledge about unorthodox practices that work, (2) diversify expertise within aid agencies; and (3) carve experimental pockets. My proposal does not fit neatly into any one of the six themes specified in the GDN competition; rather, it concerns all of the themes. Whether it is to use aid to improve governance, apply information technology, or design financial instruments, the overarching challenge is to empower and incentivize aid professionals to learn and apply contextual knowledge to creatively solve problems in developing societies.

Keywords: international development, foreign aid, public policy, localization, contextual knowledge

Suggested Citation:Suggested Citation

Ang, Yuen Yuen, Making Details Matter: How to Reform Aid Agencies to Generate Contextual Knowledge (2014). Winning Essay of the 2014 GDN Essay Competition on "The Future of Development Assistance," in partnership with the Gates Foundation. . Available at SSRN:

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Photo by Anes Sabitovic/Unsplash

In 2014, GDN ran an international essay competition on the future of development assistance in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The contest received 1,470 submissions from 142 countries around the world. Thirteen winners were selected, including tenured academics, students and professionals within and outside the field of international development.

In 2016, seven winners were invited to deliver their ideas at a variety of high-level events to recognized experts and top policymakers in the development arena: during the Civil Society Policy Forum at the 2016 Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund (April), at the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington DC (June), at the Brookings Institution (June) and in partnership with the OECD DAC in Paris (September).

The contest was judged through a comprehensive and strict multi-review stage process. An eminent jury, comprising of international luminaries and experts, selected 13 essays judged to be the best and most potentially consequential on the basis of their originality, usefulness and analytical quality.

The members of the international jury panel were:

  • Jury Chair: Nancy Birdsall, President, Center for Global Development
  • Armida S. Alisjahbana, ex Minister of National Development Planning and Head of National Development Planning Agencay (BAPPENAS), Indonesia
  • Debapriya Bhattacharya, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) & Chair, Southern Voices on Post-MDG International Development Goals
  • Elizabeth Ford, Deputy Editor, Guardian’s Global Development website 
  • Erik Solheim, Chair, OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC)
  • Frannie Leautier, Partner & CEO, Mkoba Private Equity Fund
  • Gargee Ghosh, Director, Development Policy & Finance, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Guillermo Perry, Professor, Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia 
  • Hiroshi Kato, Vice-President, Japan International Cooperation Agency 
  • Pierre Jacquet, President, Global Development Network
  • Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director, Oxfam International

See the list of winning authors and links to their essays here.

Find out more

To find the studies completed under this program, please go to the Research section of this website, and check back frequently for updates.