Pacific aid ineffectiveness: lessons unlearned

 Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it ― George Santayana

Pacific aid effectiveness is by no means a new concern. As the Asian Development Bank (ADB) recorded more than 20 years ago, “[t]he ADB project failure rate is twice as high in the Pacific islands as in the Bank’s overall lending”. Relatively poor performance was the reason why ADB established the special Office of Pacific Operations in 1995, and also the reason for ADB’s extensive earlier applied research in Pacific island countries. ADB was not alone in expressing such a concern. The term ‘Pacific Paradox’ emerged, in part from recognition that aid to the region wasn’t working as well as it should. The Pacific Paradox persists. As shown in the recent Annual Evaluation Review by ADB’s Independent Evaluation Department, only half of the projects recently completed in the Pacific have succeeded.

Major development partners have published extensively on the performance of Pacific development assistance (see here and here). The region’s academic institutes are also a rich source of information on aid effectiveness. Decades of published research should guide better performance, but they do not appear to do so. What are the lessons and why are they not learnt? I know of no overall region-wide, historical synthesis of all this knowledge, and such a review is overdue. However, published evaluations point to a consistent set of factors that continue to influence results. Among the standard evaluation criteria, efficiency and sustainability are consistently low scoring in the Pacific islands. Inadequate initial diagnostics and project design, insufficient implementation support and monitoring, weak government ownership, and thin capacity of implementing agencies continue to be the most common root causes of unsuccessful projects.

Underlying all the root causes is thin government capacity. This is an enduring and defining feature of the fragile states of the Pacific islands. Government agencies often face a serious challenge of basic organisational effectiveness, and a particular concern is how to secure effective leadership and management within the constraining institutional, social settings of the islands. These seemingly perpetual challenges are all the more important today given the growing number of development partners and projects in the region.

A renewed effort by governments and partners to strengthen their approaches to building capacity is the first priority. Again, lessons on what has worked are available and remain relevant today. A regional study by ADB in 2007-2008 identified lessons from what were considered to be the more successful stories of capacity development in the islands. The major findings of this work highlighted the need to better understand context, build on existing capacities and demand in a participatory manner, and for Islanders to drive monitoring and evaluation.

The second priority is to embed greater people capacity in a stronger institutional and policy environment. For many years now, both the ADB and the World Bank have consistently recorded comparatively poor assessments of institutional and policy settings in the islands. While there are important exceptions, this again remains an enduring concern at the regional level. Fundamental to improving this record is the need to develop strong and trusting relationships and a sense of mutual respect between development partners and Pacific leaders. Policy reform lessons focus again on building on existing capacities and demand, on participation, and on effective monitoring. In addition, policy and institutional reforms should reflect a sound understanding of the political economy, be carefully timed, follow simple and flexible designs, and be effectively sequenced. See here, here, here and here.

Policy and institutional reform has been supported by a variety of advisory technical assistance. Again, this assistance needs to be subjected to summary analysis, but based on personal experience it has had mixed success in bringing about meaningful change. Long-term resident or intermittent advisors can provide much-needed support, but those hired more for their professional credentials than political and cultural acumen have tended to fail. Reforms, as we know, are often easier to consider during times of crisis and require strong stakeholder participation and consultation, with due consideration to political cycles and elections.

Why are old, well-established but still relevant lessons not learned? There is likely to be a number of reasons. Persistent limited capacity must be one reason. Among others is a prior commitment to processing annually budgeted capital transfers, a greater focus on technical rather than country context, the regular turnover of both donor and government staff, and the greater difficulty and longer-term nature of capacity development, compared to projects that deliver physical outputs like infrastructure. Technical capacity development requires relatively larger inputs of management, staff and time for risky gain. More time and care are needed to design for context and to select advisors who can build rather than substitute capacity. Some development partners do not even try to build local capacity, just build. As a starting point, development partners should recommit to long-term capacity development as a central focus of their Pacific strategies and programs, and they should involve Pacific Islanders in the process.

History may be repeating itself in the Pacific, but it need not be. Established lessons from evaluations and collective experiences provide relevant guidance today on what has worked, what hasn’t, and why. Proper assessment and a deeper appreciation of existing capacities – institutional, policy and contextual – are persistently missing. If governments and development partners can learn from history and put its lessons into practice, then there is no reason why we cannot strengthen capacity, engage in meaningful dialogue for better policies and institutions and improve the impact of capital projects.

I am particularly grateful to Ben Graham for comment and advice on this article. Ben served as Chief Secretary of Marshall Islands from 2017 to 2019 and has many years’ experience working, including evaluating projects, throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

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Steve Pollard

Steve Pollard, known in the Pacific as a government employee, researcher, consultant, and donor staffer, retired from the ADB in 2011. He has 37 years of experience working toward the interests of better policy for better livelihoods in the Pacific and 47 years of experience in development.


  • Thanks, Steve, for this article. I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last two decades. While there are inherent constraints in capacity in the Pacific (related to narrow economic base, remoteness, smallness and out-migration), there is a LOT of room for development partners to do things better. The first of these is to think long-term- and I mean in decades- long enough to see generational shifts. This flows into long-term holistic planning with the country, decades-long programs, and into investing in real, long-term relationships between bank staff, advisors and people in-country. Pacific Islanders have been forced to examine their worldviews and see things differently in dealing with colonisers and development agencies. It is incumbent upon development agencies to examine their worldviews and whether imposed solutions are at all appropriate. This then becomes about a deeper level of dialogue and creativity that is not often apparent in development projects.

  • Great Article.
    Capacity building is essential. Aid needs to be invested in building up the human resource sector.
    I don’t understand why brain dead people are recruited and yet we whine about the effectiveness of aid.
    Sack incompetent workers and get the top cream of the country in positions to spearhead head aid projects that will be deemed effective.
    Right now Aust Aid has a sinking pocket with lots of diversions.
    Isn’t effectiveness based on performance?

  • Hi Steve,

    Good article, but I am going to slightly disagree (what’s new?). I find it extremely difficult to believe that only half of the ADB projects are failures — they must be using a very favorable definition of success. If you have a link, I would like to see an audit giving descriptions of the various projects and how they were determined to be failures or successes. Also, in my opinion, the biggest problem is not capacity of these Pacific countries, but corruption — which the ADB, World Bank, IMF, and a myriad of donors seem to purposely ignore. Finally, it would be interesting to learn the reason that the ADB gives some $2B annually to China which then spends an estimated $200M annually on building up its military and territory expansion which negatively affects smaller countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Again, thanks for the article.

  • Bula Steve. Thanks for more food for thought in the so called “Pacific Paradox’. The Pacific Community (SPC) is investing deeply in its own capacity for monitoring, evaluation and learning to play a key role in strengthening MEL across the region: in the Pacific, for the Pacific, by the Pacific.

    Last year, we sought to better understand how, for whom and in what contexts our scientific and technical capacity development efforts are achieving outcomes in member countries.

    The report and an interactive map can be found in the links below.

    We all need to invest not only in capacity building and strengthening, but also in contextually and culturally responsive systems and processes, good quality accessible reports /tools that are useful and used in the development policy and practice cycles.

  • Excellent blog, Steve, thank you. You identify many factors that I have also found in my work in Indonesian education over many years. Two of these, the political and cultural, are beginning to be addressed in more thoughtful ways. Yet, when I observe the work of donors, I continue to wonder whether there is more interest in just remaining on the development merry-go-round rather than achieving truly sustainable benefits for our development partners.

  • In contrast to ADB’s self assessments, DFAT is reporting that 85+% of its investments in the Pacific are effective.

    • While acknowledging the great and enormous aid assistance it gives to PNG, in my humble view, how Australia defines effective may not necessary mean the same as is in the eyes of the citizens, as I am grappling with the hard reality of PNG continuing to depend on aid from outside, year in year out, towards its “development” and continue to be troubled by the question of, when can PNG really break free from its dependence on Aid?

      Isnt aid supposed to make PNG independent and self-reliant? Isnt aid suppose to be a bridging assistance within a specific time period to assist the country and its citizens gain knowledge, skills and expertise or provide an initial funding support towards a specific area of need, on which to build on to eventually take charge and responsibility, to be self reliant and develop into the future?

      It does not seem aid assistance to our development has been progressive, rather we have become dependent on aid to view and understand the assistance practice as standard development culture and norm?

      I think there is a need to better define what is meant by effective aid support by trying to understand it from the perspective of the PNG citizens rather than from an Australian perspective?!

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