The Need to Avoid Gaps in Development Assistance – it’s a Value for Money Issue


Dr. Gregory Wilson, Governance and Public Sector Management

Why is it that donors frequently interrupt the flow of technical assistance[1]and programme funds for seemingly no obvious reason? Many Agencies, NGOs, consultants, and of course recipients, despair sometimes at the apparent lack of planning that results in gaps in funding. Projects are temporarily stalled, staff laid off. Governments, other stakeholders and communities are left wondering what happened and why support is no longer there, not know when it will come. The delays play havoc with the planning of implementing partners and the host governments and communities.

Making aid more predictable is a central tenet of aid effectiveness, but it is not just about overall aid flows, it also concerns the timely delivery of agreed aid allocations and programmes. So, what is going wrong, why and how could the situation be improved? 

Gaps in the supply of technical assistance can occur in many different circumstances:

  • Switches in the funding sources for projects, donor disagreements on the use and allocation of funds 
  • Political considerations leading to changing ministerial approval processes[2]
  • Domestic pressures on the use of development aid in certain situations and for certain projects 
  • Slow and delayed implementation of negotiations and tender processes with new projects and project extensions, lack of understanding of procurement laws
  • Over long approval processes between the design and implementation phases of projects
  • Prolonged negotiations with preferred bidders which go well beyond the scope of normal post-tender clarifications
  • Incompetence and poor planning – staff changes, unpredictable strategy changes,  

The potential damage caused by gaps in TA

Gaps can cause significant damage which reduces the Value for Money (VfM) of donor’s expenditure, sometimes substantially.

In some countries aid is regarded as supporting the use of ‘soft’ power, helping the donor punch above its weight in the international arena. So, a gap in key TA for a foreign government could damage the reputation of the donor in the eyes of counterpart. In fragile and conflict affected situations (FCAS) the host government may have set targets and started key activities sometimes on the advice of the donor assuming continuous support. Everyone’s reputation is at risk in such circumstances especially where reform activities are security related, potentially contentious, key to a wider donor effort, and/or challenging to entrenched interests.

Donor influence on the beneficiary government through strategic advisory roles that have been carefully established and fulfilled by advisers, may be taken over by advisers who are sponsored by other donors. These advisers may have less technical experience and contextual understanding, in turn reducing overall effectiveness of international support to key reform processes that are vital to all donor interests

Any donor will lose credibility if it fails to meet the schedule it set for itself, which it will have communicated to the counterpart to manage his/her expectations. Donors risk appearing less committed and professional in their support to the counterpart. There may also be collateral damage to the implementing partner or contractor’s reputation as a reliable and credible organisation and its ability to attract high quality advisers to work for it.

NGO’s reputation suffers too. The recent ICAI April 2019 Review of DFID’s partnerships with civil society organisations: A performance review, concluded that “…time-consuming and costly application processes and a short-term project-based funding model, limit the ability of CSO partners to ensure their relevance, health and adaptability”. Moreover, the review also notes that “…Weak process management and poor management of the review period’s many disruptive events led to unreliable and unpredictable donor behaviour at all stages of the process leading up to contracts and funding agreements. The Review recommends that “…throughout DFID’s central and in-country portfolios, the process towards funding agreements should be more efficient, predictable, reliable and transparent, and should allow CSOs sufficient time to develop proposals”.

In circumstances where the TA is being used to underpin other much larger investments, for example major donor coordination efforts or sector budget support, absence of the TA can lead to the larger investment being wasted, misused or misdirected

Gaps typically result in a loss of momentum for reform programmes as counterpart officials responsible for leading those reforms are reassigned to other posts or drawn into separate activities as the perceived importance of the reforms is undermined by the absence of international support. The next phase of contractor support might need to focus first on tracing and securing the return of those critical officials (if possible) before reinitiating the project

Gaps may lead to loss of valuable local staff and the financial, logistical, administrative expertise that they provide, thus reducing the VfM Efficiency and Economy once a programme has restarted

Gaps may also lead to the loss of high-quality international consultants to other projects, perhaps in other countries[3]. Advisers need to make a living like everyone else, it is grossly unfair to expect these advisers to remain without work, often for months, while waiting for approval or other processes to be completed. Ultimately, the loss of their project-specific expertise built up in the previous phase, or the specific experience for which they were recruited in the bidding process is damaging and often difficult to replace. The lost knowledge and strong relationships built up by these advisers is particularly felt in FCAS environments where trust may be more difficult to gain

After a gap in project funding, donors and their contractors consequently must invest more time, effort and resources in re-establishing their credibility and trust with counterparts at the start of the next phase, which inevitably slows achievement of deliverables and results

Momentum is also lost if a new contractor is unable to benefit from a professional handover from the outgoing contractor in terms of relationships with counterparts, technical knowledge, and political understanding. Most consultants and NGOs have stories to tell about lost documents and development partners who have moved on with the careers and taken their knowledge with them.  On the other hand, if the same contractor is selected by the donor to deliver the programme after the gap, the contractor’s credibility with the counterpart is also undermined as the counterpart may perceive the contractor to be the cause of the gap by either not being ready or willing to return quickly

At a very practical level in FCAS VfM can be reduced because advantageous agreements negotiated with local service providers during the bidding process for ‘life support’ costs such as accommodation, office rent and transport become void having “timed out” following the delay in deployment

How could the situation be improved and be more predictable?

Most donors would doubtless prefer to demonstrate certainty, improve VfM, and be seen to be more predictable themselves. There are many possible ways to improve the current situation: 

  • The need to switch funding sources should be anticipated. Improved pipeline planning can help predict when an extension to an existing programme is required and more funds need to be approved
  • Improve training for in-country staff on the steps and typical duration of both approval and procurement processes so that such processes are initiated earlier, and gaps can be better anticipated and mitigated
  • Reduce paperwork on project extensions, anticipate new rules, apply ‘smart’ rules
  • Donors can review and streamline both their programme and project approval processes. This could mean imposing strict time limits and changes to the financial thresholds for higher level approvals i.e. delegate decision-making according to clear rules
  • Donors should prioritise contracts that continue existing programmes above new programmes reflecting the higher and more precise expectations of counterparts of ongoing programmes and thus limiting the greater damage caused by a possible delay
  • Where donors pool funds they should aim for simplicity not multiple conditions that gravitate towards the most onerous approval processes. Ensure trust funds are measured on their speed and certainty/predictability of delivery  
  • Make greater use of existing ‘framework contracts’ that permit award of sole source contracts to bridge a potential gap. However, where frameworks are in place funding upcoming projects should be more predictable, reliable and transparent, and should allow bidders sufficient time to develop proposals
  • Improve post contract award procedures, limit the scope of post-tender clarifications, impose strict time limits, improve response times of country offices to submissions from contractors during post-tender clarifications
  • Ensure initial project documentation is drafted in accordance with procurement rules

It is in everyone’s interest to ensure that gaps in technical assistance are minimised. It is a key Value for Money issue quite apart from the issues around credibility, transparency and accountability.

Photo credit: mind the gap by gmacfadyen on

[1]Technical assistance is defined as donor spending on outside expertise such as consultants, research or training, used to supplement the existing skills of developing country governments.

[2]ODI reports that successive UK Aid Secretaries of State often greatly influence how DFID is managed based on their personal and political party ideology, rather than primarily the complex realities of aid implementation. ODI (2017) The Politics of the Results Agenda in DFID.

[3]This is not just an issue for private contractors, the UN, World Bank and other IFIs rely heavily on individual consultants