Technical cooperation: Reviewing the evidence

Consistent with the expectations of the AAA and the current vision for reform of modern technical co-operation, we are reminded that technical co-operation is no longer about skills transfer alone. It is first and foremost about partner countries asserting leadership and investing resources to make it work. Subsequently, it is about enabling donors to play their support role more efficiently and effectively. It is not about supply, it is about demand. And finally, context is at the heart of any capacity action – the specific approach used in any given context will vary according to local circumstances, even though many of the basic operational principles may be fairly similar whether discussing post-conflict situations or middle income states.

In examining the key sources of recent evidence on technical co-operation, this Note gives special focus to analysis drawn from country level sources of information published within the last five years since the Paris Declaration. Consistent with the previously noted definition, the following assessment attempts to look at three key types of traditional technical co-operation: technical assistance; training; educational grants. Evidence within this range of aid instruments is particularly visible for technical assistance.

Already noted earlier, the topic of technical assistance has been the object of significant international scrutiny since its early use by aid agencies in the 1960s. Over 25 relevant studies are identified in annex. Many are field based and together involve more than 100 country examples. Three of these reports (ECDPM 2007; JICA, 2008; EU 2008) actually survey the landscape of existing evidence to provide an organised direction for consensus. They tend to converge around similar conclusions for consideration by the donor community as it funds technical assistance for capacity development.

Finding No. 1: Partners already are testing innovations in technical co-operation for capacity development.

Concrete actions are being taken both by many donors and partner countries to better shape technical co-operation with a capacity development perspective – which most understand to be the priority (although not necessarily only) objective. These efforts have a globally similar sense of objective and approach and represent an emerging agreement on technical co-operation good practice. Below is a summary of experiences of 11 donor and 7 partner country reform approaches, more information on which is found in Annex 1.

Donor efforts are focused on the reshaping of their internal processes and abilities, sometimes as a specific objective on technical co-operation, sometimes as a sub part of a broader interest in capacity development. Most actions are agency-centric, with minimal sharing of experience or discussion with others. An aggregation of the types of donor action already in use is summarised in Box 3.

Box 3. Types of donor innovation

  • Written guidance: Numerous formal statements on technical co-operation are being used by aid agencies in the form of political statements, strategy, policy, guidance/concept notes, approach papers, practice notes, or working papers. The majority of these statements either focus directly on technical co-operation or situate it the context of overall interest in capacity development.
  • Agency capacities: To better equip their systems with the types of capacity needed to address technical co-operation for capacity development, agencies are trying a variety of internal actions. They include: training staff; dedicating staff positions or a unit to the issue; monitoring and/or evaluating field operations; organising learning processes; setting up a dedicated website; using special external peer groups.
  • Changed practices: Particularly at the level of field operations, a variety of operational changes are being attempted in relation to technical co-operation (mostly technical assistance): emphasis on practical local ownership and management; greater alignment with country system reforms; strategic integration at the sector level; physical placement of experts in government office space; support of regional efforts to build local capacity; pooling and harmonisation among donors; emphasis on use and development of local expertise; use of experts in advisory rather than implementation positions; support for greater South-South co-operation and learning; minimal use of special Project Implementation Units.
  • Focus on evidence: Setting up results based technical co-operation; promoting knowledge sharing on what works and not; funding research and analysis of technical co-operation for CD.

Partner country innovations are more concerned with taking charge and redirecting donor funds and assistance in directions that fit more strategically with their own priorities. Key types of actions already found in some partner countries are summarised in Box 4.

Box 4. Partner country innovations

  • Written guidance: Often in response to donor encouragement for greater leadership, some partner countries establish formal statements of guidance or strategy that pragmatically focus on capacity and/or technical co-operation. Emphasis is on clarifying partner country roles and asserting a more jointly managed process of national leadership over it.
  • Internal organisational action: Countries may set up an administrative unit specific to technical assistance management, focus on more joint implementation and learning, and/or seek to integrate capacity issues and TA into comprehensive or sector planning, including civil service reform.
  • Changed practices: Countries may seek to: exercise stronger leadership in the selection and use of experts; better integrate local expertise through coaching, twinning, or the use of diaspora; set up programmes to build the capacity of local experts and trainers to reduce the need for foreign experts; use the current aid effectiveness process as a window of opportunity to reform; foster use of local, peer based learning.

These efforts represent a modest beginning. Nevertheless it is an important early foundation for future joint learning and action in this well funded, traditional area of donor-partner country collaboration. Despite frequently stated intentions to carry out regular monitoring and evaluation of the results of these reforms, only modest impact and learning evidence is publicly available to date. With a modest effort to better join up the results of these efforts, greater clarity and consensus forming would seem possible in a reasonably short timeframe. The political will to do so could be one result of the Busan High Level Forum.

Finding No. 2: Understanding complexity can help establish realistic expectations

Effective and sustainable capacity development is frequently conditioned by broader context factors, on which technical co-operation is likely to have little effect, including systemic factors in the economy and in the institutional setting. Civil service salaries and incentives, for instance, continue to be a fundamental dilemma that, if not addressed, will continue to undermine many development efforts. Technical co-operation can help to accelerate or remove bottlenecks to progress in relation to these reforms, but it cannot be expected to be a key driver of capacity. Criticism of technical assistance may be misdirected because the basic constraints to capacity were of a nature that no expert, however good, could address.

One systems analysis (ECDPM, 2008) notes the weakness of capacity assessment frameworks when they assume that capacity issues can be explained by an examination of only parts of the system. It maintains that no single factor or element – incentives, financial support, trained staff, knowledge, structure – will by itself be an explanation for the development of capacity. Therefore, single interventions (e.g. training) are not likely to make a significant difference unless they represent a key point of leverage that can shift overall behaviour.

A systems approach also points to the inherent difficulty of using rigidly planned, engineered efforts for capacity development in such complex environments. While appealing from the point of view of standard donor administrative requirements, controlled, directed change, especially when imposed from a foreign source, rarely works over time and can even damage the natural process of change by blocking or curtailing unforeseen opportunities for innovation. It suggests that effective change must work with the natural dynamics and energy within the system and not against them. Systems emphasis is on emergence and opportunities rather than on goals and matching strategies. Approaches need to be “good enough” and flexible enough to evolve with local realities.

Finding No. 3: Technical co-operation is more than technical

Technical co-operation is more than technical. It is part of a broader relationship between donors and country partners, both of whom have multiple incentives and interests, sometimes different from and sometimes even counteracting efforts to focus on capacity. Technical co-operation is often targeted by these forces towards quick disbursement of funds and the achievement of visible results. When capacity development is a more direct purpose of technical assistance, the advisers may end up filling gaps anyway because the incentives for capacity development are weaker than those which support immediate problem solving. Technical assistance may, in practice, be used to supervise or manage donor support, especially where it is still difficult for many donors to relinquish management control – for example where trust between partners is less than optimal.

Several of the problems of technical co-operation can be linked to pervasive incentives for politically attuned actors on both sides to assert that development problems – including those of capacity -- can be solved far more quickly than is actually the case. Technical co-operation can seem to be a “solution” to the compression and overloading of short term agendas that build more on political expedience than evidence about what works and what does not. These underlying factors can create multiple operational dilemmas for donors and partner countries when trying to make technical co-operation more effective in support of capacity. Because dilemmas may likely prevail, it is important that approaches to reform realistically recognize their existence and work around what is doable.

Box 5. Donor systemic constraints

  • Tensions between objectives: Aid agencies face a range of sometimes conflicting operational objectives, some less visible than others, that shape and limit their work processes: domestic political pressures to maintain the appearance of clarity and control; demands to demonstrate results in the short term; periodic use of technical assistance to manage partner relationships, inside and outside government.
  • Difficulty of accepting risk: Aid agencies working in weakly capacitated countries have difficulty maintaining their credibility when they simultaneously suggest that short term aid delivery there can be effective, resilient and accountable. These contexts can be fraught with risk and uncertainty – and many capacity interventions will fall short of expectations.
  • Domestic constituencies: Technical co-operation and capacity development often do not have dedicated domestic or international constituencies, as may be the case for more politically visible themes such as climate change or anticorruption. Further, aid funded technical co-operation is a large industry, involving contractors, non-governmental organisations and a range of donor government departments and agencies, all with their own motivations and priorities – and all capable of promoting perspectives that their own needs.
  • Organisational focus: Technical co-operation often does not have an organizational home in the aid agencies, where it generally is difficult to have a focussed and evidence based corporate discussion on the topic.

Source: Morgan 2009

Finding No. 4: Technical co-operation can be most effective when it has a good fit

Effective technical co-operation is one which strategically fits well with the needs of the local context. Several country level actions can help to ensure good fit.

Practical country ownership – Joint decisions on the use of technical assistance increasingly relate to strategic and operational plans at various levels within the country. Breaking down specific capacity issues around locally owned strategies helps provide a mutually acceptable anchor point for more pragmatic capacity assessment and action, and therefore for determining the potential contribution of technical cooperation. Alignment with locally led policies and processes also helps align the expectations for assistance offered in relation to local demand and local absorptive Several examples are noted in Annex 1 of countries where the critical mass of technical assistance offered led authorities to launch forms of local discussion to ensure that this support was in line with national priorities.

Box 5. Making space for local leadership

AusAid designed the Making a Difference Programme to improve its technical assistance through practical capacity building. It aims at bringing together assistance staff and their partners in a safe space outside the work place to give them a shared learning experience on equal terms. One underlying purpose is to empower the participants to freely express their views, as their understanding of cultural differences and power imbalances develops. The participants are supported to develop their own capacity building tools, techniques, and experiences to be applied at individual, group and organizational levels. In Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, Communities of Practice have emerged where members help each other address their most burning learning needs about capacity building in practice.

Source: AusAID in OECD, 2009

Public service reform and TA – Sustainable public sector capacity development can depend on the underlying factors (recruitment, productive use and retention of skilled and motivated staff, globalisation of labour market) that encourage or hinder public sector performance. Partner countries frequently may not have the capacity for organized workforce planning and human resources management necessary for effective donor provision of technical assistance support. Afghanistan, for example, is country resolutely engaged in this direction.

Weighing alternatives - Full transparency is seldom used to examine technical assistance alternatives and the relative strengths, weaknesses and costs of each. Traditional technical assistance often is criticized as costly, although often viewed as necessary1. South-South and triangular co-operation options that complement traditional technical assistance are increasingly visible, as demonstrated by the 2010 high-level event in Bogota and the current discussion for Busan. Utilization of competent local experts or national diaspora increasingly also are alternatives to expatriate technical assistance.

Approaching fragile situations – Aid funding of technical assistance in the special context of fragile situations often circumvents known good practice strategies as a matter of expediency, since they often are more difficult to apply. Existing institutions are particularly vulnerable; existing capacity can be undermined through “poaching” of government staff for project positions or through use of topping up mechanisms that distort already poor incentives to perform. Joint learning processes such as the International Dialogue on fragile states demonstrate that more concerted collective action is needed to ensure that good intentions “do no harm”. Donor instinctively supply massive, early technical assistance in emergency situations that often is not collaboratively defined nor situated in a longer term vision of progressive capacity development.

Finding No. 5: Effective TC requires clear operational roles and flexibility to engage locally

At a more operational level, effective technical co-operation requires jointly acceptable and transparent “rules of the game” and flexibility to adapt to complex contexts of capacity evolution.

Management roles – Responsibilities for management of aid-sponsored technical assistance often are not established clearly on the basis of upstream, mutual agreement. This limits the degree to which partner countries can play an active management role, although examples are available of successful partner country involvement in technical co-operation review/selection panels, or development of criteria for selection and TA performance appraisal. A strong, emerging theme is that technical co-operation for capacity development is only effective when country partners can invest what it takes to make it useful.

Capacity of donors – Donor agencies routinely do not assess their own capabilities to support capacity and change processes in the field, nor for ensuring the effective use of technical assistance. Some donors deploy more specialised staff to country or regional offices to support agency internal programme design and implementation, but rarely for purposes of partner country capacity development. It is similarly rare for aid organizations to highlight capacity development criteria in the performance evaluations of staff, nor to provide incentives for consistent application of their policies on technical assistance. The capacity of donors to address the various practices summarized in this Note, and the reforms that it may imply for their business processes, merits greater individual and collective agreement.

Pooling – Pooling arrangements for technical assistance, often as part of joint sector support programmes, are attempted by some aid agencies to improve donor harmonization, to reduce redundancy of effort, to reduce cost and as a means of shifting the balance of technical assistance management towards partner countries. It can encourage discussion about options and to negotiate a more appropriate use of technical assistance. It logically can oblige all partners to think more strategically on the use of technical assistance. Pooling of technical assistance in reality has tended to be difficult to put in place because of differing donor business processes.

Box 6. Examples of pooling

In Malawi, DIFID is funding assistance to the Health SWAp on behalf of other donors aligned behind the government’s Programme of Work. There is now coordination of assistance by the World Bank, UNFPA, Norway and DFID. Government manages jointly with the donors and all assistance is untied, most from African countries (mixed pooling). In Ethiopia, donors in the Education Pooled Fund have a pooled mechanism that coordinates assistance. The fund is a donor project outside government. Strategic direction is by a joint donor-government committee (mixed pooling). Also in Ethiopia, the Public Sector Capacity Building Programme (PSCAP) is a pooled donor technical assistance funding mechanism that goes through country systems. Some 91% of DFID funding to the programme is pooled. A part of the PSCAP funds is for government to source assistance using World Bank procurement arrangements. Donors are working together behind country led plans as a result (mixed pooling).

DFID, 2006

A results orientation – The performance requirements of traditional aid technical assistance often was framed in terms of “deliverables” such as training courses, workshops, or studies. Newer approaches focus on country partner system performance such as tangible improvements in service delivery or regulatory efficiency. In the absence of a clearly formulated partner country frame of reference, the roles and functions attributed to technical assistance will be similarly unclear, with the potential for subsequent unfocussed behaviour and limited impact and sustainability. This can be especially important in complex and politically sensitive environments, such as in fragile situations, where donor short term results considerations may weigh heavily. Practical flexibility can be built into terms of reference by collaboratively setting a results agenda over an initial timeframe, with prior agreement to meaningfully track performance and to revisit indicators when turning to the next phase.

Box 7. Regional results based management

European Commission support to implementation of the SADC (Southern African Development Community) Protocol on Finance and Investment is a capacity development programme for SACD Member States and the SACD Secretariat with a clear results orientation. The programme is meant to help SACD implement its own regional agreement that needs to be turned into domestic legislation in SACD Member States.

A key feature of the programme is peer exchange and peer learning: staff from SACD Member States is seconded to other Member States and to the Secretariat during the period of the programme. The programme is owned and managed by SACD and support is received from several donors, Long-term and short-term assistance provides expert and advisory inputs. All assistance is recruited by SADC and typically from the region. Experts are accountable to the SADC Secretariat.

Source: European Commission, 2009

Finding No. 6: It also is important to move beyond training and educational grants to support learning for capacity development

Within the broad category of “technical co-operation” the majority of reform attention has focused on the topic of technical assistance, while other instruments like training and educational grants have tended to be seen as “win-win” arrangements – providing measurable skill transfer and capabilities for targeted partner country recipients, while offering donors a domestically popular and simple management option.

However, recent evaluations (IBRD 2005; NORAD 2008; Pearson 2010) have highlighted recurring problematic aspects of these instruments: high cost; difficult (and therefore limited) impact assessment; modest ultimate utility; unclear sustainability. While aid-supported training is generally considered high quality, too often it may neither be useful in the local context, nor sustainable in the longer term. While educational grants are locally valued, participant selection often is not strategic, the studies undertaken not relevant to local priorities and successful graduates may not return to their place of origin2. In the case of both training and educational grants, monitoring and evaluation too often is minimal and results far from clear. Indeed, given the several billions of dollars annually attributed to these instruments, it is reasonable to conclude that they merit good fit scrutiny similar to that noted above in relation to technical assistance. As current practices have been in use for a long time and are deeply entrenched, reforms more in line with capacity development objectives may require considerable commitment and be a challenge for both the suppliers and users of learning services.

Training viewed as “learning” - There is emerging agreement on the need to move beyond a narrow vision of training, to the broader concepts of learning and learning practices3 – which include training as one possible component. Learning is a complex change process that concerns the organisational and institutional levels as well. The fundamental importance of a supportive environment suggests that organizational and contextual capacity constraints need to be addressed simultaneously and in some cases, first. This goes well beyond transferring of technical skills towards a broader vision of acquiring the capabilities to make decisions and act.

Partner country role – Few agencies have yet to identify a systematic approach that provides for country ownership and leadership of learning programmes. Partner countries are generally favourable to the concept of training, although they often agree that cost of training and other learning options is an issue and sometimes are vocal in support of the building indigenous training capacities where possible. This can include regional level action or collaboration among a group of partner countries. A logical longer term direction suggested by these perspectives is for donors to shift from supply to demand driven learning programmes and to help open up the training market to Southern providers (simultaneously helping to build local capacities).

A long-term vision – The use of training and other learning techniques to achieve sustainable capacity development impact calls for long term perspectives. This can conflict operationally with shorter-term preferences of donor and partner countries. Strategic links and human resource management frameworks often are absent that connect short-term activities like training to long-term change goals for continuous learning and sustainable capacity impact. Time bound results frameworks need to be negotiated among all parties and used to track and discuss activity progress and change.

Summing up

The above discussion underlines that aid in general - and at the centre of it technical co-operation - is a relationship business. The relevance, quality and effectiveness of technical co-operation depend on constructing and maintaining trustful and productive relationships among the stakeholders. It is worth spending energy on thinking through the conditions that foster such productive relationships as drivers for development results. The Paris principles and Accra commitments if actually implemented can go a long way in making this happen.


1 The high cost of technical assistance results in part from expert fees, but most studies find that the largest cost comes from significant non-salary costs associated with overseas assignments.

2 While statistics vary considerably because non-returnees are not registered officially, one report (Le Loet, 2010) suggests that as much as one half of overseas students in French universities may not return to their country of origin.

3 A number of successful approaches, tools and techniques are available to support learning – beyond the realms of formal study and training. They include, for example, coaching and mentoring, e-learning tools, experiential learning, leadership development approaches, exposure visits, and partnership arrangements such as twinning.