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Pursuing Aid Effectiveness: The Changing Role of the International Development Community in overcoming Global Challenges


Disclaimer: in verband met de coronavirus pandemie is deze cursusbeschrijving onder voorbehoud. Voor meer updates over coronavirus, lees nieuws via deze link.

Deze informatie is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.


Topics: Aid effectiveness, Geopolitics and political economy, Human development and poverty reduction.
Disciplines: Law, International relations, Development studies.
Skills: Presentation and debate, leadership, program development, strategic planning, political acumen /geopolitical awareness.

Admission requirements:

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an elective course within the Honours College programme. Third year students who don’t participate in the Honours College, have the opportunity to apply for a Bachelor Honours Class. Students will be selected based on i.a. their motivation and average grade.


The year 2021 may prove to be a critical juncture for the development sector. Raging conflicts, an inability to forge an agreement on climate change and poverty still impacting 10 percent of world’s population, has left donors, academics and practitioners increasingly skeptical about the efficacy of international development programming. Moreover, given a political climate marked by polarization and populist rhetoric, if the Covid-19 pandemic pushes the global economy into recession, the sector may face an unprecedented reduction in funding and support. Ironically, this may be a positive thing. A potential breakdown in the multi-lateral development architecture may be the force needed to impel more impactful and efficient ways of working. The first part of the course explains the history of wealth inequality between nations and international development assistance as a response to such inequality.

The second part of the course explores five topical areas of development assistance where failures can and do occur: democratic governance, refugee management, counter-terrorism, gender equality and environmental protection. We also explore the types of strategies that might mitigate against such failures.

In the final part of the course, students apply their new knowledge to development challenges of their choosing. Central themes will include navigating around political economy, harnessing opportunities of interest synchronicity and the role of critical junctures in societal change. Students will also be challenged to confront key tensions, particularly whether the sector should protect their mandates fight underdevelopment in all its iterations, or concentrate on fighting discreet battles that can be won.

Course objectives

Upon successful completion of this course, students will:

  • Explain the evolution of the development architecture, and the interaction of processes in trade, conflict and domestic policy at the local, national and supranational levels;

  • Explain the roles played by development actors (national and international) in different contexts;

  • Identify how forces of political economy, security and geopolitics impact the advancement of human development in different settings;

  • Illustrate what types of approaches can be used to promote development outcomes and overcome key obstacles;

  • Assess strengths and weaknesses of different development strategies, especially insofar as they relate to issues of gender, security and political power.

  • See also the heading ‘Skills’.

Programme and timetable:
Please note that since September 21, 2021 the course schedule has been changed!

The class will take place on seven Thursdays from 17.15 - 20.15, starting on November 11, 2021. These seminars will be led by Erica Harper, supplemented by a minimum of three guest speakers (pre-recorded or live).

Final assignment in the week of January 17 and/or of January 24 2022.

The seminars will cover the following topics:

Session 1: November 11
How the rich got rich? (and by the rich, we mean the West) Today, the international community shares a general consensus around what human development means and the elements it comprises. Theories on how to get there, however, remain highly contested. To shed light on this, our first seminar will undertake a historical interrogation of how disparities in global wealth came to be. We will discuss the forces that drive (and stymie) development in certain places, times and contexts, and the relationship between these development theories and how aid policy is structured and rolled out. It will be shown that while each of these development models has merit, none is a magic bullet. Human development is a dynamic, messy and political process, within which aid may be part of the solution, but not a solution in and of itself. The seminar will pose the following question for discussion: Is it possible that what the sector needs to work towards – is not more or better theories of development – but an improved understanding of the elements that make them up, and sufficient depth of insight to know where and how they might be applied?

Session 2: November 18
From the Development Sector We Have to the Development Sector We Need: Transitioning to more efficient and impactful development programming requires a better understanding of how and why the aid system operates the way it does. To this end, one myth that needs to be overturned is that when donors allocate aid, the intended purpose is to fight underdevelopment and its manifestations. In fact, aid is allocated principally to achieve foreign policy objectives, whether these be economic, security or diplomacy-related. One result is that the controls meant to ensure that development projects are devised and administered efficiently, work imperfectly, at best. The knock-effects are manifold. Underperforming projects can be repeated and opportunities are created for nefarious stakeholders to misuse or divert aid funds. Perhaps most importantly, the sector lacks strong incentives to build evidence, innovate or self-correct. In the remainder of the seminar, we consider the following premise: for aid to work, those with the power to influence outcomes must want it to work. This begs a pivotal question: in what circumstances do aid outcomes matter to donors, or can they be made to matter? And does it have to be donors, or could aid outcomes be made to matter to other stakeholders? To this end, we will discuss how both donors and government recipients of aid value development ends to the extent that this enables or correlates with constituent satisfaction, averting domestic disaster or asserting leadership on the global stage. The importance of context is also highlighted, and the how critical junctures are fertile territory for closing development gaps. Finally, we discuss how development practitioners can position themselves to take advantage of such moments and to what extent they can manufacture or assert control over enabling conditions.

Session 3: November 25
Beyond Good Governance: This seminar shifts the discussion to the level of practical engagement, commencing with good governance and democratic reform. We show the democratic reform approaches favoured by the development sector work best at particular moments, and when accompanied by other enabling conditions. They do not work in small divided states, where it incentivizes mal-governance, in post-conflict states where it increases the risk of recidivism, and in autocracies where underlying structures are too weak to both shoulder reform and prevent violence. A key challenge is that what states actually need, the international development sector finds hard to give. These needs include broad development programs that come with long-term time commitments and heavy doses of technical assistance; peacekeepers; and strategies where development actors take more active roles in governance. Students will be encouraged to explore how this gap might be bridged.

Session 4: December 2
Innovating the Development Space: Despite being the ‘mot de jour’, genuine innovation in the development sector is rare. This is at least somewhat because such processes are disruptive, risky and create losers. This begs an important question – what would it take for agencies to become proper innovators? What conditions would need to be set in place, what incentives, and what challenges would need to be overcome? To answer this question, this seminar examines the refugee exodus that followed the conflict in Syria, including the roles of host states, the agency mandated with refugee protection and the donors funding relief operations. It will examine the forces that incentivize innovation, the risks involved – including to agencies’ unique space as mandate holders – and how these can be managed.

Session 5: December 9
Finding the Sweet Spots: This seminar explores those situations, albeit rare, where a development pathway falls in the interest of key stakeholders. To illustrate, we will examine a case study on the international community’s response to the threats posed by the violent extremist group - The Islamic State. Indeed, one of the unique things about this phenomenon is how States both in the West and in the developing world were united in an effort to disable it. This response was far from perfect, but broadly speaking it was evidence-driven, expeditious, grounded in self-learning, and results-orientated. Unpacking what this means for development programming is critical. It suggests that in these moments, where interests coalesce around the search for a solution, spaces open for policy shifts and programming gains that would not normally be possible. A similar process can be seen playing out in terms of the global response to COVID-19. Students will examine how these windows of opportunity might be better anticipated, identified and exploited.

Session 6: December 16
Playing Politics to Win: The development community has invested a great deal of time and energy into understanding whether enabling conditions for human development can be created, or the regular process of change sped up. Some believe that change accrues fastest and most sustainably by targeting the laws and policies that regulate behaviour; others support targeting people’s values and behaviours at the grassroots level. The problem is that neither of these approaches – top down or bottom up – has been particularly effective when it comes to fighting climate change or gender discrimination – two of the key challenges of our time. In the case of gender, pressuring governments to bring their policies into line with international standards, and strengthening women’s capacity to exercise their rights, overlooks that this is a problem rooted in power, not misunderstanding. In climate change, the preferred approach has been a brandishing of evidence. However, this is a fight between opposing ideologies, so evidence, regardless of how sophisticated or frightening, is unlikely to move parties quickly or cleanly towards agreement. In short, the development community is fighting logically, but ineffectively. The seminar evaluates how the communities of practice can adopt a more effective approach through more strategic political engagement.

Session 7: December 23
Take the Money and Run: The last seminar tackles a perplexing question: what if the solution to eliminating poverty lies outside of the development sector – in globalization, some parallel process, or an approach yet to be uncovered? To this end, we will examine three processes: private donations to the poor (remittances and zakat), corporate sector giving, and profit-making that targets so-called sub-optimal markets. Engaging these resources, and the actors that control them, is imbued with difficulty. Ideological standoffs and turf boundaries mean that the walls dividing the for-profit and non-profit sectors are tall and robust. But they must be overcome; the actions of corporate entities and IFIs have enormous impacts on poverty, opportunity and wealth equality. Moreover, the scale of these resources, especially in the context of the current geopolitical environment, means that they cannot be ignored. Relatedly, instead of globalization being a source of polarization, its development potential should be approached as something to unite around. One approach might be to encourage rich countries to attach the same importance to equity in trade rules as it has to other global threats, and with this, provide a similar flow of resources and political commitment towards sustainable human development.
Concurrently, during this last seminar we will host the in-class debates (see assessment schedule).

Final assignment in the week of January 17 and/or of January 24 2022.

Kamerlingh Onnes building, room B0.20

Reading list

Literature subject to change; definitive declaration via Brightspace.

Book chapters:

D Acemoglu and J Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (2012)
M Buntaine, Giving Aid Effectively The Politics of Environmental Performance and Selectivity at Multilateral Development Banks (2016)
N Bondokji and E Harper, Journey Mapping of Jordanian Foreign Fighters, in A Region in Motion: Reflections from West Asia and North Africa (Ed: E Harper) Fredrich Ebert Stiftung (2018), ISBN 6-2-8770-9957-978
P Cairney The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making (2016)
P Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (2007)
P Collier The Plundered Planet: Why We Must--and How We Can--Manage Nature for Global Prosperity (2010)
P Collier Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (2009)
W Easterly The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2015)
W Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2007)
D Green, How Change Happens (2016)
M Hulm Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009)
W Jung, H Kharas, K Makino Catalyzing Development: A New Vision for Aid (2011)
E Ott, The Labour Market Integration of Resettled Refugees (2013)
L Picard and T Buss, A Fragile Balance: Re-examining the History of Foreign Aid, Security and Diplomacy (2009)
S Pinker Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018)
S Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (2011)
CK Prahalad The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (2004)
JM Quinn, TD Mason & M Gurses (2007) Sustaining the Peace: Determinants of Civil War Recurrence, International Interactions, (2007)
J Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (2005)
F Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (2007)

Journal articles and policy papers

N Benotman and N Malik ‘The Children of the Islamic State’ Quilliam (2016)
R Borum ‘Radicalization into Violent Extremism II: A Review of Conceptual Models and Empirical Research’, Journal of Strategic Security, No.4 Vol. 4 (2011)T Choudhury and H Fenwick. ‘The Impact of counter-terrorism measures on Muslim communities’ (2011).
Fearon and Latin ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War American Political Science Review 74 (2003)
E Harper Forging New Strategies in Protracted Refugee Crises: Syrian Refugees and the Host State Economy, WANA Institute (2015)
E Harper Unpacking (and Re-Packing) the Refugees Compact Experiment WANA Institute (2018).
Extreme Measures, Abuses against Children Detained as National Security Threats’, Human Rights Watch (2016).
F Johari, Muhammad Ab. Aziz, and Ahmad Ali, “A Review on Literatures of Zakat between 2003-2013”, Library Philosophy and Practice (2014).
F Johari, Muhammad Ab. Aziz, and Ahmad Ali, “A Review on Literatures of Zakat between 2003-2013”, Library Philosophy and Practice (2014)
T. Talbot and O. Barder, ‘Payouts for Perils: Why Disaster Aid is Broken, and How Catastrophe Insurance Can Help to Fix It’, Policy Paper 087 (2016).
J. Woetzel, A. Madgavkar, K. Rifai, F. Mattern, J. Bughin, J. Manyika, T. Elmasry, A. di Lodovico and A. Hasyagar, People on the Move: Global Migration’s Impact and Opportunity (2016)

Other possible literature will be announced in class or via Brightspace.

Course load and teaching method:

This course is worth 5 ECTS, which means the total course load equals 140 hours:

  • Seminars: 7 seminars of 3 hours

  • Literature reading: 8-9 hours/week

  • Preparation - Practical work, Assignments, Presentations: 3 hours/week

  • Final essay: 30-40 hours

Presence and participation is mandatory

Weekly seminars for this course will be led by Erica Harper, with guest speakers arranged via video link (or pre-recorded where logistics requires).
Students are expected to attend lectures being fully versed in the assigned reading as this will form the basis of in-class learning, interrogation of the literature and real-world simulation exercises.
Seminars will be structured to maximise intra-class discussion, including through (i) breakout discussion groups (ii) in class presentations (ad hoc and pre-prepared) (iii) quiz-based learning. During the final seminar, in-class debates will be hosted as per the assessment schedule.

Assessment methods:

30% Two opinion/blog posts that speak to a key theme discussed in a single session (30%)
30% One set of inter-class debates (students will be assigned to small groups that will debate along assigned themes). Debates will take place during seminar 7.
40% Final written assignment 2500 words (either traditional form, or taking the form of a development program critique/development program proposal; students will be able to select a topic of their choice).

Students could only pass this course after successful completion of all partial exams.
The assessment methods will be further explained in the first session of the class.

Brightspace and uSis:

Brightspace will be used in this course. Upon admission students will be enrolled in Brightspace by the teaching administration.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Bachelor Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Registration process:

Submitting an application for this course is possible from Monday 16 August 2021 up to and including Thursday 2 September 2021 23:59 through the link on the Honours Academy student website.

Note: students don’t have to register for the Bachelor Honours Classes in uSis. The registration is done centrally before the start of the class.

Erica Harper: