The unanticipated results of aid

November 23, 2009

Despite decades of improvements, the outcome of development assistance is rarely as intended. A new thesis from the University of Gothenburg examines why the results of an intervention are so often different from that which was intended when it was formulated.

- My point of departure is that aid entails intervention, says Malin Hasselskog, who is publicly defending her thesis in peace and development research.

Aid introduces something new from the outside. It might involve technology, expertise, values, economic systems, political structures or something else. However, the clear, though frequently tacit, intention is always to change or replace something that already exists. The notion that it is thereby possible to produce a particular type of development is based on certain assumptions about how social change takes place and which roles different actors have.

Malin Hasselskog emphasises that talking about aid in terms of intervention is not criticism in itself.

- However, it is important to illuminate the interventionist aspect and to scrutinize the underlying assumptions.


As the methods have become increasingly sophisticated and the inputs increasingly extensive, in many cases the aid has also entailed more radical intervention. From having previously involved individual projects, today the aim of much of aid is far-reaching changes in the recipient country's entire economic and political system. Malin Hasselskog scrutinises the underlying rationality and among other things reveals a view that social development is technical and rational, making it possible to formulate an input of aid in detail and predict its progress and results. She emphasises that few people concur with this view of society when it is articulated. Nevertheless, aid is implemented as if it was based on such conceptions.

Malin Hasselskog also demonstrates how aid entails an encounter and interaction with the local community. Through ethnographic studies in three villages in Cambodia she has studied how the population perceives and relates to the aid that they encounter in their everyday lives. The studies illustrate how one and the same input of aid initiates different processes depending on a number of local factors, and that the results therefore differ from case to case and are rarely those that were intended. In direct opposition to the assumption that it is possible to design and control social development, it is not possible to know what a contribution will lead to.

The inference of this is not that attempts to reduce poverty, injustice and human suffering should cease. However, what is needed are not even more sophisticated methods and even more extensive contributions, but simple interventions that allow disparate developments and results.

- There are still reasons to intervene in poor societies. But in the final analysis what an intervention leads to must be determined by local circumstances and the way in which people react.
Title of the thesis: Development Intervention on the Ground. Inherent rationales of aid and their encounter with local dynamics in three Cambodian villages


The thesis can be ordered from, SEK 150 excluding postage.

University of Gothenburg

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