Dealing with aid fragmentation

Possible outcomes of aid fragmentation is that no one has the total overview of what the needs really are.

A teacher at the blackboard teaches letters to her students. Malawi Primary School. Credit: GPE/Tara O'Connell via Flickr

Aid through NGOs

Malawi is one of the main recipient countries of Norwegian aid. It also receives funding from several other countries, which results in 80% of the health budget being donor funded. Due to a corruption scandal in 2013, donors lost faith in the government. This resulted in a shift. Instead of supporting the national budget, Norway and many international donors started to channel aid through Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

Donors generally perceive NGOs as more reliable, efficient and better capable of integrating local contextual factors in their work. This resulted in a proliferation of NGOs. Within the health field in Malawi there are now over 300 NGOs with different sources of funding. I have followed the implementation of one NGO-led project that aims to improve adolescent girls' reproductive health and participation in education, as well as how the totality of aid projects is experienced at the local level. In this blog I describe the implications of aid fragmentation at a local primary school in Mangochi district.

Multiple actors

The local primary school in the area where I conducted fieldwork for nine months had over 3000 registered students. Built in the 1970s for 200 students and without much expansion since then, the school was bursting at the seams. Thirteen overfull classrooms meant that the other 18 classes were taking place under trees. The school was highly dependent on NGOs. It took the deputy head teacher one-and-a-half hour to inform me about the numerous initiatives taking place. The school received assistance from 2 UN agencies, 1 international development agency, 2 international NGOs (INGOs), 5 national NGOs which were subcontracted by INGOs, 2 locally based NGOs, 4 local companies, and on top of that there were 3 voluntary community committees and 5 youth clubs created by NGOs.

Donors define the agenda

Most initiatives in that school focused on girls’ education by preventing school dropout, reducing teenage pregnancies, ending child marriages, motivating teen-mothers to re-enrol, and improving the learning environment. This clearly reflected the growing importance of this topic among donors during rent years. Consequently, schools have become an important arena for intervention, which challenged school management to deal with a proliferation of NGOs. The NGOs implemented behaviour change projects by training teachers and community committees and/or provided limited material assistance such as school uniforms and books to the most vulnerable girls.

Scholarship Girls at Nsondole School, Malawi. Photo and copyright: Erik Törner, IM Individuell Människohjälp via Flickr

Incidence of school dropout and teenage pregnancies is high in Malawi. In 2015, 29% of women between the age of 15 and 19 had begun childbearing1. Teachers saw the importance of focusing on these topics. However, they complained that other pressing issues, such as infrastructure and assistance for boys received little attention from donors, even though they tried to communicate their needs to the NGOs. 

There had been several NGOs asking the management about the school's needs, but the school claimed they never heard from them again. Only one NGO had constructed four extra classrooms; of which one was often used for NGOs, government and community committee trainings and meetings. Ironically, the village chief took initiative to construct a separate building next to the mosque, in which the community committees could meet. He was worried about the high burden all those meetings had on the school, as classes had to be merged to be able to facilitate the meetings and trainings.

Sending conflicting messages

The NGO projects that had a behaviour change approach, trained teachers who were encouraged to communicate messages to girls, act as role models, or be more aware of gender norms in the classroom. Some of these trainings took place during the weekend. This placed a high burden on the school management, who had to either participate as key actors or be present in their office.

Although teachers perceived the trainings as important for skills development, the topics were overlapping, and the different trainings contained different messages. For example, one of the trainings focused on providing comprehensive sexuality education, whereas another motivated teachers to convince girls of the dangers of sexual relationships. Teaching about sexuality was deemed culturally inappropriate, and teachers felt most comfortable to encourage abstinence. The information and skills taught in trainings was transformed along the way.

Working against its purpose?

The behaviour change projects did not lead to tangible outcomes for the intended beneficiaries -the girls-, which created frustration among teachers and school management and undermined trust in NGOs. They witnessed NGO employees driving around in fancy cars and European donors who conducted project visits and stayed at expensive lodges, whereas the school struggled to operate with very little means, and many students dropped out because of poverty. Therefore, teachers perceived the NGO employees as the main beneficiaries of the implemented projects.

That can explain why the teachers insisted on receiving allowances in order to attend the trainings and donor visits, because they felt used and not respected by the NGOs. The allowances they received were a welcome addition to their low salaries and one of the few ways in which the saw donor money materialized. The training approach, thus, created an allowance culture as incentive. The fact that the meetings with NGOs occupied class rooms during the week weakened the school as a core public institution.

The global policy design creates fragmentation at the local level

Donors’ focus on training and behaviour change is based on the assumption that these types of activities have a lasting impact after projects have phased out; it is believed to create sustainable change which requires short term project funding. Although teachers did report improvement in their teaching skills and being more aware of equal treatment of boys and girls, it seems to be this system in itself that contributes to the opposite; instability, frustration, distrust and weakening of the school as a core public institution.

Paradoxically, this happens in a time where aid coordination and country ownership is placed high on the global agenda. International agreements on aid effectiveness, such as the Paris/Accra agenda, were meant to reduce fragmentation by providing on-budget funding. However, the loss of faith in national governments – e.g. resulting from the large corruption scandal in Malawi mentioned above– made donors shift back to channelling aid through INGOs. This coincides with an increasingly prominent role for INGOs in global policy design and implementation and a focus on result-based interventions. However, it seems that the more ‘global’ aid becomes; the more fragmentation it creates at the local level.

Aid fragmentation threatens the quality of education

To sum up: The global focus on adolescent girls has made schools the main arena for intervention of NGO projects. It has made teachers responsible for adolescent reproductive health, while the health system is further weakened. Although the school welcomes the proliferation of NGOs due to structural underfunding, this development comes with its challenges. The dominant focus on training results in few tangible outcomes, which leads to a general perception of reversed beneficiaries - the ones high up in the aid chain benefit the most. This increases the demand for allowances among frustrated teachers.

Overlapping, uncoordinated and short term projects place a high burden on the school, and threaten the quality of education. However, NGOs operate in an environment of competition and uncertainty over funding. They are focused on implementing their own project and are incentivised to report success stories to donors. Therefore, the consequences of aid fragmentation for the school as a core public institution remain unacknowledged.

Photo: Lars Plougmann via Flickr


[1] National Statistical Office (NSO) [Malawi] and ICF International. 2016. Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2015-16: Key Indicators Report. Zomba, Malawi, and Rockville, Maryland, USA. NSO and ICF International.

By Hanneke Pot
Published Nov. 11, 2016 10:15 AM - Last modified May 3, 2022 9:41 AM

The SUM Blog

A blog about development, aid, global health, energy, governance, environmental issues, consumption and sustainability. Here, researchers and students at the Centre for Development and the Environment, UiO, write about research findings and areas we believe need to be given greater priority.