The Impact of Aid Dynamics on State Effectiveness and Legitimacy


Efforts to build state capacity in developing countries are often predicated on the assumption that external partners can help states improve their effectiveness and earn legitimacy by providing aid for public service provision. In a theory-building exercise, this paper advances a typology of aid dynamics in order to afford a granular picture of how development assistance for public service provision interacts with internal governance processes in recipient countries. Developing a conjunctural conceptualization of aid dynamics, we articulate how the impact of foreign aid depends not just on how much money is involved but also on whether donors or recipient governments are more influential in designing and implementing aid programs. We illustrate the descriptive utility of this typology by applying it to our empirical research on aid in the health and education sectors in Cambodia, Laos, and Uganda. We also probe causal expectations emerging from the typology, anticipating that aid for public service delivery has distinct and separate effects on state effectiveness and legitimacy depending on the precise aid conjuncture through which it is conceived and delivered. We conclude with suggestions for further research on the impact of foreign aid on state–society relations through the lens of public service delivery.

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  1. 1.

    The World Bank’s twentieth flagship development report in 1997 was devoted to the role and effectiveness of the state and to the potential for aid to assist in building institutional capacity (World Bank 1997).

  2. 2.

    While the term “dynamics” can imply a temporal process, our work relies on the meaning of the term that references the interplay between different forces, thus capturing the inherently multi-faceted and interactive nature of aid. In prior work, we identify the nature of specific aid dynamics as a key independent variable determining the causal effects of externally assisted statebuilding and peacebuilding processes on the outcomes of state capacity and the depth of peace (Barma, Levy, and Piombo 2017). While the dimensions of aid dynamics remain intact conceptually, we have refined their labels in this paper.

  3. 3.

    Cammett and MacLean (2011: 294) similarly argue that the political and governance effects of non-state provision of public services through foreign aid are “contingent on the types of relationships between state and non-state providers.”

  4. 4.

    The nature of aid may certainly be characterized using other dimensions we have not identified here. Our empirical work leads us to believe that the three dimensions we have focused upon are the most significant and encompass within them many other dimensions of variation that have been identified in the literature.

  5. 5.

    According to the World Bank’s (n.d.) World Development Indicators (accessed February 16, 2019), all three of these cases fall in the upper quartile of aid-receiving states, based on average levels of net overseas development aid as a percentage of government expenditures from 2008 to 2017.

  6. 6.

    In building a typology, analysts “iterate between what was theorized a priori, what is known empirically, and what is learned from additional empirical study” (Bennett 2014: 221–222).

  7. 7.

    In our typology, the description of each aid dynamics type rests on the interaction of development partners and recipient governments. We label each type of aid dynamic from the donor perspective because our analytical focus lies in explaining when international assistance is effective at creating the outcomes it seeks.

  8. 8.

    We do not have empirical observations for all eight aid constellations from our current sample of countries and sectors. In particular, our empirical observations come from cases in which aid implementation is mostly government-managed. This could be because more heavily donor-managed implementation of aid in service delivery occurs in countries that have emerged more recently from conflict than the three countries in our study, which are at present quite far removed from conflict. This potential temporal aspect of the aid implementation dimension is an issue worth further study.

  9. 9.

    Barma (2016) takes a parallel conjunctural and endogenous analytical approach to understanding the outcomes of international peacebuilding interventions.

  10. 10.

    We use the term “state capacity” in this paper to encompass a general and multidimensional understanding of different elements of state strength. In Barma et al. (2017), for example, we advance a multidimensional understanding of what we term state coherence that comprises effectiveness, legitimacy, and authority. See, also, Hendrix (2010) and Kyle and Resnick (2019) on viewing state capacity as multidimensional.

  11. 11.

    See, also, Schmelzle and Stollenwerk (2018).

  12. 12.

    Our discussion here is limited to those constellations of aid dynamics where aid implementation is, on balance, more government-managed than donor-managed. This is both a conscious choice made in the interest of space as well as one made for reasons of practicality, since our empirical observations fall mainly on the more government-managed side of the aid implementation dimension.


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Correspondence to Naazneen H. Barma.

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This paper forms part of a broader research project led by the three co-authors and funded by a multi-year Minerva Research Initiative grant awarded in 2013. We wish to thank Robert Blair, Pierre Englebert, Martha Johnson, Melissa Lee, Claire Mcloughlin, Rachel Sigman, and Matthew Winters for their invaluable feedback on earlier iterations of this work. We are also indebted to those who shared their time and insights with us in Cambodia, Laos, and Uganda, and to two successive teams of undergraduate research fellows at Santa Clara University.

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Barma, N.H., Levy, N. & Piombo, J. The Impact of Aid Dynamics on State Effectiveness and Legitimacy. St Comp Int Dev 55, 184–203 (2020).

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  • Foreign aid
  • State effectiveness
  • Government legitimacy
  • Development assistance
  • Public service delivery