How do other countries perceive the US government's global development influence?

With the recent White House Global Development Summit and passage of the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act (FATAA), it is an opportune time to reflect on lessons learned from the United States’ performance as a development partner. How do stakeholders in partner countries perceive the US government’s (USG) performance in terms of the usefulness of its policy advice, influence in setting reform priorities, and helpfulness in reform implementation?

Globally, the US is the single largest bilateral donor. However, influencing development outcomes in partner countries requires more than just money—it is about engaging with host governments and local partners, providing advice, and assisting with the implementation of reforms in priority areas. In our 2014 Reform Efforts Survey, we asked in-country stakeholders in 126 low- and middle-income countries who held leadership positions during 2004–13 about their experiences working with development partners. Based on responses from nearly 7000 senior and mid-level staff in in-country governments, development partner organizations, the private sector, and civil society, we uncover some interesting insights on the USG’s performance.

Comparing the US with similar donors

It is useful to group similar types of donor agencies into cohorts for comparison purposes, as "large" donors who sit on the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC) may have different opportunities and challenges than comparably sized bilateral agencies from "non-DAC" countries, such as China, or multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank.

Among these three donor cohorts—multilateral, DAC bilateral and non-DAC bilateral—represented by the World Bank, the US and China (the largest donors in each cohort), the World Bank comes out on top on all three measures of performance, closely followed by the US. Within its own cohort of the five largest DAC bilaterals, the US consistently comes up on top across all three performance indicators.

The USG does much better on agenda-setting influence (ranking 13th out of 57 development partners) than it does on the usefulness of advice and helpfulness in reform implementation. Why might this be the case? One potential explanation relates to its outsized financial weight. While money does not make development partner advice seem more useful, it does appear to buy a measure of agenda-setting influence.

Figure 1: The US performs comparatively better than other large DAC bilaterals

Usefulness of Advice
Agenda-Setting Influence
Helpfulness in Reform Implementation (0-5)
25. United States [3.221] 13. United States [2.472] 24. United States [3.212]
30. Germany [3.139] 28. Germany [2.082] 25. Germany [3.203]
31. United Kingdom [3.122] 32. United Kingdom [3.108] 28. United Kingdom [3.108]
33. Japan [3.036] 34. Japan [1.832] 31. Japan [3.054]
45. France [2.625] 38. France [1.074] 44. France [2.714]

The usefulness of policy advice is measured on a scale of 1 through 5, with 1 indicating "almost never", 2 "less than half the time", 3 "about half the time", 4 "more than half the time", and 5 "almost always." Agenda setting influence and helpfulness in reform implementation are both measured on a scale of 0-5, with 0 indicating the least influence/helpfulness and 5 the most influence/helpfulness.

What does this influence look like in different countries? Scores on agenda-setting influence indicate that respondents in countries in Europe and Central Asia have the most favorable views of the US. Of the ten countries that gave the highest score to the US in terms of agenda-setting influence, five are in Eastern Europe.

Figure 2: USG is perceived as more influential in Eastern Europe and Central Asia than other regions

Figure 2:  USG is perceived as more influential in Eastern Europe and Central Asia than other regions

Agenda-setting influence is measured on a scale of 0-5, with 0 indicating the least influence and 5 the most influence.

Interestingly, the two largest recipients of aid from the US during 2004-13—Afghanistan and Iraq—sit on very different places in this list. While Afghanistan is in the top ten, respondents in Iraq rated the USG relatively poorly. This poor performance is heightened when we consider the responses of Iraqi government officials only, indicating that civil society support in Iraq makes up a large share of the USG’s overall perceived influence.

The variation in USG performance across countries merits further analysis, but two broad lessons are coming into view. First, to support durable reforms in low- and middle-income countries, it is important that the US build broad coalitions with domestic actors at various levels, including, but not limited to, those in the executive branch. Second, the US should focus on aligning proposed reforms with country priorities, as this is strongly associated with favorable perceptions of a development partner’s influence by in-country stakeholders. Incorporating these lessons into future development strategy will help the USG sustain the momentum on monitoring and evaluation that FATAA and other similar initiatives have triggered.

For further reading, see Listening To Leaders: Which Development Partners Do They Prefer and Why.

Author's Note: Our thanks to Takaaki Masaki for his help with analysis and visuals.

Tanya Sethi is a Policy Specialist at AidData. She contributes to the policy team's analysis, publications, and outreach. Some of her current work focuses on tracking finances towards the SDGs, exploring the barriers to use of data in developing countries, and summarizing AidData's research for a policy audience.

Takaaki Masaki is a Data Analyst and Research Fellow at AidData. Takaaki has a Ph.D. in Government at Cornell University, an MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, and a BA in Liberal Arts from Soka University of America.