20. Harnessing national development plans to drive local and global actions

Willem Fourie
University of Pretoria

The author would like to acknowledge and thank Christopher Marais for his support in preparing this chapter.

  • Development co-operation providers have committed to aligning their support with beneficiary and country needs and priorities. One way of doing so is the substantive use of the priorities contained within national development plans.

  • When they reflect the real diversity of possible development pathways and the value of locally owned and developed solutions, national development plans have the potential to strengthen development co-operation by encouraging context-specific approaches and tackling complex development priorities iteratively and experimentally.

  • Despite their weaknesses and complexities, which can lead to misuse by self-interested domestic elites and donors to serve private, commercial or strategic needs, national development plans should be used as instruments to inspire funders to address the global causes of domestic development challenges.

Development co-operation is in flux. Escalating global tensions and the existential threat posed by climate change are accelerating geopolitical changes long in the making. Against this backdrop, debates on a world “beyond aid” continue. Various alternative ideas for financing development have emerged, among them proposals for global policy finance, global public investment, international development contributions, sustainable development investment and new development assistance (Mélonio, Naudet and Rioux, 2022[1]). In parallel, the norms and institutions that undergird development co-operation are being questioned to the extent that some have described the current period as one of norm “confusion” (Esteves and Klingebiel, 2020[2]).

These lively debates on financing development and reform of its norms and institutions are urgent and important. This chapter looks behind the “how” of development co-operation and instead focuses mainly on the “what”. Specifically, it visits a topic – the use of national development plans for prioritising aid allocations in African countries – that, from one perspective, seems to pale compared to the debates on financing development and reforming its norms and institutions. From another perspective, however, this theme helps unpack the challenges and opportunities related to providers’ renewed focus on relevance in development co-operation, which is described as the “extent to which the intervention’s objectives and design respond to beneficiaries’ global, country and partner/institution needs, policies and priorities, and continue to do so if circumstances change” (OECD, 2021, p. 38[3]).

It is frequently stated that there is no silver bullet in development. Rather, countries that are perceived to have been “successful” pursued a relatively diverse set of economic and other policies (Dercon, 2022, p. 14[4]).

Their pathways differ due to a host of factors, including the structure of their political economy, their geography, their history and colonial legacy, and, as argued more recently, the nature of the deals among the elite. Regarding elite bargains, Dercon (2022, p. 93[4]), in Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose, argues that some countries (Malawi and Sierra Leone, for example) need to find pathways that take into account their extensive yet informal ethnic, personal business and crime networks. Other countries must deal with predatory1 and clientelist structures (e.g. the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria) or need to find ways to design and commit to pathways out of conflict (e.g. South Sudan) (Dercon, 2022, pp. 126, 144[4]).

Arguments in favour of a multiplicity of development pathways resonate with the more radical critiques of the assumed end goal of development. Post-development theorists use the term pluriversality to critique the assumption that all countries should, ultimately, develop following the same pathways towards the same end goal (Kothari et al., 2019[5]; Escobar, 2020[6]). According to these and other theorists, development is ultimately successful when diverse, locally owned and locally developed solutions are applied towards a plurality of goals.

These theorists specifically problematise the assumption that the attainment of Western values and lifestyles should be seen as the end goal of development. They argue that any developmental goal predicated on “the blind pursuit of economic growth” and built on “destruction and appropriation of ecological and human bodies and cultures” should be rejected (Büscher et al., 2021[7]).

The use of national development plans (NDPs) in development co-operation comes after a resurgence in national development planning after the mid-2010s. Whereas only 62 countries had a national development strategy in 2007, more than 130 had such a strategy in 2017 (Chimhowu, Hulme and Munro, 2019[8]). Indeed, processes of national planning are not unique to developing countries. OECD countries also juggle challenges of complexity, coherence and prioritisation.

An analysis conducted for this chapter of African countries’ NDPs illustrate the complexities of countries’ development priorities. This complexity is evident, first, in the large number of topics covered by NDPs. In this regard, an analysis of the 20 most commonly used keywords in 15 African NDPs is instructive. As shown in Figure 20.1, the main thematic clusters in these plans cover a broad range of themes encompassing economic, social, environmental and governance-related topics. It is important to note that each identified thematic cluster is relatively broad, amplifying the impression that the NDPs in the sample covered a large number of themes.

The economy cluster, for example, includes keywords such as growth, gross domestic product (GDP), trade, production and employment. Clustered together under infrastructure are wide-ranging topics such as municipal, district, county and regional-level institutions, as well as promoting the efficiency and stability of institutions.

Even more revealing, however, is the fact that the top 20 most common keywords in each NDP align, on average, with 12 thematic clusters. In thematically focused documents, one would expect the most frequently used keywords to align with a small number of thematic clusters – at least when topic clusters are as broadly defined as in this analysis. However, this is not the case in the NDPs analysed. Even at a high level, it was clear that the plans covered a large and diverse set of topics.

A second indication of the complexities of development priorities is that the NDPs analysed tend to contain multiple internal logics. This means they contain multiple priorities that will be difficult or at worst impossible to attain simultaneously.

This multiplicity is usefully illustrated by analysis of the internal logics contained in seven African NDPs with the aid of natural language processing (NLP).2 While NLP does not provide any conclusive evidence of multiple logics, the identified topic clusters offer a glimpse of potential micro-logics contained in the NDPs analysed. This is because NLP does not merely count words and phrases but adds an understanding of their meaning and context. To be conclusive, these clusters and the related assumptions need to be validated by speaking to decision makers and analysing the respective policies and legislation in depth.

Figure 20.2 provides a snapshot of topic clusters and therewith an indication of possible internal logics contained in the development plans analysed. This snapshot is the result of the NLP analysis after the initial results were cleaned.

In Cameroon’s development plan, for example, forestry and the promotion of agriculture are clustered together. Another cluster of topics is increased oil exports and GDP. These two clusters of topics point towards different micro-logics. The promotion of GDP growth through more oil and gas exports could imply an extractive economic logic, which could be difficult to reconcile with environmentally sustainable development. However, the promotion of agriculture and forestry – if done sustainably – could be easier to reconcile with environmentally sustainable development.

Kenya’s development priorities, according to the NLP analysis, include a focus on both promoting entrepreneurship as a way to develop its youth and building sophisticated scientific capabilities, including nanotechnology and biotechnology. Whereas these clusters of priorities are not necessarily in conflict, they raise questions about the viability of resource-intensive investment in building scientific capabilities while simultaneously addressing the immediate concern of youth unemployment through entrepreneurship promotion. Additionally, engagement with policy makers will need to determine whether the expressed goal of reforming the education curriculum will, in fact, enable many of the other priorities on the list.

The NLP-aided identification of multiple topic clusters and possible micro-logics highlights the complexity of both identifying suitable sustainable development pathways and capturing these in development plans. From one perspective, these plans contain many development priorities without explicit prioritisation and, at times, include priorities that may be at odds with one another. From a different perspective, however, both the large number of topics and what seem to be multiple internal logics could be seen as an illustration of a more fundamental point: The African national development priorities analysed contain a plurality of explicit and assumed development pathways.

It could be that development plans that apply what Chimhowu, Hulme and Munro (2019[8]) call a “collaborative rationality” are more likely to contain multiple logics. Such plans are compiled through a process of “communication and negotiation”’ that requires the involvement of “numerous individuals who bargain and negotiate from varying power bases to achieve objectives that at least partially reflect their self-interest” (Chimhowu, Hulme and Munro, 2019[8]). Plans that apply this rationality are widespread – more than 60% of the 107 development plans analysed in a recent study (Chimhowu, Hulme and Munro, 2019[8]). In contrast ...with plans that employ a top-down, expert-led approach, the legitimacy of a bottom-up plan rests on the extent to which it reflects broad societal consensus.

...with plans that employ a top-down, expert-led approach, the legitimacy of a bottom-up plan rests on the extent to which it reflects broad societal consensus.   

The complexity inherent to demand-side NDPs, as illustrated by the African sample analysed, is further intensified by the difficulty of achieving and retaining a broad and stable national consensus. This is because of the “deeply pluralistic and diverse conditions of most developing countries” (Black, 2020, p. O118[9]), which in turn limit their capacity for “national consensus’”. Put differently, the intensity of competing interests, societal fractures and institutional unevenness that characterises most developing countries makes national consensus short lived.

On one level, the breadth of topics and multiplicity of internal logics contained in many development plans should not be surprising. Assuming that NDPs map out the country’s priorities across sectors and departments and that they communicate some sort of consensus in societies that are socio-politically complex and in flux, the plans should contain multiple topics and logics. Fundamentally, this complexity is, of course, not a feature of development planning solely in Africa. As acknowledged and addressed by the policy coherence for sustainable development agenda, making sense of multiple and even competing priorities is a challenge all governments face.

Yet the complexity of development plans poses a risk to developmental progress, especially when development plans are used in development co-operation. The breadth of topics and multiplicity of logics in such plans can be used to legitimise the status quo, thus disabling changed behaviour and better outcomes for citizens. This danger plays out both domestically and in development co-operation.

A national development plan containing a wide range of topics and logics can be misused, first by overly self-interested domestic elites. By cherry-picking priorities that align with existing patrimonial networks, domestic elites can privatise aid. The propensity of the domestic elites to privatise aid in settings with weak institutions has been illustrated in large-scale studies (Asongu and Nwachukwu, 2015[10]). Recently, aid disbursements have been correlated with sharp increases in offshore bank deposits even after shocks such as conflict, natural disasters and financial crises have been accounted for (Andersen, Johannesen and Rijkers, 2020[11]).

Elite capture has been associated with a broad range of perverse outcomes. It has been found, for example, that unaccountable political elites end up being held to lower standards than would have been the case for more accountable leaders. A study on political accountability in Mali that covered 95 localities showed this. When voters become used to politicians who do not serve the interests of the electorate, they tend to lower their expectations of such poor-performing politicians, in effect sanctioning unaccountable behaviour (Gottlieb, 2015[12]). Unaccountable political elites thus often initiate a negative cycle: A lack of accountability confirms citizens’ (already low) expectations, which leads to “feelings of cynicism and despair” that cause citizens to become even less likely to hold the political elite accountable (de la Cuesta et al., 2022[13]).

The propensity of some elites and funders to misuse overly broad development priorities resembles superficial alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), increasingly referred to as “rainbow” washing (Gutierrez et al., 2022[16])  

Aid providers can exploit plans’ complexity to serve their own interests. Whereas NDPs, used well, should enable the building of stronger partnerships and better outcomes for citizens, their complexity can be used to do the opposite. Overly self-interested funders can use complex African development priorities to serve their domestic needs. They are able to do so by categorising interventions that provide them with “short-term commercial and geo-strategic advantages” (Gulrajani and Silcock, 2020[14]) as compliant with local priorities, without due attention to the interest of recipients. Levels of self-interest among traditional and new providers of aid remain a lively topic of debate. France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, for example, provide more aid to trade partners while aid allocations by the People’s Republic of China (hereafter “China”) reflect the importance it attaches to the ‘‘One-China policy” (Hoeffler and Sterck, 2022[15]). The propensity of some elites and funders to misuse overly broad development priorities resembles superficial alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), increasingly referred to as “rainbow” washing (Gutierrez et al., 2022[16]). At the core of this criticism is the use of the SDGs to legitimise projects and activities that predate the SDGs. Much of the research in this area has been done at the organisational level (Heras‐Saizarbitoria, Urbieta and Boiral, 2021[17]), but the fundamental principle can be generalised to apply to engagement between countries.

Despite the possibility of misuse, the ambitions and complexity inherent to African and other NDPs have the potential to strengthen the relevance of development co-operation in countries in at least two ways. First, this complexity can open up additional development pathways. Second, it can highlight the global origins of differentiated national priorities, incentivising aid providers to adapt to the challenges recipient countries are facing.

African development plans are complex as they contain multiple priorities and logics. This complexity questions the assumptions that scalable and shared pathways and a universal silver bullet for development exist. It also resonates with arguments put forward by post-development scholars who, echoing the Zapatista movement, argue for development that enables “a world in which many worlds fit” (de la Cadena and Blaser, 2018, p. 1[18]).

Despite contradictions and weaknesses in their criticisms (Masaki, 2021[19]), post-development scholars articulate the widely held perception that dominant economic growth models need to change fundamentally (UBS, 2022[20]; Spence, 2012[21]). They argue that these models were influenced and promoted by the West under the pretext that they represent universal and thus unquestionable approaches to economic development. This universalism, according to post-development scholars, is a key feature of “Eurocentric modernity” (Kothari et al., 2019, p. xxxiii[5]).

One way of incorporating this criticism into development co-operation is to acknowledge the existence of multiple development pathways and actively engage partners on these alternative pathways to development. Doing so constructively would require acceptance among providers and recipients of “partial connections” between Western modernity and other perspectives on development (Masaki, 2021, p. 11[19]). Distinct from views that critical approaches to development are irreconcilable with the status quo, acknowledgement of partial connections (Araya Moreno, 2016[22]) enables a broadening of the developmental pathways that are pursued.

Accepting the fact of multiple development pathways may also require an approach to development co-operation that takes experimentation seriously. Used in this context, experimentation does not refer to the so-called “experimental turn” in development co-operation (Donovan, 2018[23]) and the attendant use of field experiments (de Souza Leão, 2020[24]). Rather, experimentation means withstanding the temptation to scale so-called global best practices, focusing instead on tackling complex national development priorities that can be addressed iteratively and experimentally within specific contexts.

Among the many experimental approaches to development available, problem-driven iterative adaptation remains particularly useful, with the focus falling on active, ongoing and experimental learning (Andrews, Pritchett and Woolcock, 2013[25]). Iterative feedback on lessons learnt is then incorporated into project design. As de Renzio (2016[26]) also highlighted, this approach implies experimentation with “local problem-solving” (Booth, 2012, p. 84[27]) rather than trying to apply pre-defined solutions.

Controversially, such an experimental approach should allow for projects and reforms that could initially be criticised for being unprofessional, failing to meet global standards and even “promoting non-best-practice solutions” (Andrews, Pritchett and Woolcock, 2013[25]). Rather than simplifying the complexity of the problem faced, this approach allows for identifying entry points while acknowledging multiple causes of the problems. Incorporating locally driven experimentation and iteration into the centre of development co-operation should also increase the resilience of relationships and projects in socio economically and politically complicated settings.

Incorporating locally driven experimentation and iteration into the centre of development co-operation should also increase the resilience of relationships and projects in socio-economically and politically complicated settings.   

Examples of such locally responsive experimental projects include involving town chiefs in Malawi – local urban leaders leveraging traditional symbols – in development projects and, in Niger, supporting primary healthcare facilities to collect small amounts from patients to fund fuel and staffing costs of emergency evacuations of pregnant women (Booth, 2012, pp. 81-82[27]).

Supporting a diversity of development pathways at the expense of the supranational origins of the underlying problems would be a mistake. Simply put, many of the priorities articulated in developing countries’ development plans are determined by forces beyond their borders. This is why NDPs can also be used as instruments to inspire funders to identify and address the global causes of recipient challenges.

The disproportionate effects of climate change in developing countries offer a vivid and urgent illustration of global causes, local effects and their interdependence. Consider its effects on food insecurity. As Africa’s farmers mostly use rain-fed systems, climate change-induced changes in rainfall patterns make farmers particularly vulnerable, with a knock-on effect on food security. According to some estimates, non-agricultural households in Africa, unsurprisingly, are thus facing price increases of staples of up to 60% due to climate change (Nyiwul, 2021[28]). Relatedly, recent estimates show that increasing temperatures have contributed to a 34% reduction in Africa’s agricultural productivity since 1960 (World Meteorological Organization, 2022, p. 27[29]).

As Africa is the region with the lowest levels of climate change readiness (Figure 20.3) and climate change resilience (Figure 20.4), African nations will be among the least able to address both the global causes and local effects of the problems underlying their development priorities. It is also projected that the effects of climate change will put additional pressure on African states’ ability to respond: The African Development Bank estimates the cost of climate change adaptation in Africa at between 1.7% and 1.8% of GDP, whereas the cost in other regions is estimated at 1.3% to 1.4% (African Development Bank, 2022[30]). At the same time, however, Africa continues to contribute the smallest share of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that Africa contributes 3.8%, compared to 23% for China, 19% for the United States and 13% for the European Union (CDP, 2020[31]).

One way in which funders can support developing countries, especially in Africa, to address the effects of climate change is by using NDPs as a starting point that is concrete and tangible and linked to the expressed aspirations of recipients of foreign aid. Moreover, bilateral development co-operation providers can mobilise across their administrations to champion the interests of developing countries fairly in the institutions and institutional arrangements set up to deal with global public goods. These include multilateral organisations, international treaties, issue-specific “clubs” and international regimes (Buchholz and Sandler, 2021[32]).

At the national level, development co-operation providers need to engage more critically and effectively with policy coherence issues. Changing policies and behaviours in the countries that provide funding would also help developing countries address their challenges, thinking that is echoed in the established discourse around policy coherence for sustainable development. This discourse acknowledges that provider countries’ policies have “transboundary” and “international” dimensions and should ensure that the current generation leave adequate economic, natural, human and social capital for future generations (OECD, 2016, p. 62[33]).

Using foreign aid to assist recipient countries without changing potentially contradictory provider country policies and practices seems illogical and inefficient. An often cited and hotly debated example is the aid devoted to agriculture. It is generally accepted that funders that are truly interested in the value their agricultural aid could unlock should also attend to their own policy environment (Cohen, 2019[34]). This includes reconsidering their trade policies, local agricultural subsidies, and regulation of dumping and rapidly reducing carbon emissions emanating from the agricultural sector.

Addressing the global or supranational origins of the developmental challenges experienced in recipient countries is intimately connected with debates on foreign aid and the protection and provision of global public goods.

Funders would do well to take development plans seriously as the upsurge in national development planning seems far from abating – not only in Africa but also globally.

If used to drive better outcomes, development plans challenge funders to rethink how they allocate funding. Rather than using the many topics and logics contained in development plans to legitimise pre-existing supply-side priorities, aid providers should critique their own assumptions on development good practices and pathways.

Such an approach opens up the opportunity to experiment with atypical priorities, projects and modalities of implementation instead of using so-called global best practices as their starting point. Using development plans in this way requires funders to be willing to invest the time needed to understand the recipient country’s perspective on its own development priorities while retaining the agility to respond to the shifting commitments that invariably characterise institutions in consolidating democracies.

Development plans also challenge funders to acknowledge the supranational origins of some of the problems faced by recipients. The benefit of using the priorities contained in NDPs is that they convey a sense of contextual sensitivity and concreteness that some aid funders might feel is absent in debates on foreign aid and global public goods. These expressed priorities also expand the funders’ sphere of action beyond the provision of aid.


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← 1. A predatory state is generally viewed as a collection of state institutions that gives the regime and its elites an advantage over and at the expense of citizens.

← 2. This analysis used a pre-trained version of Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, known as BERT, which incorporates an understanding of the context in which words and phrases are used. The benefit of using NLP is that it provides a more granular understanding of the relation between topics in a national development plan.

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