Bilateral Donors and the Age of the National Interest: What Prospects for Challenge by Development Agencies?

Elsevier, World Development, Volume 96, August 2017, Pages 375-389
Nilima Gulrajani


Foreign aid agencies represent and champion global development priorities within a donor nation. Increasingly however, these agencies sit within donor governments that are strongly committed to upholding the national interest through their development commitments. This paper is concerned with how bilateral aid agencies manage this tension and how they might continue to serve the altruistic aims of development. The main research question asks if autonomy—or a combination of autonomies—can improve a development agency’s ability to defend the humanitarian imperative of development against normative pressures privileging the national interest? By drawing on theories of autonomy within public management literatures, it is possible to identify points of leverage for development agencies where spaces for autonomous preferences and actions remain, as well as sources of limitation where such opportunities are considerably reduced. Six types of autonomy are examined across three nations widely perceived as strong performers as donors—Norway, the UK, and Sweden. The paper suggests that while structural autonomy is critical for preserving humanitarian motivations, there are also unexplored opportunities within other autonomous spheres. A multi-dimensional examination of autonomy highlights the varying capacity that development agencies have to resist pressures to strongly nationalize the global development project.