Comment to ‘The ghost in the aid machine’: Moving beyond managerialism

Development Policy08 Dec 2010Nilima Gulrajani

Rosario Leon’s reflections on the work of CERES in promoting national identity cards to poor, rural indigenous communities in Bolivia is a vivid account of the political tensions and the emotional effects that accompany prosaic administrative engagements in Aidland. Her real frustration, however, is not limited to donor’s ‘project tools’ but with the broader managerial approaches to development from which such tools emerge.

Leon’s tale of engagement with donor results-based management systems illustrates the problem with inserting managerial systems into the fluid, complex and politicized environments of the aid sector. Managerialism is a ‘set of beliefs and practices, at the core of which burns the seldom-tested assumption that better management will prove an effective solvent for a wide range of economic and social ills’.

Managerialism is premised on the inherent sluggishness and inflexibility of traditional public administration and advocates the insertion of business logics into public affairs that are meant to bring cost savings, innovation, flexibility and, above all, performance.

Results-based management (RBM) is the flagship tool of managerialism, a ‘cookbook’ that simplifies development’s complexity and confusion in order to produce knowledge that is supposed to be portable, comparable and generalizable. A new professional class of managers both designs and implements these ‘cookbooks’, their authority resting on their claims to universal management expertise.

RBM respects and propagates the managerial values of efficiency and neutrality. Efficiency travels as a powerful corporate metaphor of unquestioned and unanalyzed administrative good, even when it may come at the expense of other goals. Meanwhile, the trope of value-free management is meant to separate the science of effective administrative practice from the taint of political conflict and bias.

Leon’s tale illustrates the problem with managerial approaches in development. Firstly, the influence of donor managerialism is difficult to resist, particularly by those lower down the aid chain. When managerialism accompanies the power and financial clout of the international donor community, it effectively silences those reliant on its benevolence.

Potential challengers with better knowledge of local dynamics self-censor their criticisms, even if such criticisms are provided in the interests of performance. Leon’s frustration with donors’ unwillingness to contemplate the national identity project as producing valuable political and cultural transformations in Bolivia exemplifies the narrow parameters of managerial results. Managerialism clearly does not cope well with holism, exceptionalism and irregularity, its modus operandi based on specificity and standardization.

Secondly, managerialism disguises aid’s political functions and forms and presents aid as a feat of engineering, the exclusive engine of development in Leon’s words. This is problematic for a number of reasons. If aid is the exclusive engine of development, there is little hope of development. Trade, investment, human rights – it is a multiplicity of engines that offer greater prospects for improving lives and livelihood in the South.

Perhaps it is more accurate to describe aid then as the lubricant of multiple engines, a necessary requirement for the greasy, messy and difficult work of keeping the development machine churning. The lubricant of aid cannot maintain a clean separation from the political complexities and sensitivities that actually make the development machine work. Its function is political as it seeps into the spaces of development and keeps the gears of the machine moving. To the deep dismay of Leon however, aid’s current managerial form precludes it satisfying this omnipresent political function.

As a result, managerialism is engendering cognitive dissonance on the part of those subject to its straightjackets. Aid professionals are increasingly performers in the act of performance management, formally complying with managerial prescription but nevertheless exploiting opportunities to advance their competing visions of successful aid practice.

Leon admits with some regret the necessity of turning a blind eye to the rules of managerialism and inviting success where it can be achieved even if in contravention of rules, for example strengthening the capacity of consortium members or respecting the demands of the communities in which members were working. Her account presents the schizophrenia and emotional angst that is sadly becoming a required part of all job descriptions in Aidland.

Managerialism remains a powerful ideological current in development, the effects of which are felt up and down the aid chain. What is now needed is a strategy to dislodge its power and pervasive influence in foreign aid. A recent Institute of Development Studies Workshop at IDS Sussex may provide the foundation for a promising counter-offensive. This workshop sought to ‘push back’ against results-based management cultures and reaffirm the value of aid activities that are engaged in transformative processes that positively change people’s lives.

Hopefully for Leon – and for others like her working in aid who are motivated by much more than dreams of measurable results – this represents the start of collective resistance to donor managerialism and an opportunity to advance alternative ways of organizing, administering and assessing the untidy business of aid.

Alternatives should consider the aid relation as a non-linear and uncertain political process deeply embedded in conflictual local realities that implies few easy prescriptions and quick wins. Common-sense judgments from all parties would be welcomed, even when these challenge static performance metrics or efficiency benchmarks, as would values that embrace the civic and humanistic purposes of aid. A non-managerial development practice provides a counterpoint to donor managerialism worth advocating.


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
  1. Pollitt, C. (1990) Managerialism and the Public Service: The Anglo-American Experience. Basil Blackwell, p. 1.
  2. See: