The Case Against Branding Development Aid in Fragile States

Immediately after September 11, the US government and other international donors and aid agencies intensified “branding” of aid as a means of winning recipients’ hearts and minds and getting the credit they believed they deserved for doing good. Branding—emblazing a donor’s flag or aid agency logo on everything from food aid to bridges—received renewed focus after the 2008 financial crisis and the era of austerity. In this case, it was intended to increase domestic support for aid. But even though significant resources have been poured into branding, its benefits are iffy at best and counterproductive at worst. Studies of its impact tend to pay little attention to how branding affects the relationship between recipient governments and their publics, but evidence shows that it can have corrosive systemic impacts.

Donor attitudes toward branding

Why do donors brand their aid? After September 11, US development aid was more fully integrated into the US National Security Strategy, with development becoming the third “D” of national security after defense and diplomacy. In its branding manual, USAID complains that “beneficiaries of US aid receive billions of dollars of foreign assistance every year, often with little to no awareness that the assistance is provided by the American people.”

The UK used a similar justification when it adopted its policy of affixing the Union Jack to British aid. Likewise, the European Union  branding manual was “designed to ensure that actions that are wholly or partially funded by the European Union incorporate information and communication activities designed to raise the awareness of specific or general audiences.” These changes in Washington, Brussels, and other donor capitals were soon felt in the field, where “visibility” became an outcome to be measured.

Branding’s damaging impacts

At the core of every functioning society is an agreement between the state and its people. The state provides certain public goods—security, healthcare, education, infrastructure, law enforcement, and so on—and the people pay taxes, observe the rule of law, and cede certain areas of their lives to the state. The measure of a country’s dysfunction is proportionate to the extent to which this contract, and the rules that govern it, are widely accepted as legitimate. In most low-income countries, this space is fraught with opportunities and challenges. Perception and proof that the state is not holding up its end of the bargain have systemwide consequences, ranging from protests to separatism. In many low-income countries, the state’s presence is mostly felt in city centers; the further one moves from the center, the less people see and feel the state’s presence. Public goods like roads, hospitals, and schools are the most significant ways the state can make its benevolent presence felt.

These circumstances are even more acute in post-conflict, low-income countries where warring factions previously challenged the state’s monopoly over the use of violence and even assumed state-like functions over territory they controlled. At the end of such conflicts, reconstruction is not simply physical rebuilding—it is equally about restoring the administrative integrity of the state and asserting its writ. The ability of the state to provide public goods to its people and to receive credit for providing them plays an essential role in reestablishing legitimacy.

It is in this complex space that third-party partners of the state (USAID, EU, NGOs) operate and brand their interventions. And as much (questionable) benefits these partners might derive from branding, it could have significant negative consequences on the already-tenuous social contract. These partners don’t acknowledge that the same motivations that lead them to brand aid exist equally for local governments and with more urgency in fragile states. Development partners brand aid so they can get credit for their good work, but local governments want and need credit to maintain their legitimacy with their people. In taking credit through branded aid, donors arguably undermine their national security interests by weakening the social contract between the state and its people and delegitimizing local governments.

As minister of public works in Liberia, I regularly encountered the negative impacts of aid branding when I appeared on radio talk shows to provide updates on development projects. Callers would consistently attempt to separate what was done by donor partners from what was done by the government. It was not uncommon for callers to refuse to give the government credit for securing the aid because the project was financed and branded by USAID, the World Bank, or the African Development Bank. They would argue that the government was merely incidental, that the partners would do the same work regardless of who was in power.

Because the evidence is mixed on whether branding actually benefits donor agencies and governments, but evidence shows that aid branding can have corrosive systemic effects on the relationship between recipient governments and their people, development aid branding should be restricted to a narrow set of interventions, including humanitarian responses to natural disasters (tsunamis, hurricanes, and disease outbreaks) and governance surveys and reports. They should not be extended to infrastructure projects and other social services, public goods that should be provided by the government.

Undermining country ownership

For the last two decades, donors have been pushing aid recipient governments, justifiably, to take ownership of their own development—and aid-receiving governments have responded. One of the largest aid programs built on this concept of local ownership is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact. Compacts are awarded because of the state’s commitment to good governance and reform. As my CGD colleague Sarah Rose notes, the idea behind the focus on good governance is to reward countries taking responsibility for their own development. Very few countries are ultimately selected to receive a compact because of the rigorous process involved in which countries need to consistently “pass” at least 10 out of 20 of the MCC’s scorecard governance indicators (especially Control of Corruption) for five years. To then emblazon the resulting projects—roads, power plants, airports—with MCC billboards would be counterproductive and would undercut the government “ownership” outcome.

To brand or not to brand?

So, when is it appropriate for donors to brand their aid? In response to large-scale humanitarian crises it makes sense for donors to brand aid to improve their reputations and increase domestic support. In these situations, it matters more that donor countries feel confident that they have the support of their people to provide substantial aid and that they need not worry about political blowback.

Surveys and reports measuring local governance, like Demographic and Health Surveys, also benefit from outside branding because such branding lends credibility that the outcomes of these surveys and reports are not controlled by the government.

Outside of these two narrow circumstances, and others determined exclusively by context, development aid should be deployed for systemic impact—to provide the tangible benefits to the local people and the intangible benefit of strengthening the social compact between the state and its people.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Social media image by Ellie Van Houtte/USAID