Ministerial Musical Chairs: World Bank Education Projects Lose Momentum amidst Leadership Churn in Borrowing Governments

Much ink has been spilled over the impact of borrowing country institutions and the policies and practices of donor organizations on aid effectiveness. But what do we know about the role of those individuals who often represent the key interface between country-level institutions and donor-funded projects? Government ministers are arguably the most important of such individuals as they are often the political custodians and administrative authorizers of development projects under their portfolio. But what happens to aid effectiveness in situations where cabinet positions are characterized by frequent turnover? This is particularly relevant in portfolios that are usually occupied by non-specialist appointees and are therefore prone to ministerial turnover driven by politics rather than the performance of the officeholder. In many countries, the education portfolio falls in this category.

In a new paper, I examine the link between ministerial continuity in borrower governments and the performance of World Bank education projects. The study employs the dataset of World Bank project performance ratings produced by the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) between 2000 and 2017, together with the global dataset on members of cabinet compiled by the WhoGov project. It should be noted that the notion of project “success” as measured by the IEG ratings is different from project “impact” since it is narrowly focused on progress towards specific project objectives and is often assessed subjectively. Still, it’s an important intermediate measure since a project usually needs to be operationally successful in order to have the desired impact.

Education projects witness higher ministerial turnover than health projects

As an initial step, I computed the total number of cabinet ministers with education-related portfolios over the duration of a project for 407 World Bank education projects. Figure 1 displays the distribution of the total number of education ministers per a year of project in juxtaposition with the corresponding measure for health projects, providing a comparator from a related human development sector as a reference. The median number of ministers presiding over the education portfolio per a year of an education project’s implementation is 0.57. In contrast, the median number of health ministers per a year of implementation of a health project is 0.33. The relatively high number of education ministers over the duration of a project can be attributed to a combination of high turnover of education ministers and the fragmentation of the education portfolio across multiple ministries.

Figure 1. Distribution of number of ministers for education and health during World Bank project implementation

More ministers during project implementation correlates with lower performance in the case of education, but not necessarily in health

My paper shows that a high number of education ministers during project implementation is associated with lower project performance. One standard deviation increase in the number of ministers responsible for the education portfolio during project implementation is associated with an 11-percentage-points decline in the probability of “satisfactory” project outcome.

In contrast, there is no statistically significant correlation between the number of ministers and project performance in the health sector. There are two potential explanations for this which could be tested empirically in future research. First, the content and structure of health projects make them more immune to high turnover at the most senior levels of government than education projects. Second, the variance in the capabilities of ministers appointed to health portfolios is usually smaller than that of education ministers, which helps to minimize the disruption caused by turnover.

Do the statistical results based on the 407 education projects have qualitative significance reflected in the narratives in the Project Performance Assessment Reports (PPARs)? To answer this, I conducted case studies of 23 education projects that underwent comprehensive field-based assessment. Figure 2 shows the projects for which ministerial turnover featured as a salient factor as part of the evaluation narratives in the Implementation Completion Review and PPARs. All projects in which ministerial turnover was mentioned are rated as less than satisfactory. Moreover, five of the six cases fall in the lower-right quadrant, where low project performance coincides with above median number of education minsters. This means the negative correlation between ministerial turnover and project performance obtained from the cross-country analysis is unlikely to be spurious.

Figure 2. Salience of ministerial turnover in project assessment narratives

The qualitative case studies also provide useful insights into why ministerial turnover appears to negatively impact project performance. The project narratives reveal that delays caused by transitions and changes in senior managers following the appointment of new ministers at ministries of education stand out as possible causal mechanisms. Particularly, the delays associated with transition between ministers are manifested in the form of slow disbursement at take-off stage and failures in inter-ministerial coordination that is often under the purview of ministers. On the other hand, contrary to expectation, the qualitative analysis demonstrates no obvious link between ministerial turnover and mid-course revisions of projects (supposedly initiated by new leadership) that could have undermined progress.

Strong supervision by World Bank staff could, to an extent, fill the void left by ministerial churn

Could World Bank supervision help to mitigate the negative effect of turnover on education projects by compensating for some of the gap on the government side? The answer is yes, to some extent. Figure 3 shows that the correlation between ministerial turnover and project performance depends on the quality of World Bank supervision. In projects with high-quality supervision, the probability of attaining a satisfactory outcome declines only marginally with the total number of education ministers. The corresponding decline in the probability of attaining a satisfactory outcome is much more dramatic in projects with low-quality supervision. Conversely, the probability of ending up with an unsatisfactory outcome increases significantly with the number of ministers under low quality supervision.

Figure 3. The role of World Bank supervision

Of course, not all turnover is bad for aid effectiveness as it could also help to weed out poorly performing ministers. However, the turnover of education ministers can be disruptive particularly when appointment is driven by political considerations rather than technocratic qualifications. Moreover, frequent change in ministers deprives them of the opportunity to learn on the job, which is often necessary for cabinet-level appointees with limited sectoral experience.

For both borrowing governments and the World Bank, it could be useful to put in place sufficient mitigation strategies at a design stage to reduce the potential impact of ministerial turnover in education projects. Safeguards to minimize delays in disbursement and inter-ministerial coordination that might be caused by transition between successive ministers are particularly important. It would be beneficial to strengthen supervision capabilities particularly in environments that are likely to suffer from high ministerial turnover. Since one of the channels through which ministerial turnover influences project performance is through associated changes in project management on the ministry’s side, the World Bank could help improve outcomes by proactively building the capacities of project implementation units.

I gratefully acknowledge helpful feedback from Justin Sandefur and two reviewers of the paper. Oluwakemi Oyewande provided excellent research assistance.


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