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Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish: How Does Autonomy for Field Agents Affect Development Project Outcomes?


Dan Honig
Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)


Bill Savedoff
Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

Vivek Srivastava
Lead Public Sector Specialist, World Bank


Michael Clemens
Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

Bureaucracies with field operations that cannot be easily supervised and monitored are often caught in two potential sources of dysfunctions: field agents using asymmetric information to their own advantage, and limiting fields agents’ ability to use the same information to improve projects. In his new paper, Dan Honig examines this trade-off in the context international development organizations (IDOs).

He examines whether, when, and how the stability of political authorizing environments for IDOs affects project success via constraining organizational (and consequently field agent) autonomy using both quantitative and qualitative methods. It employs regression analysis of a novel dataset—evaluations of over 14,000 projects from nine international development organizations—using holistic project outcomes as a measure of success, the State Fragility Index as a measure of environmental unpredictability, and both expert surveys and a measure constructed from organization-level responses to Paris Declaration monitoring surveys as measures of aid organization autonomy. The key finding is that politically constrained organizational autonomy often has deleterious impacts on project success, with increasing returns to autonomy in fragile states and in project domains where it is more difficult to externally observe (and thus contract on) outcomes. Inasmuch as measurement (particularly legitimacy-seeking output measurement) is a constraint on organizational autonomy, this augurs for less organizational navigation by measurement and more organizational navigation by judgment in more unpredictable environments and less contractible task domains.

*The CIRF series is an academic research seminar that brings some of the world's leading development scholars to discuss their new research and ideas. The presentations are at times technical, but retain a focus on a mixed audience of researchers and policymakers. There’s more about the series here.

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