What Is “Country Ownership”? A Formal Exploration of the Aid Relationship

October 11, 2019


The aid literature and high-level accords like the Paris Declaration argue that “country ownership” is critical to the effectiveness of aid. In response, donors and recipients renamed themselves “development partners,” obscuring the tendency for country ownership benefits (i.e. more successful and sustainable programs) to come at the expense of satisfying the funding countries’ priorities. 

This paper illustrates the tradeoff between country ownership and funders’ priorities with a formal model in which aid is governed by a contract to produce a jointly desired outcome. The model generalizes the Principal-Agent approaches for studying aid which treat countries as having multiple objectives.

The new model illustrates how a recipient country’s rational resource allocation choices vary with different aid contracts, whether based on lump sum payments, input-based payments, conditional payments, matching grants or outcome payments. It reveals two critical aspects of the country ownership debate. First, even when funders and recipients agree on project goals, funders can only achieve their priorities through distorting domestic allocative choices. Second, funders are likely to fully embrace country ownership only in cases where they believe alternative uses of domestic funds have integrity (as defined by the funder). 

The model also shows that when funders put higher priority on achieving their goals than accommodating recipient allocation preferences, they should prefer conditional payments, matching grants, or outcome payments. Among these, the donor’s preferences would depend on the relative observability of expenditures to outcomes. If instead funders embrace country ownership and seek to maximize the country’s welfare, lump sum grants are better. In terms of Paris Declaration goals of sustainability, the aid contracts which are least aligned with recipient country priorities will not be sustained after aid ends unless domestic preferences are altered by a process of hysteresis.

Rights & Permissions

You may use and disseminate CGD’s publications under these conditions.