In this review, the Agulhas team explored the landscape of technical assistance (TA) to governments in developing countries. It looks at the nature and extent of TA as a form of development assistance, at the track record of traditional approaches and at the emergence of a new paradigm. The study considers both the theory and practice of TA, exploring why there has been a loss of confidence in traditional approaches and at how far the development industry has come in developing alternatives.

The evidence that is available is largely sceptical about the contribution of technical assistance to development outcomes. There is evidence of pockets of success, particularly where technical assistance focuses on specific, limited and monitorable tasks, where patient engagement over time can help to build ‘islands of capacity’. However, there is relatively little evidence that the technical assistance industry as a whole has led to large-scale, cumulative impacts.

In recent years, a new conceptualisation of TA has emerged, linked to growing interest in the politics of development. The new paradigm understands institutional failures in terms of power and politics, rather than capacity gaps. The literature cautions against the danger that the development community ends up paying lip service to the new approach. It suggests that donors will need to change their practices in multiple ways, including:

  • More investment in understanding local contexts and tailoring their programmes accordingly
  • Creating more space in their programme management cycle for analysis, learning and adaptation
  • In the selection of implementing partners, more emphasis on soft skills
  • Developing alternative methods of accountability, that focus on promoting good practice and high-quality engagement rather than the efficient delivery of predetermined outputs