Foreign Aid and Its Unintended Consequences | Book Review

9 min readOct 31, 2023

Aid’s hidden pitfalls: Koch’s insightful revelation.

Credit: ISS

Many books or studies about foreign aid aim to find ways to make aid work better. They look at how we can improve giving help, whether it’s emergency relief or technical assistance, thinking that aid does benefit the people and countries receiving it. However, they believe it can be done more effectively. While some voices criticize aid, they usually talk about it not being efficient or effective enough.

But there aren’t many who take a close look at a big contradiction in aid: even if people give it with a good intention, sometimes it ends up hurting the very people it’s supposed to help.

Dirk-Jan Koch’s new book, “Foreign Aid and Its Unintended Consequences,” boldly addresses this overlooked aspect of aid. He digs deep to uncover how each unexpected outcome occurs and offers ideas on how to stop these negative effects from happening.

The writer discusses the hidden results that international development, the phrase he prefers, might cause. These include backlash, conflict, migration, price, marginalization, behavioral spillover, governance, environmental, and ripple effects.

The author talks about unintended consequences in international development using ideas from two main concepts. The first concept, called complexity theory, explains that international development is like a big, intricate machine where all parts are connected and small changes can have big, unpredictable results.Because everything is so closely linked and constantly changing, it’s hard to guess what will happen.

The second idea, called "bounded policy learning," says that when policymakers are under a lot of stress, they might choose solutions that seem good or try to copy ones that have worked in the past, missing unique problems and leading to results that were not expected.

The author also debunks five common myths about the unintended consequences of international development interventions: that they can’t be anticipated, are unavoidable, are always downplayed, are always negative, and are an objective phenomenon.

Although surprises do happen in these efforts, the author argues that they’re not all bad and we can reduce the unintended negative consequences. However, the book mainly talks about the negative consequences, because the positive ones often get lost in the mix with the good results that were supposed to happen. Over time, it becomes hard to tell the unintended positive outcomes apart from the ones we planned for.

Over the years, people have debated international development, usually falling into one of two camps: those who have full skepticism of foreign aid and those who defend it and believe that it can be improved. Dirk-Jan Koch says he’s in the second group.

He takes a “critical-constructive approach,” meaning he critically analyzes studies and the work of international aid groups but also suggests ways to fix the issues he finds. He bases this on his own experiences and a method that focuses on building something positive.

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Because of this, his book might not satisfy readers who are looking for arguments against all foreign aid, similar to the ideas in Dambisa Moyo’s famous book. She wrote “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa,” arguing that we need completely different ways to help development.

Unlike Moyo, Koch recognizes that giving aid can be complicated and tough. However, he stresses that it can do good if we’re aware of its unexpected side effects and plan accordingly.

Koch’s work is anchored in profound research, punctuated with rich case studies and first-hand accounts. The opening chapter highlights an example of unintended consequences from the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

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Originating from Haiti’s turbulent politics and strife, the mission saw UN forces, known as ‘blue helmets,’ aiming to restore stability and safeguard civilians.

Yet, the effort disastrously misfired when these troops inadvertently brought in a cholera strain from Nepal. The ensuing outbreak killed over 10,000 Haitians in 2010, deviating sharply from the mission’s humanitarian goals.

In Chapter 8’s discussion of behavioral effects, Koch featured Salomon Balangane, an NGO worker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He tells the story of Masamba, who was wrongfully accused of rape, endured years of adversity, and missed life opportunities.

The alleged victim withdrew her accusations, but Masamba had already been in prison for a decade.His story exemplifies the dire consequences of misdirected justice, as he was released only to die shortly afterwards.

It exemplifies the complex landscape of international development, in which well-intended efforts to ensure legal justice for victims may unintentionally morph into injustices against the blameless.

These powerful stories underline Koch’s point: helping vulnerable groups is complex, and good intentions without understanding and accountability can lead to harmful results.

The book goes beyond just listing these unintended consequences; it also presents a very detailed way of understanding different types of effects. But the author doesn’t stop there. The book takes an extra step, providing a strong list of recommendations for policymakers, practitioners, and evaluators on how to handle the unintended negative consequences.

Koch emphasizes the need for strategic, adaptable solutions in international development, emphasizing the importance of expert advice, collaboration with local partners, and flexible plans to manage unexpected results.

However, it’s worth noting that, even though the book provides a lot of great insights, there are parts where it could benefit from more in-depth discussion.

In this review, we’ll look at four perspectives that point out these areas. These points gently indicate that certain sections of the book’s thorough analysis could delve deeper, showing that there are more layers to consider.

Donor Centric

Firstly, the book’s recommendations appear somewhat donor-centric. While there’s a call for enhanced dialogue with beneficiaries, the narrative largely sidelines recipient countries’ perspectives.

The author talks about the roles and involvement of governments that receive aid, but the problems and solutions from the donors' and implementing agencies' points of view are given more attention.

The text gives advice on how donors and their agencies can avoid unintended problems with international development, but it doesn’t give much advice on how policymakers in recipient countries can deal with these problems.

A more profound exploration of recipient countries’ authority and roles would have been meritorious, particularly for nations transitioning from lower to middle- or higher-income statuses, as seen in Southeast Asia. These countries have advanced strategies and strong governments. They deserve detailed attention that recognizes their growing skills and goals.

For instance, Indonesia demonstrates increased discernment and assertiveness in its engagement with international development, occasionally opting to cancel or renegotiate projects and partnerships with foreign entities.

This trend highlights the need for balanced discussions in development literature, respecting the decision-making freedom and planning of aid recipients.

Western Bias

Secondly, despite Koch’s conscious choice of terminology like “international development” over “development aid” to balance power dynamics between donor and recipient countries, a Western bias subtly pervades the narrative.

This point of view is clear when reading Chapter 5, which talks about how big Western financial institutions like the World Bank are changing their rules to lessen the bad effects of development-induced displacement. Contrastingly, concerns are raised about the potential issues arising from Chinese agencies’ handling of similar projects.

This critique, whether intentional or not, perpetuates a hierarchy within international development, implicitly championing certain standards while urging others, such as China, to “improve.”

Dambisa Moyo, in “Dead Aid,” offers an alternative view, arguing that China’s approach in Africa—defined by non-conditional financing, infrastructural investments, and bilateral trade—presents a more sustainable development pathway than traditional Western models. China avoids Western bureaucracy, forming efficient partnerships that benefit everyone involved and boost economic growth. Yet Moyo concedes that this approach has its complications, including concerns over debt sustainability and transparency.

This discourse underscores the need for a deeper understanding of why nations in Africa and Southeast Asia are increasingly drawn to the Chinese model. Respecting sovereignty is crucial, especially for democratically elected governments, in determining their developmental trajectories.

These countries must have the autonomy to select partners that best align with their national interests and values. In envisioning international development as a collaborative endeavor, acknowledging each nation’s decision-making authority is paramount.

Consequently, if choices fall short of expectations, the onus is on the local populace to hold their leaders accountable, emphasizing the democratic process.


Thirdly, the book puts forward numerous tips for professionals to lessen unintended consequences, but carrying out these recommendations could come with practical difficulties.

Practitioners might point out that the systems and checks the author suggests could end up causing red tape, making the help arrive more slowly. Meanwhile, skeptics of international development, who perceive it as a sector preoccupied with self-preservation, might say that the recommendations, if the aid sector takes them up, could lead to the birth of a new market for consultancy.

In the concluding chapter, the author does present a handy cheat sheet for addressing concerns about unintended consequences within international development. Yet the feasibility of these countermeasures might be questionable.

Take, for instance, the suggested introduction of ‘unintended effects advisors’ in development organizations. Though it makes sense in theory, adding such a role to every project may not be practical, especially with budget and resource constraints.

What’s more, while the writer gives a thorough breakdown of different kinds of unintended consequences, it’s so detailed that professionals might find it tough to use in their day-to-day work.

To make grasping these unforeseen results more user-friendly, we could sort them into categories such as based on their nature (positive or negative effects), cause (direct or indirect), duration (short-term or long-term), magnitude (minor or major), origin (internal or external factors), predictability (anticipated or unanticipated), and controllability (controllable or not controllable).

By doing it this way, people working in the field could quickly spot, understand, and handle any unintended consequences in their projects, making it easier to come up with effective answers and plans.

Medical Field Comparison

Fourth, the author makes an intriguing comparison between the medical field and international development in the final chapter of the book. Through his personal insights, he stresses how the medical world is rigorous about checking treatments that are based on solid evidence and discusses the role of funding from drug companies.

He appreciates how, in medicine, there are strict rules, including the need for clear approval of treatments and honesty about any side effects they might have.

On the other hand, he notes that international development doesn’t have the same level of professional checking and responsibility. Often, projects get started because of what individuals believe is right and who is providing the money.

Although comparing aid projects to medical procedures sheds some light on things, it also simplifies the situation too much.

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The way human societies change and grow is really complicated, with lots of different factors involved, and that’s a lot messier than how a person’s body reacts to a medicine.

In medicine, there are controlled variables like measurable health indicators, standard dosages, and biological responses that are relatively easy to predict. But in international development, there are socio-political factors, cultural differences, economic conditions, and individual human agency that make it hard to standardize.

Because development is so complex, solutions can’t be as precise as medical prescriptions. Instead, they need to be flexible, situation-specific, and always changing to fit the needs of the people involved.

Despite these areas for deeper exploration, ‘Foreign Aid and Its Unintended Consequences’ remains a pivotal read for stakeholders in international development. Not only does the book criticize development strategies, but it also prompts a re-evaluation of aid delivery. It calls for approaches that are all-encompassing, sensitive to context, and aware of the complicated dynamics of aid.

Recipient nations in Southeast Asia, for instance, can gain valuable insights from this book on how to make the best use of donor assistance while avoiding unforeseen setbacks.

As some nations, like Indonesia, begin to give aid themselves through south-south cooperation, they can also learn from this resource. It helps them steer clear of the errors that Western donors made in previous years. This way, they can make the most of aid without suffering from the downsides that can come along unexpectedly.




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