The Top 10 unintended effects of international cooperation

September 22, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

What are the most prevalent unintended effects of international cooperation? Dirk Jan Koch, together with the Center for Global Challenges of Utrecht University, analyzed all project evaluations by the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB) of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs since the turn of the century. Here’s the top 10. The figures in brackets show the number of times a certain effect occurred. The fact that an effect is found less often does not mean that it is actually less prevalent: it may also simply be a blind spot for evaluators.

  1. Catalytic spill-over effects (55 points)

Catalytic effects are head and shoulders above the rest in terms of frequency. When we think of unplanned effects, we only think of negative side effects, but that is not correct. Think for instance about medicines. They can also have positive side effects: Viagra was originally intended to lower blood pressure. Catalytic effects occur when an intervention sets a positive chain reaction in motion, ultimately achieving more than expected. This also applies to international cooperation, for example in the field of women’s rights. You want to strengthen women’s rights because it is worth pursuing in itself, but you then see that child mortality is also reduced as a result: a catalytic effect.

  1. Governance Effects (20 points)

The second place is taken by side effects that have an impact on the quality of governance. At the family birthday you may hear about this if you are told that you are involved in development aid. “Aid only makes corruption in those banana republics worse,” I once heard my uncle say. But what is striking is that governance effects are often positive. When recipient governments see that a foreign-backed reform is working in one province, they often scale it up to other provinces. So, yes ‘governance effects’ are important, but in a more balanced way than is often thought.

  1. Leakage Effects (19 points)

Unfortunately, leakage effects are all negative and take the bronze medal. There is a leakage effect (some call it a waterbed effect) if an intervention seems to solve a problem, but it is actually only relocated. I described one example in an earlier column ‘Poaching local personnel‘. Within international cooperation you see it, for example, in capacity building programmes: you strengthen the NGO; you hire extra people, you give them extra training, but… you took these employees away from the national government. This weakens the government and moves the capacity problem instead of solving it.

  1. Behavioural Effects (16 points)

The behavioural effects fell just short of a medal! You can speak of unplanned behavioural effects if those involved in aid programs behave differently than you expected. The erosion of intrinsic motivation when money is given for something that is normally provided free of charge exemplifies this. Imagine: you always wanted to protect the forest where you live, but now you get money from the World Bank for 2 years if you don’t cut down the forest. Then what happens after 2 years when the World Bank payments end? All too often it turns out that intrinsic motivation decreases and deforestation increases.

  1. Marginalization Effects (11 points)

Isn’t international cooperation supposed to reduce inequality? Yes indeed. Yet it appears that it can actually increase marginalization, and that aid can further weaken the position of the vulnerable. This has emerged, for example, in certain economic programs for women. For example, women received microcredit, but they had to transfer the loans straight to their husbands. Subsequently, the women were left with the problems when the loan had to be repaid, and often had to deal with additional domestic violence in the process.

  1. Price Effects (8 points)

External interventions can induce changes in prices. Food aid, for example, makes food much cheaper: that is good for consumers, but disadvantageous for local farmers who can no longer sell their products. But external interventions can also make things very expensive, as the Advisory Council on International Affairs also described in its last advisory report on ‘social protection’. Food prices went up so much in certain remote Philippine villages that more children of families who did not receive “cash transfers” went to bed hungry.

  1. Migration & Resettlement Effects (5 points)

Many people can move to an area if there is a successful development project. But there is also a flip-side effect: the resettlement effect. People can be resettled, sometimes forcibly if, for example, a plantation is started with development funding and the local population needs to get out of the way. Because these migrants/resettled populations often literally fall outside the scope of the evaluators during a baseline or final measurement, these effects all too often remain out of the picture.

  1. Conflict Effects (2 points)

One can speak of an unplanned conflict effect if extra tensions arise as a result of the external intervention, for example between recipients and non-recipients, especially if there are (ethnic) tensions between these two groups to start with. Fortunately, it seems that organizations are increasingly pursuing a ‘conflict-sensitive’ way of working. The major blunders of organizations that unexpectedly stimulate conflict by accidentally favouring one ethnic group over others  are no longer reflected in the later evaluations of IOB.

  1. Nationalist backlash effect (zero points!)

What surprised me is that we did not find the ‘nationalist backlash effect’ in any of the evaluations, while it is very present in the academic literature. For example, there are many indications that some local leaders are only too happy if Western organizations stand up for democracy or women’s rights: they can strengthen their own legitimacy by dismissing this as foreign interference, and sometimes orchestrate a virulent backlash. Unfortunately, these backlash effects are really a bind spot of the evaluators: and as we see in Afghanistan, this blind spot can cost us (and our partners) dearly.

  1. Poor-performance Effects (35!)

A separate type of side effects are the poor performance effects. They are needless effects, which only occur through poor execution. In terms of the number of examples in IOB evaluations, these effects would actually take second place (35 cases), but because they are preventable I put them on the 10th spot with a special mention. An example of a poor performance effect concerns the competition between donors because of poor coordination, they often train the same people who get subsequently multiple per diems (as was also apparent from the IOB Kunduz evaluation).

Often, policy makers and evaluators say they don’t know what to look for when asked to consider or evaluate unintended effects. With this top 10 in hand, that is in any case no longer a valid excuse.

And here’s a video summary about the project and the findings

September 22, 2021
Duncan Green


  1. Another great blog post, thank you for sharing. I’d have kept Poor-performance Effects at number 2, regardless of them being preventable – it’s pretty startling (also, some of the other effects could be preventable too). Curious to see what other effects were in the mix, how they rank against each other, and what method was used to rank them. Also curious to see how positive unintended effects compare against negative unintended effects.
    Re Nationalist backlash Effect – important, but I find the example provided a little bit reductive. Often, the case is that while Western orgs are promoting rights, other Western orgs are simultaneously exploitative. A double-blind spot, perhaps.

    1. Thanks Miriam, you are right: I should have kept the poor-performance effect at #2, especially since the others – as you rightly point out – are to a certain degree sometimes also preventable ! Could you explain (even in just a couple of words) how you find the example provided for the nationalist backlash effect to be somewhat reductive? Eager to learn here!

  2. Ha! #10 for me is it, especially with the perfect example shared here. Indeed, these kinds of negative donor competitions are a total waste of resources which would otherwise be channelled to achieve more and better. Overall, some great insights and good food for thought for the development sector.

  3. Great read! I think you make a valid point about “blind spots” in the introduction. Playing the devil’s advocate here: Should it really be surprising that positive effects take the two top spots – given the incentives to report those, which makes it so much easier for evaluators to identify them?

    1. Hi Alex, indeed the current evaluation system is often not independent enough: final evaluation reports often need to be approved by the evaluated agencies themselves, creating incentives for the researchers to overlook negative side effects. Yet, also regularly I find that evaluators are willing to look at all side effects, but they just don’t know where or what to look for. Hopefully with this top-10 in their hands they now know where to start!

  4. Great post- thanks. Can you say a bit more about governance effects. I got very excited when I saw the word “positive” associated with these as much evidence is quite “mixed.” How were these identified and is other regions absorbing peer learning the only example? Many thanks for more details on this area which sounds hopeful for those of us in the governance, anti corruption, systems-thinking field.

    1. Hi Katherine, so one of the examples we found related to governance in the agricultural sector in Ethiopia, where reforms that were donor-funded in one region, were subsequently scaled up to other regions by the central government. You can read more about the research via this link: and on the governance effects on slide 14. Feel free to reach out if you have more questions. Regards, Dirk-Jan

  5. Good to have your points! Thanks. Here’s another angle (perhaps falling into one of your already noted points): I have found an implementing agency reluctant to end a very poorly performing project (for different reasons), because the agency would lose its overheads. I have found a donor agency to have purposely distorted evaluation findings so as to rationalise ending a successful project in order to transfer remaining funds to another project preferred by the administrator.

  6. Dear Ivan, I am sorry to hear about these examples. Sometimes overheads seem to become an end in itself instead of means to an end! We could unfortunately write a book about the overhead hide&seek tricks that are going on in the development sector. The second example (making an evaluation look more negative) is unique in my view, thanks for sharing!

  7. For me the illusion of control caused by the logical framework method (including abuse of the term ‘theory of change’) is an unchallenged #1.
    As public controller (management accountant in the public sector) who worked a lot in this sector I can tell you quite a lot about that.
    Development cooperation is the not-for-profit sector that is subjected to the most harsh control regime by the government, while working in a domain in which that is least appropriate (has the most reverse effects).
    That tension is in my experience the cause of many, if not most, problems and undesirable and unintended effects.

    1. Dear Wim, I feel that you have all the material to write a blog yourself on the unintended effects of the logframe: bring it on, and spice it with your examples. Looking forward to it!

  8. Thank you for this work and for sharing it. It is useful to those that want to do good work. Hey Duncan, my family say things like that too.

  9. Hi Julian, thanks for the nice words… and… I don’t know what your family normally says so I’ll leave Duncan to respond to that one!

  10. Interesting article! I think many of the unintended effects of international cooperation you mentioned are important to highlight. With regards to “governance effects”- I do agree that aid has the potential to bring about positive governance effects through examples of how investing in community development can have beneficial social and economic outcomes, however, I would not necessarily say that when recipient governments see that “foreign-backed reform is working in one province, they often scale it up to other provinces.” This is often difficult to do because many governments do not have the human or economic resources to scale foreign-backed development initiatives, and what works in one region may not work in another region. In fact, a “one size fits all” approach is often problematic and ineffective. Furthermore, a sound criticism of “foreign-backed reform” is that it contributes to the dependency of countries on “foreign-backed reform”, which may not always be in the best interest of the “recipient country.”

    Thank you for this article, it was an interesting read!

  11. This is a fascinating article, I found particularly interesting the “erosion of intrinsic motivation” derived form an international cooperation intervention. To my perception, I believe many, if not most, of the negative effects, such as marginalization, price or conflict effects, are due to the oversimplification and top-down approach that is so prevailing in international cooperation projects. We have many examples of this as the construction of the Aswan dam in Egypt or the IMF’s SAP programs that for a long time forced a one-size-fits-all program in several countries with disastrous results. I believe including local communities and incorporating them in the decision table is fundamental to steer aid programs away from practices that reinforce structures of oppression and colonization. If we don’t stop addressing beneficiaries as hopeless “problems” that need to be solved and start seeing them as active elements, and actual holders of a definite solution, international cooperation programs will never overcome these and other negative effects.

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