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Sector Wide Approaches (SWAPs) to Development Cooperation
What are the Issues?

Brian Tomlinson
CCIC Policy Team
November 2000

In the 1990s a number of (mainly European) donors have been experimenting with "Sector Wide Approaches" (SWAPs) in their delivery of aid resources. More recently CIDA has been analyzing this experience and drawing lessons as the Agency considers options for placing greater emphasis on local ownership of development priorities and programs, strategic focus and policy coherence, and improved coordination among stakeholders.

What are SWAPs and where does CIDA stand?

"The sector wide approach defines a method of working between Government and donors…The defining characteristics are that all significant funding for the sector supports a single policy and expenditure program, under Government leadership, adopting common approaches across the sector and progressing towards relying on Government procedures to disburses and account for all funds". (Foster et. al. 2000, pp. 8-10)

This definition represents more a goal for SWAPs than current donor practice, where there is a broad continuum from stand-alone projects, to earmarked (project) funds within a government’s sector policy framework, to sector budgetary support pooled with other donors, to government budgetary support not linked to a particular sector. All approaches imply deeper policy dialogue with developing country governments. During the 1990s CIDA seldom went beyond project aid with activities intended to assist government sector policy objectives (e.g. Mali’s education sector support and Bangladesh health and population sector support).

Since last year, CIDA’s President, Len Good, has stated his preoccupation that CIDA be more strategic in its focus on poverty reduction and sustainable development. In his view CIDA has become spread too thin geographically and is working in too many sectors. The Agency needs to rely less on projects and more on broad coordinated approaches to a given sector. Minister Minna’s September 2000 Framework for Action for CIDA’s four social development priorities stresses that CIDA will work closely with sectoral strategies, particularly for basic education and health and nutrition priorities. CIDA annual allocations for these two sectors alone will more than double over the next five years from $193 million to $469 million. Early this year $10 million, over five years, was approved for non-earmarked sector budgetary support for Uganda’s SWAP for basic education. It seems likely that donor approaches in high aid-dependent countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will be most influenced by SWAPs.

In current official donor thinking SWAPs seem to respond to a number of concerns:

One-off fragmented projects ("islands of excellence in a sea of under-provision" (DFID) overwhelm developing country’s management capacity, weaken these governments by attract the best local human resources, and weaken aid sustainability and effectiveness;

Conditionality-based donor dialogue has not worked to create "favourable" policy environments in developing countries;

Broad donor commitments to International Development Targets (halving the proportion of people living in poverty, etc.) require broad coordinated approaches; and

Renewed attention to the importance of "local ownership" for effective development cooperation.

Donors and their consultants have written a great body of policy papers and reports about SWAPs in recent years. (See for example Foster et. al., 2000; CIDA 2000; and Schacter 2000 and their respective bibliographies.) As a consequence, the available literature on SWAPs is dominated by official donor preoccupations and analyses, with few references to developing country government perspectives and even less reflective of the views civil society organizations.

What issues arise in considering SWAPs as an effective approach to poverty-focused aid strategies?

Official Donors discussions: Official donor experiences with SWAPs raise a number of issues that can affect their participation in SWAPs and the impact of this approach for achieving donor goals (Foster et. al. 2000):

A clear vision is essential on the part of the recipient government and its respective Ministries, as well as consideration of the degree to which the government sector strategies are embedded and accountable, with political support in government’s expenditure plans.

Links and synergy with other reform processes are essential, particularly the Comprehensive Development Framework (CDF), Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), and UN Common Country Assessment (CCA) and HIPC II debt relief. Donors will be placing greater attention on governance "conditionalities" and improved developing country government/ministry capacity to plan and delivery programs relevant to people living in poverty.

Can SWAPs accommodate different processes and priorities among SWAP partners, including donor concerns for poverty and gender objectives in their mandates and policies? How effective are donor-coordinating mechanisms and what role can small donors such as Canada play in a SWAP whose funding is dominated by the largest donors (and particularly the World Bank)? Can donors adapt to go at the pace of recipient country capacities?

Complex accountability issues and relationships arise, implying new forms of donor accountability to their own government, including Parliament and domestic constituencies supporting aid, depend on confidence in developing countries’ management of resources, and require accountability shared by all stakeholders for sector program results. Can donors subsume their country’s interest in "showing the flag" in pointing to development results?

SWAPs require rethinking donor policies on tied aid and technical assistance as well as staff field deployment and programming skills (less project management, but more policy analysis and dialogue, assessment of overall government strategies, engagement with other donors etc.)

NGO/Civil Society Perspectives: NGOs writing in Reality of Aid have praised sector-wide approaches by donors as "a more coherent way of enhancing government capacity and increasing developing country ownership". SWAPs can be an appropriate mechanism for transparent and efficient management of donor relations for developing countries. SWAPs also recognize the prime responsibility of government in delivering universally accessible social programs for education, health and basic infrastructure. Nevertheless current debates on SWAPs skim over or seem to ignore a number of issues and tensions in this approach:

Donor preoccupations with SWAPs focus on mechanisms for managing development cooperation.
Donor considerations of SWAPs are still heavily oriented to their own requirements for close management of development resources. There is still only limited appreciation that iterative domestic political processes largely drive policy formation, even in the most aid-dependent countries. Pro-poor development is ultimately about politics: affecting the power relations that sustain inequitable distribution of a society’s economic opportunities and social resources. Donors’ concern for clear accountability often lead them to structure policy dialogue at a national level with a small bureaucratic elite. But political ownership of a government’s poverty reduction strategy or particular sector strategies requires deeply rooted accountability to parliamentarians, local governments and civil society actors. Many NGOs understand the centrality of broad civic political engagement (and often political conflict) to achieve pro-poor social and economic policy goals. SWAPs can depoliticize development by isolating policy debate between largely unaccountable external bilateral and multilateral civil servants and like-minded counterparts in national governments.

Continued rationale for projects.
For developing country governments who may be required to manage thousands of donor-initiated individual projects with different priorities and administrative requirements, SWAPs are an attractive option. Yet, despite some highly critical commentary on a projects approach, there are still strong rationales for donor support of projects for poverty reduction strategies (often carried out by non-governmental organizations and institutions). Projects allow for significant risk-taking and innovation (with low political fall-out for domestic governments) to test new strategies for participatory poverty eradication. Relative to policy engagement, projects can intervene directly in social processes, strengthening excluded social actors, and can therefore have intended, but often unintended impacts, on the livelihoods of the poor. For example, projects that strengthen civil society actors to act beyond the sphere of service delivery (particularly organizations rooted with constituencies in areas where the poor are located) stimulate democratic engagement with government and build popular pressure in support of poverty reduction goals. As noted above such engagement is a pre-condition for ownership, but it is also likely to orient SWAPs to address the concerns of the poor.

Implicit conditionality.
Donor approaches to SWAPs stress the need for thorough assessments of the underlying conditions required for a "successful" SWAP. While basic governance factors (including recognition of rights for social organization and expression) are clearly relevant, IMF macro-economic conditions, World Bank-imposed civil service reform and privatization are often included as important considerations. For aid-dependent low income countries, SWAPs may result in less bargaining room with individual donors as so-called "pre-conditions" or "critical success factors" are imposed under the guise of improved donor coordination. Full information disclosure is particularly important for sector ministries, local government and domestic civil society in developing countries, where IMF/World Bank structural adjustment agreements that are often negotiated in secrecy can dramatically affect the conditions for realizing a sector strategy.

Avenues for direct participation by civil society actors and local government.
SWAPs bring focused donor attention to important government strategies in key social and economic sectors that can affect the livelihoods of the poor. At the same time, a narrow sector-focus may miss cross-cutting concerns for improved livelihood, social and gender issues that affect the multiple dimensions of the lived experience of poverty. Engagement with those who are poor, through their representative organizations, local government or rooted NGOs can integrate sector strategies with broader and specific context issues for poverty eradication. Discussions of SWAPs often mention the importance of participation, yet seldom elaborate roles for civil society organizations (NGOs, community-based organizations, universities etc.). The degree of local "ownership" can be highly dependent on "who is at the table" and the quality of the interaction between government and local realities. The degree to which participation is effective in overcoming social exclusion makes all the difference for linkages with poverty reduction initiatives. Participation from civil society organizations takes many forms – representation of community interests, assuring cross-sectoral planning, bringing local initiative and innovation to a national platform, implementing and/or assessing the impact of community-based programs, monitoring watch-dog, and evaluations. Strong NGO/civil society linkages with northern NGOs provide donors with independent windows on the authenticity of civil society participation in sector plans and channels for strengthening these organizations and networks.


Clearly Canadian international NGOs should be improving their own understanding of sector wide approaches and working with southern counterparts to assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing practice, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The process currently underway within CIDA, as the Agency reviews its long-term strategic directions, will provide an opportunity to influence CIDA’s orientation to SWAPs and hopefully create space for appropriate civil society roles. SWAPs provide new opportunities for reducing donor-driven development in many of the poorest countries and increasing the potential for poor people to influence the policies and delivery of social and economic programs by government that can create conditions for improved livelihood and human development.

CIDA as a relatively small donor can increase its influence by bringing a mix of resources and program relationships to its engagement with a SWAP. Given the importance that CIDA has placed over many decades on strengthening civil society relationships, and the missing emphasis on these dynamics in current SWAP dialogue, CIDA could make a valued contribution by giving priority to this dimension in a successful SWAP. CIDA could also make important contributions in terms of gender and development issues in SWAPs. There is a wealth of Canadian experience in participatory development and long-term program relationships upon which to draw lessons.


CIDA, 2000. "Planning and Implementing of SWAPS: An Overview Issues Paper", Prepared as a Background Document for CIDA President’s Forum on Sector-Wide Approaches, October 10, 2000.

Collins, Tom, Higgins, Liz, 2000. "Seminar on Sector Wide Approaches with a Focus on Partnership, Seminar Report" Ireland Aid, Dublin Castle (February 8 – 10, 2000), June 2000

Foster, Mike et. al., 2000. CAPE, Overseas Development Institute, London. " A Framework Paper prepared for the meeting of the Like-Minded Donor Working Group on Sector-Wide Approaches, Dublin, February 8 – 10, 2000.

Schacter, Mark, 2000. "Sector Wide Approaches, Accountability and CIDA: Issues and Recommendations", (preliminary draft) September 2000


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