Sinead Magill | Palladium - Mar 27 2019
The Future of International Development

Sinéad Magill, Palladium Managing Partner

Sinéad Magill, Managing Partner at Palladium, draws on her career-long experience in international development to explore the future of the sector.

International development is constantly evolving. Having worked in development over 15 years, I’ve seen changes in donor priorities, in theories of development, in the discourse and the countries of focus. There are so many examples: the move away from direct budgetary support to more direct programming; the shift in focus away from increasingly stable and prosperous countries in the Balkans and Asia to an emphasis on protracted crisis; I could cite so many more. So, what is next? What is the future of development?

Here are the three things I predict:

1. Traditional donor roles will change

Traditional government donors – such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and USAID – will still run the show as far as policy is concerned. However, new actors, including private foundations and businesses, will increasingly tackle development problems.

I think this is a very good thing, not least because of the need for additional sources of funding and partnership. The money required to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is USD 2.5 trillion for the next 15 years. Traditional donors simply can’t meet this goal alone. Luckily, donors such as DFID are very aware of the need to leverage investment for development from the private sector and are actively supporting this change.

There will always be a role for governments and donors when it comes to funding development, as not all support that's needed is commercially viable.  Donors will also play a coordinating role, providing a common language so that the world of traditional development and new entrants can more easily work together towards a common agenda.

2. Aid recipients will increasingly design solutions to problems they define

When I visit our projects, I’m struck by the change in the way local teams and the recipients of aid are now involved in development. Ten years ago programs were implemented largely by “international experts.” Now, programs are run by talented and empowered national staff. In our Nigerian offices of about 300 employees, only five are international.

In the same way, project beneficiaries are no longer passive recipients of grant funds or of projects implemented ‘for them.’ Rather, they’re empowered groups approaching us with their definition of the challenge and their ideas on how to address it. The support we provide is to unlock their potential and set them up for enduring success beyond the life of an individual program.

This trend will continue, and I’m proud of the deeper, more sustainable impact we’ll see as a result of this new face of development.

Community health workers in Malawi. Source: Health Policy Plus
Community health workers in Malawi. Source: Health Policy Plus

3. The Positive Impact of aid will be more difficult to demonstrate

It will be realistic for new actors – investors and companies – to work on issues like promoting entrepreneurship and service delivery. But what about the most acute challenges: populations suffering from chronic poverty, instability, and climate change? I simply can’t see investors flocking to the Sahel, for example. But the traditional donors still are.

The challenge is that impact is more difficult to demonstrate when addressing problems that are complex and take generations to help advance. In an increasingly politicized aid sector, international donors are not in a comfortable place. In the United Kingdom for example, aid sceptics emboldened by Brexit are more likely to challenge aid funding if we can’t demonstrate hard progress on short timelines.

The legitimacy of the government funded donors is dependent on the support of the public and of politicians. The key challenge facing us as a community is how we communicate the world’s development needs, build the moral and business case for responding, and demonstrate that aid works. If we don’t crack that nut, our license to operate will be removed and the impact we’re delivering will prove more elusive than ever.


Sinéad Magill
As Managing Partner for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Sinéad leads Palladium's donor funded business including delivery of the UK Governments Humanitarian and Stabilisation Operations programme. Sinéad has over 15 years' experience leading governance, security and justice programmes. She played a key role in the DFID programming in Iraq and subsequently delivered programmes in Afghanistan, Palestine, Uganda and Syria, during which time she founded one of the UK's leading stabilisation and recovery teams. A strong advocate for working parents and women, Sinéad was featured in Management Today's 35 Under 35 and won the Women of the Future Business Award. She has a BA Hons from Trinity College Dublin and a Master's in International Development from the London School of Economics.