The Delusion of Knowledge Transfer: The impact of foreign aid experts on policy-making in South Africa and Tanzania

With the rise of the ‘knowledge for development’ paradigm, expert advice has become a prime instrument of foreign aid. At the same time, it has been object of repeated criticism: the chronic failure of ‘technical assistance’ – a notion under which advice is commonly subsumed – has been documented in a host of studies. Nonetheless, international organisations continue to send advisors, promising to increase the ‘effectiveness’ of expert support if their technocratic recommendations are taken up.

This book reveals fundamental problems of expert advice in the context of aid that concern issues of power and legitimacy rather than merely flaws of implementation. Based on empirical evidence from South Africa and Tanzania, the authors show that aid-related advisory processes are inevitably obstructed by colliding interests, political pressures and hierarchical relations that impede knowledge transfer and mutual learning. As a result, recipient governments find themselves caught in a perpetual cycle of dependency, continuously advised by experts who convey the shifting paradigms and agendas of their respective donor governments.

For young democracies, the persistent presence of external actors is hazardous: ultimately, it poses a threat to the legitimacy of their governments if their policy-making becomes more responsive to foreign demands than to the preferences and needs of their citizens.

Castells in Africa: Higher Education and Development

Confronting Exclusion: 2013 Transformation Audit

South Africa has made important political strides over the past two decades. It has created a framework of democratic legislative, executive and judicial institutions that mark a clear break from the apartheid past. In theory, they are inclusive and offer every citizen equal access to constitutionally protected rights. Their capacity to deliver, however, is coming under increasing pressure and, as this happens, citizen confidence in their efficacy is waning.


Much of the pressure, which ultimately may affect their legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary citizens, stems from the desperation and sense of economic exclusion experienced by those who find themselves at the wrong end of South Africa’s grossly unequal society. If this decline in trust persists, the cohesive effects of the country’s democratic institutions will diminish, and instability will become an increasingly common feature of political contestation.


An immediate, but only partial, remedy to the current state of affairs would be to prioritise transparency, accountability and leadership integrity within the system to restore trust in the bona fides of key institutions. The longer-term challenge will be to counter a growing sense of economic exclusion, where violent police action, rather than democratic process, is increasingly employed to stave off the manifestations of material anxiety experienced by struggling citizens.


This edition of the Transformation Audit, titled ‘Confronting Exclusion’, focuses on instances of such exclusion but, as in previous years, also prioritises the search for inclusive economic policy and future strategies to address them. By looking at each of the four chapter areas, it seeks to find answers to the challenge of a society in which the promise of true freedom and equal rights will remain only that until people feel equipped to be in charge of their own destiny and that of their children.



  • Iraj Abedian holds a PhD from Simon Fraser University in Canada and is a non-executive director of Pan-African Capital Holdings (Pty) Ltd. He was an economic advisor for the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (ASGISA) and a board member of the Development Bank of Southern Africa.
  • Louw Pienaar is a senior agricultural economist at the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, and is involved in multi-sector analysis and research on economic impacts on agriculture in South Africa. He holds an MSc in agricultural economics from the University of Stellenbosch, and has conducted research with the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) since 2010.
  • Nicholas Spaull is a PhD student at the University of Stellenbosch, where he lectures at the Department of Economics and forms part of the Research on Socio-Economic Policy (RESEP) team.
  • Dieter von Fintel is a PhD student at the University of Stellenbosch, where he lectures at the Department of Economics.
  • Derek Yu is a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the Western Cape. He also forms part of the Development Policy Research
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