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Navigation by Judgment: A Discussion with Dr. Daniel Honig

  • Open Gov Hub 1110 Vermont Avenue Northwest Suite 500 Washington, DC, 20005 United States (map)

Navigation by Judgment: Why and When Top Down Management of Foreign Aid Doesn't Work

This talk draws on Dan newly released book, Navigation by Judgment (Oxford University Press, 2018). Dan argues that high-quality implementation of foreign aid programs often requires contextual information that cannot be seen by those in distant headquarters. Tight controls and a focus on reaching pre-set measurable targets often prevent front-line workers from using skill, local knowledge, and creativity to solve problems in ways that maximize the impact of foreign aid. Drawing on a novel database of over 14,000 discrete development projects across nine aid agencies and eight paired case studies of development projects, he argues that aid agencies will often benefit from giving field agents the authority to use their own judgments to guide aid delivery. This “navigation by judgment” is particularly valuable when environments are unpredictable and when accomplishing an aid program’s goals is hard to accurately measure.

  • Is the diagnosis appropriate: To what extent do issues of “too much control” play a role in the work of OGH members (as they seek, e.g., to be adaptive and flexible) and NGOs more broadly?
  • What drives the problem: To the extent “too much control” undermines performance, is this due to donor reporting, the needs of donor management, both, either?
  • What’s the right prescription?: How do we push back on overtight controls – what’s the “theory of change”/mechanisms that will help us make sure every penny counts, rather than counting ever penny?


Dan is an Assistant Professor of International Development at Johns Hopkins SAIS. His research focuses on the relationship between organizational structure, management practice, and performance in developing country governments and organizations that provide foreign aid. Dan has also held a variety of positions outside the academy. He was special assistant, then advisor, to successive Ministers of Finance (Liberia); ran a local nonprofit focused on helping post-conflict youth realize the power of their own ideas to better their lives and communities through agricultural entrepreneurship (East Timor); and has worked in a wider range of countries (longer stints in India, Israel, Thailand; shorter in Somalia, South Sudan) for international NGOs, local NGOs, aid agencies, and developing country governments. A proud Detroiter, Dan holds a BA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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