Understanding of the relationship between institutions and economic progress made major headway in the 1990s. Since 2000 the pace of intellectual advance has been stepped up, with fresh thinking especially on governance systems and the role of aid. This article illustrates these propositions with special reference to relevant contributions to DPR over the period. Three particular topics are addressed: the rise and transformation of institutional theory; aid, governance and ‘country ownership’; and the terms on which donors can contribute to the facilitation of institutional change. The article introduces a theme issue which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Overseas Development Institute by reprinting nine of the highlighted DPR articles.