The present paper was inspired by and is a response to the Rola-Rubzen, Hardaker and Dillon paper ‘Agricultural economists and world poverty: progress and prospects’ (Rola-Rubzen et al. 2001). It is agreed that the position of agricultural economists in foreign aid and poverty programs has declined over recent decades. Such a feeling of guilt and remorse expressed by the above authors does indeed create considerable ‘angst’. A major reason for this state of affairs lies in ‘the flavour of the month’ approach of the development agencies. These include women in development, gender-based farming systems research, household nutrition and food security, people participation, and targeting the poorest of the poor. These fads have driven disciplinary considerations to the wall and the more widely-defined objectives have reduced the drive for economic efficiency. We argue there is still a place for better designed and delivered assistance programs within the wider framework of assistance that has become fashionable. Greater application of institutional principles in both the political processes associated with assistance and the implementation agencies would improve the outcomes of many projects. Particular attention would need to be given to the interface between the development agencies and recipient governments. The present paper picks up on the market failure aspects of agriculture’s rather poor contribution to development, and develops a wider perspective in terms of the new institutional economics and a continuing role for the agricultural economist.