Aid in the 21st Century – Oxfam paper

A new Oxfam paper, written by the excellent Jasmine Burnley, looks at 21st Century aid. Here is a good summary paragraph:

“We are now at a crossroads. On the one side, is politically motivated or ineffective aid – much of which still exists today. On the other, and looking to the future, is aid fit for the 21st century. Twenty-first  century aid is liberated from rich countries’ political incentives and is targeted at delivering outcomes  n poverty reduction. Twenty-first century aid innovates and catalyses developing country economies, and is given in increasing amounts directly to government budgets to help them support small-holder  farmers, build vital infrastructure, and provide essential public services for all, such as health care and education. Twenty-first century aid is transparent and predictable. It empowers citizens to hold governments to account, and helps them take part in decisions that affect their lives. In recent years we have seen more of this good 21st century aid but we need to see a lot more still, and soon.”

There is a lot to like in this paper:

  • the combination of making the case for more aid, and for making improvements in how it is delivered;
  • the emphasis on making aid more predictable, transparent and accountable
  • the focus on helping to support the evolution of effective institutions, particularly state institutions
  • a whole chapter devoted to addressing the critics of aid
  • the call for developing countries to do more to end corruption and increase transparency and freedom of expression
  • a clear case for giving more aid to reach the Millennium Development Goals.

It is an interesting straw in the wind that the paper does not dwell on the Paris and Accra agendas for aid effectiveness. I see this as growing recognition that while the objectives of of those declarations are laudable, the top-heavy, committee-led process for achieving them is unworkable and ineffctive.  I wonder if transparency and accountabilty would have featured so much in a paper written even one or two years ago.

Yes, and …

Writing a paper about everything in development would have been an impossible task, even for someone as talented as Jasmine.  So when I say that there are points I would have liked to see made more prominently, or done differently, I do not mean this as a criticism of the paper, but rather some nuances and reflections that I would like to add.

First, there is only a brief acknowledgement (p15) of the importance for development of policies other than aid.  My view is increasingly that the most important levers for industrialised countries to help accelerate development are changes in policy (eg trade, climate change, migration, intellectual property, corruption); and that contribution of aid is likely to be modest.  Even so, I think aid makes a huge difference to improving people’s lives while development is happening, and that this is reason enough to increase and improve it.

Second, I would have been interested in some reflections on how the role of aid should change in the face of broader changes.  What are the implications for the way we use aid of of the rise of philanthropic foundations?  What difference is made by the emergence of new donors such as China?  What is the role of business, corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurs?  How does aid fit with other financial flows, including remittances and direct investment?  My own view is that we should focus aid more sharply on reaching the parts that other flows won’t reach: the poorest countries, the chronic poor and marginalised within those countries, and investments with no immediate financial return, but the paper could have put aid more clearly into this context.

Third, I think those of us who want to see more and better aid should recognise more explicitly the serious challenges that the aid system now faces.  As Duncan Green says “the pro-aid camp is fearful of giving fuel to the enemy if it acknowledges the failings of aid.”   The paper suffers from a certain amount of self-censorship of this kind.  There are scattered references to the problems,  such as this:

“Aid that does not work to alleviate poverty and inequality – aid that is driven by geopolitical interests,  which is too often squandered on expensive consultants or which spawns parallel government structures accountable to donors and not citizens – is unlikely to succeed.”

I would have liked a more thorough examination of these (and other) problems. We have to acknowledge that some of these problems are getting worse, not better. (In places it reminded me of the way that some politicians appear on TV when things are going badly wrong, with a talking point that says “things are pretty good, though of course we could do even better; but we really need to get our message across better”.)

On his blog, Duncan Green makes much of the point that this paper sets out the case both for increasing aid and for making it work better.  I don’t think this is as unusual as he suggests (“More and better aid” was one of the demands of Make Poverty History, for example).  But I do agree with him, and with Jasmine, that this is the right position.

Despite those quibbles, I thought this was a very good paper. It explains the debate about aid clearly, and it sets out very well coherent and plausible agenda for why aid should be increased, and how it should be improved.  But I’m not sure who Oxfam thinks will read it, and unfortunately I doubt if it will change anybody’s mind in either direction.

7 comments on “Aid in the 21st Century – Oxfam paper”

  1. A very interesting article about the paper. I agree that it could have been bolder in acknowledging were aid hasn’t worked but on the whole I think this paper is an interesting voice in the debate.

    What you raise about areas that could have got more prominence is an issue that’s baffling me – how do we deicde what to keep in and exclude when the picture is so complex – if we don’t acknowledge the compexity we get accused of being simplistic but if we weigh ourselves down in that complexity we become mired in it and find it difficult to tell a narrative – hhhmmm

  2. This is good stuff, but the question for me is how do we communicate development issues to a wider audience? It’s no use just talking among ourselves. We surely have to find ways of telling the story in a way that will appeal to people who have not so far been interested, to build up the constituency for more and better aid etc. I believe that fiction could have a role to play. I experiment with this in my book Beyond Reach? which tells the story of the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005 in novel form. There are details on http://www.johnmadeley.co.uk
    Royalties from the book go to agencies working to eradicate poverty.

  3. Thanks for this post. At this time when aid is more and more criticized, it’s useful to have a general and mostly honest overview of the debate on this crucial issue.
    Although I am not used to read these kinds of ecstatic mentions of an author on your blog…

    Owen replies: “Ecstatic”? Hardly. Just tryin’ to spread a little love.

  4. Thanks for highlighting this paper, and thanks for your excellent analysis of it – which I agreed with wholeheartedly.

    However, I think the Oxfam paper would be much stronger if it also acknowledged how the aid it (and other major NGOs) is giving could and should be improved. I’m sure Oxfam’s approach is an excellent one, but a paper that calls on others to change what they do is always less convincing to me than one which has some self-analysis and identifies improvements. In other words, as well as sections on what donors should do and developing country governments should do, I think there should be a section called “What Oxfam will do…” or something similar.

  5. The aid industry is a free-for-all involving a continuum ranging from the very good to the very bad then the predatory. Whether they like it or not, the ‘good’ industry members are their brothers’ keepers and are exposing themselves to the risk of losing their accumulated good-will (business def’n) through the conduct of the not-so-good.
    The aid industry is part of an international wealth transfer which has a number of problems articulated on this and on other sites. For those readers who come from federal systems there are numerous similarities with the international system but without the many problems. The big difference is much of federal transfer payments go government to government without any third party acting as intermediary.

  6. While we’re at it (the part of it that is (coming from/mentioned/on etc …) Duncan Green’s blog), I would really, really like to hear your thoughts on Rosalind Eyben’s new paper.

    Duncan Green’s blog post here.

    I hope it strikes a chord

  7. On Paris and Accra. Yes, the mechanisms are overweaning, but as processes they have been highly transformative (as you imply). Like the MDGS, they have provided a reference point for collective action. In this case not for what outcomes are to be achieved, but how to deliver aid better. If Paris and Accra are seen as standards to be reached they can get in the way, if they are seen as the articulation of principles, they are directly helpful in the aim of achieving the 21st century model set out in the paper. Interestingly, by being international agreements they have gone some way to overcoming narrow political incentives of donor countries.

    Similarly, in operation, the Paris Principles have had a direct effect on seeking to ensure there is more predictability and transparency. What has yet to happen is for a more sophisticated understanding of mutual accountability to play through in practice, though Accra opened up the space for this.

    We need to be very careful, bureaucracies are inherently conservative, and take time to transform. Whilst not ideal, it would be tragic if by making the enemy of the good, we do not recognise the distance travelled on aid in the last 20 years nor that the trajectory has been broadly correct. Yes, more, much more, needs to be done.

    However, we should make no assumptions that the rightness of the argument will necessarily triumph. I wholeheartedly agree that discussions such as this should now be located in the political space that aid finds itself in; the wins to date are not solid. Aid in the next decade of the 21st Century will be subject to very different incentives than in the last two decades. There will be increased domestic scrutiny of aid budgets as governments come under more pressure to justify aid spending, there is likely to be a strong pressure to return to older modalities which ring-fence contributions as donors seek to minimise risk as much as possible, there is likely to be a pressure to make aid more narrowly supportive of donor agendas. Aid experts do not have the final say on how spending happens, governments do, and they are all finding themselves having to urgently deal with very new agendas.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and