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.