On Friday the World Bank London office had a meeting on ‘the Future of Aid’.   The meeting was, according to the tortuous language of the invitation, “conducted in an informal manner with interested stakeholders from governments, civil society, private sector, media and academia with a view to explore new ideas on how best to explore cooperation between European actors and the World Bank Group in addressing these challenges.

Annoyingly the meeting was held under The Chatham House Rule which means I am not allowed to report who said what. (Tangential thought: I am considering ignoring this in future if the invitation does not make it clear that this is the basis on which the meeting is being held.)  I am allowed to tell you that the group included people from ODI (Simon Maxwell & Andrew Rogerson), a co-author of Philanthrocapitalism (Mike Green), DFID (Paul Healy Healey & Laura Kelly), the EBRD (Erik Berglöf, Gaspard Koenig & Hans Peter Lankes), and representatives from KPMG (John Burton), ActionAid (Lucia Fry), Save the Children UK (Jessica Espey & Kate Dooley) and BOND (Joanna Rey).

It turned out to be an interesting discussion.

First, there was considerable pessimism about the public’s appetite for aid. Opinion polls depend heavily on how you ask the question, but a common theme seems to be that the public’s concern for poverty and development is stable and quite high; while the public’s confidence in government aid is falling rapidly.  There are several reasons why these may be diverging, which are not mutually exclusive. Declining support for aid spending may be the effect of the economic downturn; it may reflect a trend towards public distrust of bureaucracies; it may be the long term consequence of aid’s failure to live up to its supporters’ excessively grandiose claims of what it can achieve. There was some debate about whether a greater focus on ‘results’ could reverse this.  Hardly anyone seriously argued that declining public support is merely a temporary consequence of the economic downturn which will reverse automatically when incomes start to grow again.

A second interesting theme was the tension between more effective aid, and aid which donors are willing to provide. It is possible that as the system shifts towards greater recipient country control of how aid is used (as envisaged under the Paris Declaration), so support for aid in donor countries declines.  If you can’t use aid to promote your economic, commercial, security and strategic interests, then you might not want to give it at all.  Bertin Martens memorably pointed out that the end of structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s (under which donors attempted to impose various policies on recipient countries) was followed by sharp decline in aid in the early 1990s.  If you see the aid relationship as an equilibrium between the interests of the donors and the interests of the recipients, and if the Paris Declaration is an effort to move away from this equilibrium by reducing the power of donors and increasing the power of recipient countries, then perhaps declining aid budgets today are a consequence these modest moves away from the equilibrium. There is almost no public support for budget support (a form of aid which embodies many of the Paris principles) and  budget support may now in retreat – so perhaps the aid system was temporarily pulled from its equilibrium by Paris, and may now be heading back to it again.  In other words, there may be a choice between an abundance of somewhat ineffective aid which balances the interests of recipients and donors, and aid which is less conducive to the interests of donors, more effective at reducing poverty, but much less abundant.  Aid agencies have a stronger internal interest in abundance than in effectiveness, and so will tend to support a return to the equilibrium in which aid is popular and plentiful, but not tremendously effective.

The third theme was the most interesting.  Mike Green recalled an idea from Empire, a ghastly book published in 2000 by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, which suggested that activists may organize themselves as a ” post-modern posse”.    Mike suggested that, in the absence of effective mechanisms for global governance to provide public goods in a rules-based system, we are left tackling these problems in temporary coalitions, or posses, which come together outside formal structures and without formal legitimacy. Examples range from the coalitions of the willing which come together to support military intervention, to the vertical funds which have proliferated in the aid industry.  (Mike was not suggesting that this was desirable, but pointing out that this may be what happens in a second-best world without effective global institutions).  This idea clearly resonated with the group, which recognised the applicability of the metaphor as a description of today’s development system. (Update: more on the ‘posse’ idea from Mike Green and Matt Bishop here.)

My own view, for what it is worth, is that:

  • we should consciously reposition aid as support to those who are most marginalised to provide them with access to key services such as food, water, health and education, and move away from the idea that the purpose of aid is to accelerate economic development;
  • that’s not because economic development isn’t an important objective; but it may not be the best use of aid;
  • the main things that industrialised countries can do to promote economic development in the developing world may be changes in other policies ‘beyond aid’ such as trade, climate change, migration, climate change, cooperation on tax, tackling corruption and illicit financial flows; and arms sales;
  • some organisations which profess to be interested in development are too heavily focused on aid and not enough on how we can improve these other policies.
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22 Responses to Form a posse?

  • The Bond representative was Joanna Rea, International Advocacy Officer, and UK NGOs (Bond members) and our partners internationally can contact Joanna for more information about the content of this meeting.

    Thanks Glen. I’ve updated the attendance list to give everyone’s name.

  • I couldn’t agree with your views on this more (but nb they didn’t come out on FB – so had to look on your website). But on the last point the organisations interested in devt usually only have mandates about aid spending – because real policies which affect devt are so much more politically sensitive and therefore much less under the influence of aid friendly folk. Our posse’s lack mandate. So with the best will in the world (quite an assumption), will still not achieve very much. How do we get real development mandate? Probably same way we get to save the whales, or the manatees, or anything else some of us care about and most don’t. Until we find that nirvana we are stuck banging our proverbial heads against the wall of rhetoric.

  • *that’s not because economic development isn’t an important objective; but it may not be the best use of aid;
    *the main things that industrialised countries can do to promote economic development in the developing world may be changes in other policies ‘beyond aid’ such as trade, climate change, migration, climate change, cooperation on tax, tackling corruption and illicit financial flows; and arms sales;

    I wonder how cynical you’d see a view that states that aid given under the guise of promoting economic development is really only done because the largest perceived benefit is to the donor gov, not the recipient. And, I’m specifically thinking here of agricultural development, which doesn’t seem so much to be about improving self-sufficiency and the natural resource base on which farming relies, but, rather, on opening up new markets. The biotech companies, for example, obviously have a real stake in new markets, and use the specter of climate change and mass starvation to make a case for their products. However, it is unlikely that many will be able to take advantage of those products because accessing them will take an infusion of capital that most don’t have.

    In a nutshell, my thought is that aid that promotes economic development is harder to get rid of because it serves powerful interests.

    (I didn’t click through to the link on your second bullet point, so this is something you may have addressed there.)

  • Sorry…my point is really what you’re getting at in your second theme. But, I suppose what we’re really seeing is the privatization of aid, and that’s done within a context that seeks to concentrate capital in the hands of the people who already have it. I don’t think that is likely to change. I suppose what will happen is that people who work in aid will just become increasingly frustrated by the meshing of capitalism with aid. You note that it balances the interests of donors and recipients…I’m not sure I agree, and I think that even were it true, that balance is likely to increasingly tip in favor of the donors.

  • I agree with Stephanie, but would like to spell out the paradox a bit more: Even though aid for economic development may not be the best use, it is widely regarded as a great tool to ‘sell’ development to that famous, caring, knowledgeable taxpayer. Some of the money will be used for jobs in ‘our’ country and economic growth is the one and only measurable that can prove how well development is going. Donors need to dare to speak more about complexity, difficulties, non-linearity and all these issues if they want to make a case for aid as aid for the most vulnerable people. Your post is quite disappointing (the context, not the post itself, of course ;), because it could have been written anytime in the past 20-40 years. Climate change, economic crisis and the crisis in the OECD world has not affected the aid discourse at all, but the focus is still on ‘results’ or new evaluation methods which cannot deliver meaningful insights when it comes to chronic poverty and areas where ‘the market’ will have little or no positive effect. It’s time to tell taxpayers about the true complexity of aid!

  • And by the way: Thanks for not sticking to the Chatham House rules religiously…I know why they exist and see their value, but they also seem to become a bit ahistorical when it comes to issues like this that require broader dicussions and thrive on sharing knowledge rather than keeping it behind (semi-)closed doors. Just out of curioisty: How many participants were under 40?

    Owen replies: Actually, I have stuck to the Chatham House rule pretty closely. It requires that nothing should be done to identify, either explicitly or implicitly, who said what. I’ve cited Mike Green by name because he gave explicit permission in the meeting.

  • Small correction: It’s Paul Healey at DFID.

    I don’t think “results” are a remedy to increase public support for aid. You’re right, whether or not there is an economic downturn, the part of the public will continue to have a negative view about aid. Aid and development unfortunately is left to an “elite” circle, no matter how much you educate people.

    That said, if you don’t place economic development as the objective of aid, you are even less likely to gain public support.

    Owen replies: do you have evidence for that? I heard a fascinating presentation by Steven Kull from the Program on International Policy Attitudes in which I think he said the opposite: that the public engage more with the idea of providing people with basic services.

  • Re: Jiesheng Li and Owen Barder

    If by “people” and “public support” you refer to the living, breathing, feeling, voting kind (and not the political animal) – I’d say Steven Kull is on the money here. 200,000+ donors on GlobalGiving support various project themes unequally, with “economic development” being among the least popular categories (based on the # donors / # visitors ratio).

    But there are plenty of other bigger public misconceptions that stand in the way of support. Like knowing where Africa is on the map, and realizing that like 0.02% of the budget goes into non-military aid, and 60% goes to the military.

    [Great post by the way!]

  • It’s my view. Give the factors to support aid, I will the moral concern will be far down the list for the average man on the street. If aid has the long term or indirect purpose support growth (that benefits both the recipient and the donor).


    This Chatham house Report says that the public largely agrees with aid but agrees with the need to advance economic/commerical interests. So if aid was linked to economic growth and economic-linked means, that might gain a little more support from the public.

  • I’m sorry to sound facile, but surely this notion of a ‘future of aid’ becomes somewhat academic in an economic future where the major donors are experiencing economic collapse? The assumption seems to be that donor countries and individual rich westerners will continue to have spare cash that they feel guilty enough to even try to use to help the development of others, yet I’m not at all convinced that is a likely scenario.

  • Great post and interesting comments: aidnography’s posts made me wonder whether the policy equilibrium could be influenced by engaging the public in the trade-offs presented by different types of aid. The budget support example is interesting: evidence suggests that budget support can be an effective modality for supporting governments, although it can also have limited / negative impacts. I suspect that a lot of the negative perceptions come from difficulties in communicating its positives, while the downsides are obvious. Conversely project aid also has well-document negatives, in terms of weakening governance structures, but they are often hidden and the positives are much easier to sell. A more upfront acknowledgement of the dilemmas and challenges of both forms of aid may influence the policy equilibrium.

    As Jiesheng Li observed, aid has always been the domain of a policy elite – I wonder if that needs to be the case. I wonder whether a wider and deeper dialogue with the public might shift the balance of the equilibrium.

  • You all might like to take a look at last night’s “Newsnight”. Paxman referred to the Ethiopian government as “a bunch of thugs”. The British government guy was pathetic.
    The aid industry needs to take a good hard look at itself.

  • I think indeed that the main organizing principle for donors and NGOs’in development is the posse. However, I would not be so negative about it. Politics in general works with thesis and antithesis, followed sometimes by a synthesis. The outcry (posse) on sexual violence moved the peace efforts in DRC from “sharing the cake among the warlords” to an approach geared more to justice and rights of the poor. Without the HIV/AIDS-posse nothing would have happened. However, in normal politics a posse is balanced by a huge constituency for continuing normal service delivery. In development this balance seems to be missing: the means for the HIV/AIDS posse came partly from the health basic services.

    Perhaps more importantly: I share Owen his view on what we should do with development aid. What motivates the donor public to give is the moral imperative. This is why humanitarian assistance is always well supported. On basic services and global public goods the science is rather good how we should do it, and what to prioritize. There are even standards on how to bring these standards in humanitarian settings (see “shpere”). On economic development, the added value of the aid crowd is less clear. So it makes sense to focus on what we know how to do and our public wants.

  • It’s been interesting to read these entries, and to hear you many of you pay such mind to what the public wants, and I wonder if this is a particularity of aid coming from the UK. In the US, I don’t get the feeling (and I think it’s only a feeling at this point) that the public is all that engaged/takes an interest in the shape of aid…but to the extent that they do, it seems to me that ‘economic development’ would receive the highest priority (resonant of the ‘give a man a fish’ thing). I have to think our lawmakers who do have some control over aid allocation would always want to know how it generates economic development, i.e. what’s the bottom line?

    Maybe this just demonstrates a gap in my own understanding of how it works…and probably also demonstrates how I may be overly cynical about it.

  • @Stephanie, I would go one step further, politicians in the US aren’t willing to support the giving of aid–only few like Senator Lugar and Senator Kerry are supportive of aid but even then, mostly for non-developmental objectives and more for the US’ interests. In the UK, the three major parties have endorsed the limited “0.7” target and aid and development in general. The divide in the UK is the public and the parliamentarians.

  • I couldn’t agree with Owen’s writings more about the formation of posses. I however would like to add a slant to this debate by cynically suggesting that donors and recipient governments are in it together – there is more than one type of posse and often these posses work together with other posses – it is a complex system – which in my opinion is rather a closed shop. Using ideas from game theory there is what I would call a political “win-win” relationship between the givers and the receivers of “aid” in this regard.

    Aid is supposed to help but actually how much gets invested effectively leading to changes that mean a better life, more opportunities for the many, improved health and education and the drive towards a greater understanding of rights and wrongs. I am suggesting here that (and after 2 decades plus of working in development) that donor governments must be seen to be “kind, generous and giving” on the one hand, and that recipient governments must be seen to be “doing what they can to attract attention and financial support” on the other. The constituents of both bodies can then safely feel their representatives are working for them. The “trick” is to keep this going for as long as possible. If no one asks questions, if monitoring and evaluation is behind closed doors, if all opinion about performance is generated internally and if you keep places with foreign names mysterious and far away in mind and body, then this can continue. Fortunately, there are people like Owen who do not let this situation go uncommented upon. We need more openness, independent monitoring and independent evaluation on all sides.

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