I am grateful to Oxfam’s Duncan Green for his fair and thoughtful review of my paper about improving aid, Beyond Planning: Markets and Networks for Better Aid.
I’m glad that Duncan and Chris, his Oxfam colleague, endorse a key argument of the paper, which is that the development industry will improve through evolutionary change rather than grand design; and that a driver of this change will be better mechanisms feedback from the citizens of developing countries about what is working. The paper points out that this kind of evolutionary change comes from variation and selection – and that the aid business does not have enough of either to ensure evolution towards more effective aid.
Duncan and Chris have reservations about the word “beneficiary” to describe the people in developing countries whom aid is intended to support. I think that is a good point, and I’d be happy to use a different word if we can find a suitable alternative (I don’t think that “primary stakeholder” or “rights holder” takes the trick, since neither is sufficiently specific about who we mean).
I don’t want to put words in Duncan’s mouth, but I detect from his review that he is more sceptical than me about the value of markets. He dismisses without much fanfare the the idea of giving more choice to the, er, “intended beneficiaries” (aka primary stakeholders and rights-holders):
Where I think he is wrong is a largely market based philosophy for creating incentives based on New Public Management theories of expanding choice more than voice. … This in turn requires some quite fundamental organisational change with in aid agencies, as well as establishing more citizen to citizen links possibly using new social media.’
That is an unfair characterisation of my view: I am in favour of choice AND voice. A large part of the paper, especially when talking about networks, is precisely about how citizens can have more voice, and I talk explicitly about citizens links through new social media. But there are huge problems to overcome in achieving this, because the “intended beneficiaries” are geographically and politically remote from decision-makers in aid agencies, which means their voice is dimly heard, if at all.
While I agree with Duncan on the need to ensure that people have voice, I find it surprising that he (in common with many people who regard themselves as progressive) is so reluctant to give choice where possible as well. Duncan’s (excellent) book is called From Poverty To Power – and I believe that giving people direct control of resources and allowing them to choose what services they want, and from whom, can be one of the most important ways of empowering people. Duncan calls this a “technocratic/new labour enthusiasm for using market mechanisms” – but the idea of giving the poor more direct control of resources goes back long before New Labour: Oxfam’s honorary President, Amartya Sen, got a Nobel prize for his 1982 book, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, which argued that it would be better to give people money than food in a famine.
I have not swallowed the New Public Management story hook, line and sinker, but I do believe that there have been positive experiences (for example, from the publication of league tables, and the distinction between purchaser and provider). While I think we should learn from new public management, my paper describes in some detail the shortcomings of a market-only approach, especially as it relates to foreign assistance. I hoped my paper would be an elegant synthesis of some of the best (and proven) tools of this school of thought with lessons from other approaches, especially the use of complementary mechanisms of networks, voice, regulation and planning.
The aid industry has almost entirely evaded the reform of public services over the last decade. There is no measurement of results; no distinction between purchaser and provider; no customer choice. Presumably the lack of reform is partly because the shortcomings of the industry are felt by people with no political power or voice in the political systems of donor countries. The incumbent service providers are politically powerful, well organised, and deeply conservative about any change that affects their interests. The aid system has, over time, drawn to it people who are sceptical about the value of markets and choice, saddling developing countries instead with five year plans and long coordination meetings. No politician in a donor country is enthusiastic to take on these vested interests, in order to improve services for people they will never meet and who have no vote in the election.