Ten broad brushstrokes about development cooperation

Details of an oil painting showing brushstrokes

I am discussing the the future of development cooperation, and the role of Northern NGOs, with the policy, advocacy and campaigns team at ActionAid UK this morning.  Powerpoint is forbidden.  Here are my speaking notes. They consist of ten broad brushstrokes about the future of development cooperation.

1. Fighting poverty is no longer mainly about helping poor people in poor countries

72% of the world’s poor live in middle income countries, mainly in stable, non-fragile countries. Two thirds of the worlds poor live in just five countries: China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia.

2. Even if we get rid of 1$/day poverty, there will still be a lot of very poor people

If income in India were perfectly equally distributed, it would average $4.10 / day compared to $110 / day in the UK or $137 in the US.  (And that is at PPP.)  It isn’t just about inequality either. We’ve boxed ourselves in with a stupidly low definition of poverty.

3. The new financial flows are great but will not reach most of the half a billion people living in chronic poverty.

Remittances, private direct investment, portfolio investment, non-concessional loans, and oil revenues are all great but they are unlikely to trickle down. Aid is uniquely well-suited to these needs.

4. Aid agencies will be disintermediated. Not whether but when. It will be abrupt.

As I read the polls, concern about poverty is growing; belief in aid is falling away. Few legacy organisations will survive. New ones will spring up: they will be platforms for citizens’ engagement. A characteristic of many aid organisations is that they admire their beneficiaries but despise their donors: I doubt if these organisations will survive.

5. Aid can deliver services but probably does not drive social and political change.

We can use aid to provide services to poor people; and to increase the incomes of very poor people.  But it is a much more ambitious goal to use aid to drive social and political change. We don’t know that aid can do this; and it is possible that aid might actually be harmful.  It is already hard for any organisation to try to do both. (See Martin Kirk, Exfam). The disintermediation of aid agencies will make it harder for them to try to do both.

6. Many of the decisions which keep people poor are global – maybe not the most important ones, but most of the things which we can affect.

These include climate change, illicit financial flows, trade policies, security policies, arms sales, migration policies, corruption, destruction of global environmental resources.

7. Many of the most effective things that we can ‘do about poverty’ have nothing to do with aid.

Aid does a good job of alleviating the symptoms of lack of development, but may not do a good job of addressing the causes.  Donors repeatedly commit themselves to ‘policy coherence’ yet according to our Commitment to Development Index, we have made little progress over the last ten years.

8. The tension is not between the interests of rich countries and poor countries but between the interest of powerful vested interests and the rest of us.

Many of these things are win-win, not zero sum. Reforming the Common Agricultural Policy, limiting Greenhouse Gas emissions, opening our borders to imports from developing countries, stopping arms sales to undemocratic governments, sharing knowledge, reforming IP rules, allowing more migration from developing countries – all these would make us better off too, as well as helping people in developing countries.

9. The global governance deficit is becoming increasingly acute.

I was in Warsaw for the COP. Terrifying.  Ditto the WTO.  Ditto BEPS.  Ditto the EPA negotiations.

10. We are on the right side of history. We are the many.

Things are changing for the better. Improved communications technology, democratisation of the media, improvements in biological science, clean technologies. As Paul Mason says, it is kicking off everywhere. If we were trying to persuade people to make sacrifices for the world’s poor, I would be pessimistic. But we are not: what we are fighting for is in all our interests.  Vested interests will resist change, of course. But we are the many.

7 thoughts on “Ten broad brushstrokes about development cooperation”

  1. Some of this is great  – the bit about the elites odd – very easy to blame ‘them over there’ we all need to be active citizens. Change will be part of it – and while many people find change hard, once it gets started it can be really good! Ps at Practical Action we really value our supporters and donors – I genuinely cant think who you are referring to when you say agencies despise their donors.

    1. Marg – Thanks.  I agree the reference to elites was odd – coincidentally I had amended that just before you posted your comment.  Perhaps you still think it is odd!

      I’m interested that you don’t recognise the thought that some aid agencies despise the people who fund them.  (Charities like them for funding them, of course, but they wouldn’t dream of giving them a real say over the work they do.)

      1. But thats different! People support us because of our values, mission and impact – we feedback to them and they endorse through their continued support. If they dont – and I assure you we get lots of questions – they either withdraw support or challenge. Our work overseas is shaped by local people – we operate as was just one element of Small is Beautuful (the book written by our founder) in quite a devolved way with our local offices run by local people (not expatriots).
        I think there is a huge amount of respect in all of these relationships.

    2. Very interesting! I didn’t know the majority of the world’s poor live in middle income countries. I agree with your statement – “we are on right side of history. We are the many” and “vested interests will resist change”. The underlying problem (or challenge) is centralisation/decentralisation which provides a few with influence over the many. In the past few years, a few have had an exponential impact on the “many” and introduced risk to society. It is difficult to find solutions within the existing paradigm (ie; Information Age) which means changing the status quo. The solution is to shift to a distributed structure and restructure the status quo and put everyone that is part of the “many” the centre of the structure rather than the “few” at key positions of influence in channels and hierarchies. 
      The “Global Wisdom” entry in the “Unlimited Human Potential Challenge” ( http://www.mixprize.org/hack/global-wisdom ) shows how we could crowd create Network Society, productivity, distributed incomes and real-time governance everywhere. We have been laying the foundation for distributed prosperity for decades. Distributed structures means distributed opportunity, distributed incomes, distributed accountability, distributed risk and real-time. They empower the “many” you refer to. They bring accountability to the “few” you refer to.
      The status quo (or “few”) has (at significant cost) delayed the crowd (r)evolution to the next stage of development. Some countries have increased Debt/GDP by 25% (for 5% growth in GDP). Hopefully, the “many” will benefit from the shift to the next stage. Although, history tells us that change only occurs with crisis or collapse. History also suggests we may have to wait another 16 years before we shift to the next stage. Although, we could move proactively if we chose to. Low and declining productivity, unsustainable debt and increasing conflict means we should choose a singularity now.

    3. I’m curious what you have in mind in your reference to the acute global governance gap.
      I couldn’t agree more with your 4th point: aid can deliver services but probably does not drive social and political change. I’d go further and say that focusing on delivering services (directly implementing what Lant Pritchett calls “cost effective charity”) is often at odds with providing assistance that supports drilling down into the underlying causes of observed problems and supporting a locally-driven and adaptive approach to identifying actions and initiatives that can loosen those constraints. The nature of this inherent conflict is similar to that which Ben Taylor wrote about in his excellent 2013 paper  “Evidence-Based Policy and Systemic Change: Conflicting Trends?”. I wish more people were talking about this topic. Clearly the aid community should not, I repeat, not, stop directly supporting service delivery; however, I believe we should also be scrutinizing our strategies and activities carefully to see what effect they are having on local capabilities and prospects for sustainability.

    4. http://www.oecd.org/dev/34353531.pdf
      I love it how you manage to stay optimistic. To what degree are the rich counties captured by the elites? Most banks were saved with tax payers’ money. With every year chances are slimmer that their power will be curtailed. 
      It looks like the tea parties multiply. The attention of the voters is rather on bigotry on immigration and abuse in social services, than on taking back from the 1 %. To the contrary, wage competitiveness (working poverty) is an official goal in the EU. 

    5. Another characteristic of aid agencies  – since their efficiency are measured by their ability spend aid and are hardly if not never held accountable for failures – thus in the interest of  their own sustainability aid beneficiaries as  use as “cash cow” and aid donors as “money tree”.

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