Is the aid in a dead end?

Is the aid in a dead end? Göran Hydén wonders this due to the government's development aid policy platform, which is now out for consultation.

What is most important about Swedish development assistance: that it benefits the poor so that their conditions are improved or that it is governed in a clear way? Too often, politicians and aid bureaucrats have acted as if these priorities are compatible. The truth is, however, that they are not, and when you read the recently published aid platform, you are struck by how difficult it is to find new clues.

Instead of just reacting to what the OECD and the State Treasury have said in their criticism of Swedish development assistance, which seems to be the case with the platform, it should have been designed with a broader purpose. As Bertil Odén (5/2) pointed out in his commentary, the document omits considerations that are at least as important as governance. This applies not least to how Swedish development assistance should relate to the principles of partnership and the recipient's "ownership" of the assistance.

Control with the help of a well-formulated goal hierarchy has very little to do with outcomes. It is a myth that has been confirmed over and over again. Studies and evaluations may have made results reporting clearer, but log frames and similar methods have not made the results better. As the Paris Declaration and subsequent agreements in the same spirit emphasize, aid must be adapted to the country context.

This requires flexibility and creativity in both formulation and follow-up. To the honor of many Swedish development assistance administrators, they behave in this way. On the ground in a recipient country, they realize the limitations of the super-rational but at the same time limited perspective on how aid is expected to be managed. They do the right thing by using common sense while at the same time questioning the control mechanisms.

It does not get better by trying to follow the rules. The political and practical reality of the recipient country is too complicated to fit into matrices or measured against arbitrary indicators.

So from both a development aid functional and a recipient perspective, the principle of stronger governance via better goal formulation seems like a dead end.

An aid platform created as a Swedish smorgasbord would be a more suitable design. Put the dishes on the table. Let the guests know what is on the menu, but do not force them to necessarily follow the chef's instructions to the letter and dot how to eat through all the dishes. Let the guests leave the table with the feeling that they were satisfied with what they chose. That's what ownership and partnership are all about.

Despite the rhetoric, the recipient's freedom of choice has hardly increased in recent times. United in the OECD as a cartel, donors have created rules for the implementation and evaluation of development assistance that reduce the possibility of meaningful ownership and partnership. Excessive belief in control is just one example.

Another is the reluctance of the donor community to question the now fifty-year-old principle that aid is primarily a matter of transferring money from one government to another. It functioned during the first decades of development assistance, when the state's role as a governing instrument was indisputable.

Since the 80s, however, the economic and political reality has changed towards greater market dependence and therefore greater competition, something that has contributed to the state e.g. in Africa has weakened significantly. Not least, this change has led to increased corruption and reduced discipline in public institutions.

The outcome of official state aid therefore tends to fall even further away from the set goals and become a constant subject of close scrutiny that creates mutual distrust among donors and recipients. Against this background, it is no wonder that more and more people, not least on the African side, want, if not get rid of, in any case to reduce dependence on aid.

Through contacts with the new donor countries in Asia and the Middle East, the recipient countries also learn that development can take place by means other than state aid. Loans and investments are playing an increasing role in Africa. So do new forms of aid such as non-governmental partnerships and fund mechanisms that benefit the population and not just those in power.

These are all examples of what should be done in the spirit of the Paris Declaration: give greater power to the recipients to choose but do not restrict the right only to the governments!

Aid's friends and the politicians who decide must really take the time to think more closely about how it can be led out of its dead end. This cannot be done overnight but must be marked with steps in the right direction.

Such a mark must be made by the government and the Riksdag freeing themselves from the ingrained approach to aid that has already taken place in the Netherlands and Canada. Sweden does not have to follow their path in all respects, but should emphasize initiatives that increase freedom of choice on the part of the recipient and co-operation across borders outside the state framework.

To strengthen ownership, development funds can be set up, e.g. to strengthen local government, where funds are not governed by the central government's often arbitrary decisions but by the local bodies' own priorities and ability to utilize money for development projects at this level. These funds must have the status of public institutions, but in order to strengthen their management, they must also have an independent position vis-à-vis the political body. A model that has already been tested is that the board of these funds, in addition to state representation, contains representatives of civil society and those who provide capital resources such as the donors.

To strengthen the partnership, it is important to engage people and institutions outside the government. Cooperation between governments should be gradually reduced in favor of mutual work, e.g. between NGOs or bodies aimed at strengthening public institutions in the recipient countries. A good example of this is Swedish municipalities' partnerships with corresponding institutions elsewhere in the world that are conducted through their international center for local democracy. This is not governed by abstract goal formulations but by practical and tangible initiatives aimed at strengthening popular power and its influence at the grassroots level.

The recipients have no voice in the Swedish development aid debate. They do not have their own consultation response. Unfortunately, in order to change the direction of development assistance, we are dependent on our own assessments regarding ownership and partnership. They are, of course, primarily blue-yellow, but given the experience of development assistance that still exists in Sweden, it should be possible to raise the gaze a little higher above the horizon. After all, it would only be an effort within the framework of agreements already made.

Göran Hyden

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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