In the pursuit of measurable results, the recipient countries are considered gigantic laboratories. Evaluations commissioned by aid bureaucrats are of little use. A more holistic perspective is needed, but neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor Sida has the capacity for this. An advisory committee of researchers is a way forward, writes Göran Hydén, professor emeritus and development aid researcher.
For half a century, the development aid world has tried to steer the development of society in poor countries on the basis of its own premises. The requirement that development assistance reflects the values at home has meant that donors have been prisoners in a political world of mind that in many critical respects is lacking on the recipient side, including the governmental level. The interest in trying to understand these countries in a broader and more long-term perspective has given way to often over-ambitious efforts where money, expertise and the need for quick results have had to decide. In the absence of such an understanding, it is not surprising that the results are meager and that efforts to make aid more effective are eluded.
In recent years, donors have realized their own limitations but have nevertheless found it difficult to free themselves from the institutional limitations they carry with them from home. However, the rhetoric about partnership and ownership has been difficult to put into practice. This has been established in a number of OECD-led evaluations of the experiments in recent years.
In December 2011, at a high-level meeting in Busan, South Korea, the international community sought to revitalize the idea of recipient-driven assistance. The statement from the meeting is ambitious, but with so many stakeholders in place - governments from both the North and the South, NGOs, multilateral bodies and private business - specific commitments are few. However, the participants have given themselves until the end of June this year to work out a practical action plan. Sweden, thanks to the strong commitment of Minister for Development Aid Gunilla Carlsson, takes this task seriously. So the question is whether one should succeed in resolving the Gordian knot and get the donors 'demands for quick results to be reconciled in practice with the recipients' interest in increased ownership and a longer time horizon.
The answer has several dimensions, but one that is particularly important in this context is how to deal with the problem intellectually. Until now, donors have regarded the recipient countries as giant laboratories where the experiments are evaluated much like in a biological or medical institution. This approach, which in scientific circles is called positivist, primarily reflects the demand for measurable results. The recipient countries are constructed in abstract and simplified terms so that their complicated reality can be translated by an outside observer into a language that allows comparisons, whether these are set in time or space.
In connection with development aid's own development towards partnership and ownership, this method of tackling the problem has become increasingly difficult to justify as the best way of streamlining. What determines the results becomes increasingly blurred. Evaluators find it difficult not only to point out the impact of development assistance on the standard of living of social groups, but also the factors that cause positive or negative results. The chain of causes in the new aid architecture is simply too complex. Analysts and evaluators quarrel with each other about what applies.
Evaluations in all glory but the knowledge they produce tend to be narrow and unrealistic.
Evaluations in all glory but the knowledge they produce tend to be narrow and unrealistic. It is oriented towards the customer's interests. It is temporarily conditional. It is based on a false linear development model. It overlooks the local actors' own motives and interests. These studies have increasingly become a mere formality. The aid bureaucracies order them because they have to, but they are of little use. They do not contribute with a more convincing knowledge of how to make efforts more effective in a political environment where decision-makers lack the grip on implementation.
The acquisition of knowledge in the development aid world must be broadened. What is required is an understanding of the recipient countries' own dynamics and the motives and interests of their actors. Merilee Grindle at Harvard, Sue Unsworth at IDS in Sussex and the undersigned are among the researchers on development assistance who have pointed out the need to start the efforts from that end. Grindle's now well-known thesis of "good enough" rather than perfect ways of governing societies is based on the assumption that one must start from the conditions that the actors in the recipient countries face.
This way of studying the role of development assistance in the development of society has become increasingly relevant in line with the interest in partnerships and ownership. The actors on the receiving side request to be understood on their own terms. If development assistance is to be integrated into local systems, one must first understand what these systems consist of and how they work. Long-term visions with little grounding in reality, national development strategies produced to meet donor demands or public institutions reformed with foreign aid are false shortcuts that too often have received justified aid flows.
What is needed is a more holistic perspective, not just the fragmented view of reality that positivism gives us. It is not only knowledge in that sense but the understanding of the larger contexts that is crucial. Sida's interest in power studies, which seems to have waned in recent times, was a promising attempt in the right direction, but the step was never fully taken.
Unfortunately, neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor Sida have the capacity to go deep into the recipient countries.
Unfortunately, neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor Sida have the capacity to go deep into the recipient countries. On the other hand, both can show greater sympathy for the importance of research for the quality of development assistance. This applies not only to research on the political conditions but also to other sectors, e.g. agriculture, which are vital for the future of these countries.
It is regrettable that the government's and Sida's interest in research has had to bow to consultant-based assignments with the limitations indicated above. If Sweden really wants to take the Busan statement seriously and put its principles into practice, it is the expanded acquisition of knowledge, if not a prerequisite, then at least a necessary ingredient.
It is not just about supporting research in poor countries. It is equally important to promote and take advantage of Swedish research on developing countries. Funding for this research has decreased in recent years and the research base is shrinking despite its relevance to both decision-makers and bureaucrats being greater than ever.
The government can change this without major concessions.
The government can change this without major concessions. You can re-establish SAREC or what became the research department at Sida and give it a new mandate and a share of the money spent on consultant-based evaluations. Institutions such as the Nordic Africa Institute can be strengthened. Above all, however, it is important to be able to better absorb the lessons provided by the research findings. Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Sida must become better at this. An advisory committee of researchers with the opportunity to comment on proposals on how to make aid more relevant and more effective is one way. In any case, this case is something that the discussions about the follow-up of Busan can hardly avoid.