If the statement from the high-level meeting in Busan is fulfilled in practice, multilateral donors will have greater influence over development assistance and the exercise of political power, rather than expertise, will determine the results achieved. More politicized assistance at the expense of technical know-how raises questions about Sida's future. It writes Göran Hydén, researcher and consultant.
The so-called fourth high-level meeting in South Korea's Busan in early December has delivered both an ambitious and radical report that suggests the will to take the step fully in terms of making aid more recipient-centered. The statement has broad support. Representatives of governments in the north and south, as well as civil society, business and international organizations, are behind the proposal to create a "global partnership for effective development". Aid is no longer its own sector with a special staff, nor is it merely transfers from one government to another. Aid will be triangulated: the conventional north-south relationship will be complemented by more south-south cooperation. The recipient countries must coordinate and drive the process. So, what are the possible consequences?
To begin with, the Busande Declaration confirms the long way the world of development aid has moved in the last twenty-five years. The so-called "Washington Consensus" that was developed by the donors in the 80's was a one-sided and policy-specific order on their part. The recipient countries had only one choice: to obey. Since then, the relationship between donors and recipients through conferences in Monterey in 2002, Rome in 2003, Paris in 2005 and Accra in 2008 has become both softer and more reciprocal. The agenda has been broadened and the number of stakeholders has risen. Development and development cooperation has turned into a gigantic international project. North as well as South, state as well as civil society, business as well as trade unions have been assigned a joint responsibility for effective development, now defined as "strong, sustainable and all-encompassing growth".
Changes in these directions have already taken place, but Busan confirms that aid, as we have known it for fifty years, is about to be radically reshaped.
Although the choice of words, as in other statements of this type, is overwhelming and the tone optimistic at the top, there is no doubt that the positions have been moved forward, not least in response to the criticism that has come from recipients in recent years, e.g. in Africa. If Busan becomes a reality, the statement represents a paradigm shift. Assistance will increasingly be determined through multilateral bodies, mainly the OECD and the UN. The relationship between donors and recipients will be increasingly conditioned by political factors. Exercise of power rather than technical and economic know-how will determine the results achieved. Understanding the underlying societal factors will prove more important than log-frame-defined policy frameworks. Changes in these directions have already taken place, but Busan confirms that aid, as we have known it for fifty years, is about to be radically reshaped.
However, it is one thing to sign the proclamation, another to implement it in practice. The willingness to act differs not only between countries in the North and the South but also among the donors. Sweden learns to recognize itself in the text. Gunilla Carlsson's reforms at home are in line with the recommendations from Busan. It can be assumed that she, as the second largest among the development aid ministers, certainly had a hand in shaping the statement. The list of what to accomplish after Busan is almost endless. With such a diverse group of stakeholders - governments, multilateral bodies, NGOs and industry - it will not be long before priorities and trade-offs arise. We already know from the evaluation of the experience gained from the implementation of the Paris Declaration that donors and recipients prioritize different aspects of the agenda and interpret the principles differently. Some donors prefer to act as hawks, others as pigeons. Different priorities also characterize the relationship between government agencies and civil society in the recipient countries. The tensions that the "Arab Spring" brought to light are also found elsewhere. One can expect that the broader the agenda and the more stakeholders who sign, the greater the risk that there will be a dispute about what applies. Behind the fine words also hides the language of power, ie one actor's tendency to prevent another from achieving his goals.
If donors are to refrain from dictating and instead adapt to the recipients' preferences, the moral dilemma arises as to how to defend international obligations when these are broken or are in danger.
If donors are to refrain from dictating and instead adapt to the recipients' preferences, the moral dilemma arises as to how to defend international obligations when these are broken or are in danger. For example. who should stand up and defend women's rights in countries where these are loose? Who should expose corruption in societies where it is part of everyday life? Who should do something about the slowness in the handling and implementation of donor-financed initiatives? The donors are used to standing up unilaterally and criticizing the recipients. Can a more genuine policy dialogue really act as a defense mechanism in these situations or do you have to take the hard line? Experience so far shows that donors' patience is often very limited.
With a longer distance from the donor to the final recipient of the development assistance effort and with more actors as intermediaries, the question also arises as to how one can really ensure that the money will be used properly. It is relatively easy to use sophisticated methods to measure results within the framework of specific projects or programs. At the sector or macro level, it is much trickier, if not impossible. A lot of gunpowder has been wasted on improving the methods of evaluations, but the more the results will be determined by political factors, the less significant these will be. Studies performed e.g. at the Danish International Development Center (DIIS) shows that behind successful policy initiatives lies the self-interest of politicians in the recipient countries. Missing this does not happen much. What is needed is a focus on the results of what the local actors achieve, not just what the donors support; a holistic rather than an action-based approach; a political rather than a limited policy perspective. This is indicated in the Miscellaneous Declaration. It will be interesting to see how much of this becomes a reality in the follow-up planned for the first six months of 2012.
Should Sida be included in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as in Denmark and elsewhere, or should its role as an independent body be redefined?
Finally, one may ask what all this means for a body like Sida. With more delegation of decision-making power and the transfer of staff to embassies, Sida has already been marginalized. With more emphasis on the political rather than the technical, its role is further diluted. At the same time, it is clear that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have enough people who can take on the new tasks that come with the paradigm shift. Should Sida be included in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as in Denmark and elsewhere, or should its role as an independent body be redefined? What would it be that Sida but not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could do? A proper answer requires an investigation, but an opportunity would be to act as a catalyst for increased, not only knowledge of but also an understanding of the social and political circumstances that determine the development in the recipient countries.