The Paris Agenda - where did it go?

When the Paris Declaration was negotiated in 2005, it was seen as a paradigm shift in international aid policy. Donors and recipients would take joint responsibility and assistance would be more effective. But today very little of the agreements remains, write Bertil Odén and Lennart Wohlgemuth.

The Paris Declaration's principles for streamlining long-term development cooperation (enhanced ownership, better donor coordination, use of beneficiaries' own institutions, increased transparency and mutual responsibility) have almost completely disappeared from the international agenda in recent years. The most important reasons are partly that other issues have climbed higher, and partly that there are fewer and fewer success stories to refer to.

Three mega conferences in progress

The international development assistance world is currently preparing for three international mega-conferences, which are expected to create guidelines for development assistance 10-15 years ahead. In terms of time, first comes The High Level Conference on Sustainable Development Finance in Addis Ababa in July this year. Thereafter follows Annual General Meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York in September. There, the countries of the world are expected to agree on which sustainable global development goals will replace the UN Millennium Development Goals after 2015. Last coming The high-level meeting on climate issues and the so-called Green Fund with a capital of 100 billion by 2020. It will be held in Paris in December.

In the early years, many saw the Paris Agenda as an important process towards increasing aid efficiency. In several countries, the process started and aid changed sharply for a few years after 2005, when the Paris Declaration was adopted. New working methods and a completely new dialogue structure were developed. Significant progress was made, especially in terms of improved ownership for the recipient, coordination between donors and increased focus on jointly decided performance targets. Consistency and mutual responsibility proved to be more difficult to implement.

Wrote report after six years

We wrote a report in 2011, in which we tried to develop how the principles of the Paris Agenda had worked in the three countries Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. We chose these three countries primarily because they adopted the Paris Agenda early and because Sweden has had extensive development cooperation with all three for a long time.

Some of the conclusions of this report were that after a few successful years, there were signs that aid was once again facing well-known problems, such as increased fragmentation, unclear alignment with partner countries' priorities, competition rather than donor cooperation and short-termism.

Now we have tried to follow up our previous report and unfortunately it turns out that our fears from 2011 are coming true. This is really surprising as several macroeconomic improvements have taken place during the period, which should provide more scope for more effective development cooperation.

Reduced aid dependency

Some examples: The rapid economic growth has resulted in a significant increase in domestic tax revenues. In addition, there is a sharp increase in the inflow of foreign direct investment, primarily for raw material extraction, but also to other sectors.

The opportunities to take out commercial loans on the international capital market have increased. The new actors who can contribute with external resources and political support give the governments of the countries increased freedom to choose the path of development. This has meant that development aid's share of budget expenditure has decreased and aid dependence from traditional donors has fallen.

The reduced dependence on development assistance in many countries should create better conditions for increased ownership, clearer personal responsibility and the opportunities to persuade donors to use the recipient's own institutions. The main obstacles to this are a lack of trust between the parties, created by the donors 'experiences of weak governance and corruption in the partner country and the recipients' experiences of promised aid being delayed or completely frozen and the donors changing their rules and priorities too quickly.

Increasing aid is rounding up partner countries' systems and budgets, weakening recipient ownership. Donor coordination has also diminished, as has mutual responsibility for the Paris Agenda.

Not much left of the Paris Declaration

Ten years after the signing of the Paris Declaration, in practice only a limited part of the agreement reached in 2005 remains. In rhetoric, however, the Paris Declaration and its principles survive, although it is also becoming increasingly rare.

However, traditional assistance is still needed. Sudden disruptions in payments under budget support and other forms of traditional aid have shown that it is difficult for partner countries to find alternatives to traditional aid to finance core activities in the public sector. This applies above all to the social sectors, but also to the strengthening and reforms of social institutions.

A positive factor, however, is that new forms of dialogue have been developed that better include new international actors, civil society and the private sector.

If this is to be sustainable and effective, the basic principles of the Paris Agenda must be respected. Ownership, harmonization, coherence, results and mutual responsibility are as important today as before, as is long-termism and predictability in the relations between the parties. The question then is how these principles can be applied in a new context.

An issue that in this context climbs higher up the priority list is knowledge and capacity development. The new players are more concerned with financial support and less with increasing the capacity to take care of these investments. Here is an important niche for traditional development assistance.

Control fundamentalism took over

In the first years after the Paris Declaration, Sweden was extremely active in achieving such a rapid and effective implementation of its principles in the partner countries. But after a few years, the previous government's interest in this waned. A contributing factor was the strong focus on performance management, which eventually shifted to some kind of control fundamentalism that became increasingly incompatible with the ownership of the recipients and the cooperation between the donors that is the foundation of the Paris Agenda.

We really hope that the new government can break out of this trap and that Sweden will once again be a driving force in developing what is positive about long-term development cooperation and making it more efficient.

Bertil Odén and Lennart Wohlgemuth

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

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