Should we finally get smarter aid?

The previous government did not accept the opposition between effective aid and measurable results. Standardization, fixed-term results and predetermined monetary frameworks are some of the problems that the new government can now solve. That is the opinion of Göran Hydén.

In recent years, official development assistance has been characterized by two conflicting objectives. On the one hand, the government has argued that local or national ownership is a prerequisite for effective development assistance. On the other hand, it has insisted that one must have measurable results.

During Gunilla Carlsson's long time as Minister for Development Aid, they did not want to accept that these goals were against each other. Her cameral ambitions were carried out at the same time as she played a prominent role in the donor community's efforts to redefine aid through the Paris Declaration and its subsequent statements in Accra and Busan.

However, it proved impossible to hit two birds with one stone. An almost blind result orientation has not been possible to reconcile with the recipients' ownership. As several times before, it is time again to examine aid in the seams.

It is not the hardware that is the problem. Money and experience abound. The challenge is on the software side. How can you get assistance that is based on consideration of the recipient countries' own conditions and at the same time meets Swedish expectations?

This is by no means an easy challenge, but Sida has recently started to take the matter really seriously. Country programming must become more recipient-aware and contextually sensitive. Knowledge of these countries needs to be strengthened. In short, Swedish policy must be based on broader information. Evidence in connection with individual cases is not enough. What is required is knowledge of the society in which the goals are to be met.

The problem has arisen because the government has allowed the requirements for fixed-term results to determine the development assistance policy at the expense of other considerations. Fitting the aid pieces into a framework that is acceptable to Swedish parliamentarians has become the most important thing. Examining cash flows has become an end in itself. Never before has Swedish development assistance been so tightly controlled as in the past ten years.

What is starting to happen now is a rethink that for the first time can lead to smarter aid. The first step is to get rid of the old "culprits".

A particularly unpleasant one is the requirement that aid must be implemented via standardized forms, e.g. using a logically developed framework to assess which alternative appears most economical to the donor in advance. This working method becomes particularly problematic when it includes a theory of how the implementation should take place, because it is precisely this that makes the user insensitive to the complexity and the many factors that in reality determine this process.

Another culprit is predetermined money frames. The aid money becomes an end in itself and reduces the act itself to a camera issue. It has become extra troublesome in the many cases where the flow of aid is also linked to the requirement for reporting every quarter or six months. The fact that this reporting takes place within the framework of the recipient country's own system does not make things better.

There are several other crooks who have contributed to making aid ineffective. This includes the requirement that current expenses in a certain project must not exceed a certain percentage. Another is that the turnover among the administrators at the aid embassies has been far too fast. Three years is not enough to really get a strong enough sense of how the recipient country works.

It is time to accept that the way in which development assistance has been conducted in recent years has made it more a part of the problem than the solution. What does it take to get past the obstacles?

Donors are aware of the importance of politics for what they do, but have not yet succeeded in adapting their own way of working to it. The first attempts almost ten years ago failed because they wanted to fit politics as a factor in their usual handling. However, it was not possible to subordinate the policy to its own routines.

The policies of the recipient countries are a reality that must be adapted to. This means that instead of sticking to once and for all specific goal determinations, decision-making and implementation must accept an iterative approach. The administrator cannot "lay off" and wait for an external evaluation to point out weaknesses or deviations from what was originally planned and approved. What is required is an ongoing decision-making process.

This means that the administrator must be committed and flexible in their way of working. The best administrators are already aware of this, but the bureaucratic obstacles that now often have to be circumvented in order to be effective in the local recipient context must be removed.

The program must not trump the problem it is supposed to help solve. Unfortunately, this has been the case too often. Development assistance must become more problem-oriented and thus focused on local leadership. Official aid has remained too much a matter of diplomacy and bureaucracy. Assistance must be freed from this cage and instead be conducted innovatively with the help of individuals or groups who can achieve results on the spot.

These innovators can be local officials or representatives of individual organizations or companies. They can also be administrators at the embassy - officials with their hearts in the right place. The important thing is that the administrator can invest time in professionally collaborating with these local abilities. He should not have to sit at his chair at the embassy and write reports because they are requested in Stockholm.

Better knowledge of the policies and society of the recipient countries as well as the application of this knowledge is also a necessity. If you want to promote local leadership, you must also understand how it works on its own terms rather than how well it lives up to Swedish expectations. It requires a combination of commitment and humility. A better connection between academia and the world of policy would be a step in the right direction.

Other donors, not least the British DFID, have addressed many of these lessons and recommendations. Sida is also aware of the need for new thinking. Now that Sweden has a new Minister for Development Aid and a recent government that claims to be prepared to pursue a new foreign policy, it is to be hoped that there is political support for smarter development assistance along the lines indicated above.

Göran Hyden

Professor Emeritus and African connoisseur

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

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