We can not do everything everywhere

For aid to be effective, donors must choose and prioritize what they want to invest in. During the last decade, both Sweden and Norway have tried to reduce the number of countries receiving their aid. Now, however, it seems to be going in the other direction. Rapid political changes risk diluting development aid, writes researcher Rune Jansen Hagen.

Simplified, it can be said that the idea behind the global goals for sustainable development (Agenda 2030) is "one for all, all for all". The goals apply in all countries of the world - and all countries are responsible for implementation, both abroad and at home. But most of us probably know that when everyone has responsibilities, no one has. This may be why both the Norwegian and Swedish governments are trying to define themselves:

"No one can do everything, but everyone can do their part" (Norway's status report for Agenda 2030, One year closer)

"Sweden can and should not do everything everywhere" (Police framework for Swedish development cooperation and humanitarian aid)

Previous attempts to delimit geographically - and only provide aid to certain countries - give cause for concern now that development aid policy is to be adapted to Agenda 2030. My forecast is that both Norwegian and Swedish aid will be spread thinly - both geographically and thematically. And the consequence will probably be reduced aid efficiency.

The forecast is based on the research I have done on focused development assistance. Both Norway and Sweden have had a large spread of development assistance, if one compares with the other rich countries in the OECD's Development Assistance Committee DAC. In both Norway and Sweden, the geographical distribution of development assistance has been the biggest problem and it is therefore positive that the two countries have tried to have more focus in development assistance in recent years. But the attempts were short-lived.

Short-term attempts to gain more focus

The results of the Swedish policy for more focused development assistance from 2007 are clearly visible in the data I have looked at (until 2013). But they are only visible for two years, namely 2008-2009. An increased focus can be seen both if you look at larger initiatives and if you exclude non-profit organizations. This can be seen even if one does not use my statistical targets for aid distribution, but instead looks at the proportion of aid that went to the so-called focus countries.

The Norwegian policy for concentrating development assistance was launched in the draft state budget in 2015. It appears to be based on Sweden's model with two main categories of partners, developing countries and "vulnerable strata". However, the Norwegian government's proposal was much more ambitious than the Swedish one. Norway would have 12 main partner countries, while Sweden only aimed to come down to 33.

I do not think it was the high level of ambition that put an end to the Norwegian reform, but in any case the effort subsided as quickly as in Sweden. In the new policy document for 2016-2017, the geographical concentration of Norwegian development assistance is phased out. The reason is interesting to read: “The current division of Norwegian focus countries into six vulnerable states and six developing countries no longer seems to be the most appropriate. Internationally, there is now talk of 'vulnerability' rather than 'vulnerable states'. "

The Norwegian government is thus changing a clear policy due to a change in the international aid discourse. Instead, the government is proposing three main categories for partner countries:
1. Country for long-term cooperation
2. Countries in direct or indirect conflict
3. Countries where efforts for global common challenges are particularly important

Regulated migration is behind the change

At first glance, this looks like small changes, but if you examine it more closely, you see that it is not so. At least half of the challenges in category 3 concern things that are not global and hardly even development-related. Namely security and stability in northwestern Africa and in the western Balkans, ie problems related to migratory flows across the Mediterranean. The new category 2 also turns out to have the migration problem as a clear motivation.

There are no longer any explicit guidelines for which countries should be given priority in Norwegian development assistance. We only get a few examples of countries in each category. Just over two years after the new strategy of focusing on a few countries, it has already gone to the grave. We cannot expect the cautious decline in the number of recipients in recent years to continue. Although the government still recognizes the starting point of the new policy: “A clear geographical concentration of bilateral aid is important for us to achieve the best possible results. We can not spread too wide ”.

I believe that there is an important reason why the Norwegian government quickly changed course and that the current development assistance policy framework in Sweden hardly affects the subject of development aid concentration. Namely, lack of institutionalization. The Swedish initiative consisted of a smorgasbord of different indicators that could be used to select a focus country, without any form of prioritization. The Norwegian government also did not set a fixed framework, but listed seven criteria that are no longer mentioned.

Aid is sensitive to political change

The development assistance has special features that make it vulnerable to rapid political changes with poor data. Firstly, aid is for people in other countries. This means that there are not the same channels for feedback to decision-makers as when they decide on public investments within the country. This means that the quality of the decisions becomes worse and the stakeholders who do not necessarily have the recipients' best interests on their agenda have more leeway.

Secondly, reducing poverty in the world (the main normative basis for development assistance) is a collective goal. It provides an incentive to pass on the costs of achieving the goal to others - with consequences such as making it less likely that decision-makers will be held accountable for the results. The characteristics of both development assistance contribute to the donor countries' own interests playing a major role when allocating resources. They also make aid receptive to both international political change and the reforms of individual governments - based on their own ideas and needs. Over time, this leads to a thematic and geographical spread that makes the effects of development assistance weaker. In addition, it means that donors 'priorities may govern more, while recipients' may control less.

If aid is to be able to contribute as effectively as possible to Agenda 2030, it must be protected from the negative influence of everyday policy. This can be done by creating an international framework that gives decision-makers a clear mandate - and thus responsibility - to pursue as effective an aid policy as possible. There are models for rule-based assistance, for example in International Development Association and Millennium Challenge Corporation. It is time to investigate what a Scandinavian variant could look like. Sweden, which still seems to attach great importance to the Paris Agenda for effective aid from 2005, is happy to take on the role of pioneer again. We neither can nor should do everything, everywhere.

Rune Jansen Hagen

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

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