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The end of Aid Effectiveness?

December 6, 2012

I took part in a round table discussion in a post-conflict country recently, looking at aid effectiveness there.

Among the salient details on the table, and which will be familiar from elsewhere:

  • The political economy is a tangled web of patronage, linking government, parliamentarians, bureaucrats and some businesspeople, dominating and closing out political and economic space from others – ultimately likely to be a chronic obstacle to development, even if good for short term stability.
  • The amount of “traditional” OECD and IFI concessional aid is reducing, when compared with the comparatively vast sums being invested by “emerging” players like China.
  • Some of the aid from traditional donors is anyway in the form of instruments like loans and export credit guarantees. Is this really “aid” at all?
  • The level of investment and support coming from “emerging” sources is impossible to quantify accurately, because not in the public domain. But it seems fairly clear that little of it is “aid” in the traditional sense of ODA. It’s certainly tied to the national strategic or commercial interests of the donors or lenders.

In our discussion, people were using the phrase “aid effectiveness”, but we ran into two problems. First, as alluded to above, were we really discussing “aid”, or something different, wider? Second, how to define “effective”? It became clear from the interventions of different people around the table that effectiveness was in the eye of the beholder, and that different beholders had quite different, sometimes contradictory definitions.

Simplifying this massively, for the traditional donor agencies, effectiveness was about logframe success: improved livelihoods, better health or education outcomes, higher GDP, peace consolidation, human rights, etc. For other parts of the same governments, as well as for some of the emerging players, it was about maintaining a geostrategic partnership in line with broader interests including their own domestic economies or their foreign policies. For the government, it was about getting resources and support for its own programme – through which inter alia it expects to consolidate its hold on political and economic power. For some beneficiaries, depending on their particular circumstances, it was about welfare or improved livelihood, health etc. outcomes. For others, it was about reinforcing their higher status in the community, and so on.

So it became clear that anyone using the term aid effectiveness would need to clarify what he or she meant by it a priori, to permit useful discussions with others.

But perhaps aid effectiveness is just a minor issue, anyway. In its place, ought we to be considering the intersection between two dynamics slightly differently defined? The first of these is planning and execution of “development” in the context. This surely will – and should – always be a contested notion. After all, defining what progress means has been at the heart of ideological debates for centuries. Let’s call this factor development effectiveness.

The second factor is the influence and involvement of outside agents on and in the development process, i.e. their impact on development and thus their development effectiveness. By this I mean the policies and actions of, for example, bilateral allies and donors, multilaterals, INGOs, international investors and businesses. These all, taken together, add up to a whole lot more than just “aid”.

So the task of those monitoring aid – locally, nationally, internationally – ought perhaps to be transformed into the monitoring of the effectiveness of all these different outside influences. Given that development is inescapably a contested notion, these monitors would have to judge effectiveness with reference to their own ideas (or ideology) of progress. To put this in peacebuilding terms, they would perhaps be monitoring the Conflict-Sensitivity of Outside Influences. (CSOI doesn’t really trip off the tongue though, does it?)

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