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Four measures of success at Busan

November 5, 2011

This is slightly adapted from a piece co-written with Dan Smith and with inputs from other colleagues at International Alert, and represents not just my views but those of Alert, which has advocated for more effective aid in conflict-affected and fragile environments for many years. A version of this piece is also published on OpenDemocracy.

The Fourth High Level Forum on Aid takes place at Busan in South Korea, 29th November – 1st December. Two thousand representatives of governments, the UN, the World Bank, and other multi-lateral organisations and NGOs will meet to debate how aid can be delivered more effectively. Previous meetings in the series were in Rome (2003), Paris (2005) and Accra (2008). Such meetings produce worthy outcome documents full of technical language and compromise, which are often hard to pick through and get at what was really discussed and agreed. But ultimately we will know if the Busan meeting is a success if participants:

  1. Recognise how little is really known about how aid can promote and foster the emergence of better governed societies in fragile contexts
  2. Disagree on the best way forward, and thus retain the good ideas around which there is no consensus, instead of marginalising creativity in the search for what everyone can agree on
  3. Decide to stop holding forums on aid effectiveness, and instead begin a discussion about what effective development – human progress – looks like; and link this to the process of replacing the Millennium Development Goals with more appropriate measures of progress, and with the need for governments and others to change their behaviours outside the narrow realm of aid  
  4. Commit to operationalising some of the exciting new ideas in development, such as building more peaceful and better governed societies, if necessary by changing the architecture and mandate of aid and development institutions.

New thinking about aid and development in conflict-affected countries

The background to this is that no conflict affected country has yet achieved a single Millennium Development Goal (MDG). This failure has stimulated much reflection over the past few years, for example:

  • The World Development Report 2011 outlined a new paradigm for development assistance in conflict-affected countries – where a total of 1.5 billion people live
  • An increasing recognition that development is about more than economic growth, health and education; it is also about how people are governed, the relationship between people and state, access to justice, and whether people are kept safe from danger
  • A renewed focus on the need to show concrete results will help citizens in donor and recipient countries to hold their governments more accountable for aid effectiveness
  • Some aid is being used in creative ways, in line with the new thinking.

Meanwhile emerging economies like China, Brazil and India are providing increasing slices of the aid pie, sometimes using different approaches that are not part of the aid orthodoxy.

The way ahead is unclear: we’ve learned enough to know how little we know

As our understanding of the complexity of development has grown, so we have better grasped the difficulty of programming aid effectively. The very purpose of aid has changed, to embrace the unfamiliar language of statebuilding and peacebuilding. It has become far more ambitious, and rightly so. Twenty years ago an aid programme might have built schools and trained teachers. Ten years ago, it might have strengthened the capacity of the government to plan, provide and oversee education, including a grant for school building, operating costs and teacher training, while increasing tax revenue to pay recurrent costs. Now some donors want to foster better relations between the state and the people, increasing the sense of responsibility, responsiveness and citizenship. This implies change in some of the institutions at the heart of governance and society. No small thing.

Peacebuilding organisations like International Alert have been arguing for these kinds of changes for ten years or more. Progress has been made, but many challenges remain, among them:

  • Building responsive and responsible citizen-state relations is key to peace and prosperity, but little is known about how to do so at a speed and scale commensurate with people’s expectations; how to get the balance between democratic progress and stability right?
  • The lack of decent work for young people is often a major threat to stability. Aid orthodoxy says the private sector should create jobs. But it will not do so at the scale and speed, nor with the dependability and stability needed in countries emerging from civil war (e.g. Sierra Leone), or from years of repression (Burma or Guinea), when people’s expectations are raised. Should we ignore the aid orthodoxy, and consider externally funded 30-year public works programmes, to provide employment, inject cash into the economy and provide breathing space?
  • Climate change brings new challenges – of pressure on resources such as land and water, of the collision between growth and green priorities, and of adaptation – together with huge additional aid budgets. These are largely being managed separately from other aid, bringing a risk of increased incoherence, which can be a destabilising factor in fragile contexts.
  • The practice of aid organisations in fragile contexts has not kept pace with the learning, and the new purpose of aid. Without urgent change, they risk being unfit for purpose.
  • Getting the right metrics for assessing progress towards stability and peace in fragile contexts is a task that is far from complete. It cannot be done with the same metrics that suffice for health or education and it is increasingly tiresome that agencies seem pulled towards inappropriate indicators by the results agenda. Rigorous qualitative indicators and a time-frame appropriate to the task are key components.
  • The behaviour of governments continues to hinder development. The foreign policy of some donors undermines their own aid goals, while some recipient governments use aid to strengthen their hold on power, undermining democratic accountability and holding back development.


Busan, the first step on a new road

The wording of the Busan Outcomes Document is largely agreed, and reflects much of the new thinking on aid: statebuilding and peacebuilding; human security; transparency and results. But it fails to reflect the challenge, scale and complexity of promoting and supporting development in conflict-affected countries in a changing world. Busan should be seen as the final High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, and the beginning of a new debate and discourse. A successful Forum will be recognisable by evidence of four critical factors in the speeches made and the documents emanating from Busan:


1. Recogniton of fundamental change, coupled with uncertainty about the way forward. A recognition that the framing of aid and development has fundamentally changed. It has become more complex and more political. We need new tools and methods to achieve and measure success. Good work has been done, but we don’t yet have the tools with which to meet expectations. Politicians, NGOs and opinion leaders like Bono and Bill Gates are uncomfortable with uncertainty, but they need to accept it now, otherwise they will continue to make the wrong choices.  Participants at a successful HLF4 will define this challenge and set out a process for meeting it.


2. A balanced combination of agreement and disagreement. Beneath the technical language of aid, development is a highly political, ideological and contentious idea: it speaks to different theories of progress and change. International forums about aid in the past have glossed over this, focusing instead on agreements about process. That way consensus is achieved – but only a shallow and artificial one that often leaves aid practitioners in difficult positions, trapped by official niceties into policies they know are flawed, targets they know are unreal and actions they know are ineffective. Participants at a successful HLF4 will recognise that their different interests and perspectives lead to quite different views about how development happens, and how aid can be applied to promote it. This will allow the issue to be debated more openly as the international community begins defining the set of measures which will replace the MDGs after 2015.


Nevertheless, international agencies, governments and civil society do need to collaborate much more effectively, based on the comparative advantages of each. Thus participants at a successful HLF4 will agree to promote and mandate a more selective but deeper collaboration among agencies at national level.


3. Development, not aid. Aid is important, and the way it is planned and used matters. But the time for meetings about aid effectiveness is over; future meetings and processes should instead be about development strategies. They should debate what constitutes development, identify the policies and behaviours of governments, businesses, NGOs, IGOs and citizens which are most likely to promote progress, and how they can be encouraged and supported. Participants at a successful HLF4 will agree that future international forums should be defined in terms of promoting effective development progress, not just best practice in aid.   


4. Operationalization. Getting global agreement on critical issues is hard, and results in a watering-down of commitments. So it is critical to recognise that some of the most important progress over the next few years will be made at the level of specific organisations, projects, countries, etc. This implies a need for individual countries and organisations to push through the operationalization of some of the new development thinking associated with the World Development Report 2011 and the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and State-building. Participants at a successful HLF4 will agree to prioritise the operationalization of new approaches to promoting development in conflict affected countries, and to share the results of these.

NB In a later blog written after Busan, I have used these four criteria to score the success of the Busan meeting.

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