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What Did the High Level Forum do for Conflict-Affected Countries? A scorecard from Busan

December 12, 2011

This blog post was adapted from an article co-written with Dan Smith, and which appears on the International Alert website. Versions also appear on OpenDemocracy and the The Broker.

At the end of November, more than 2,000 representatives of governments, international organisations and NGOs convened in Busan at the fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness. Just before the meeting I proposed a set of four criteria by which to judge its outcome as far as conflict-affected and fragile countries are concerned. I suggested that success at Busan would be measurable by the degree to which participants:  

  1. Recognised how little is really known about how aid can promote and foster the emergence of better governed societies in fragile contexts.
  2. Disagreed on the best way forward, and thus retained the good ideas around which there is no consensus, instead of marginalising creativity in the search for what everyone can agree on.
  3. Decided to stop holding forums on aid effectiveness, and instead began a discussion about what effective development – human progress – looks like; and linked this to the process of replacing the MDGs 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. Committed to operationalizing some of the exciting new ideas in development, such as building more peaceful and better governed societies, if necessary changing the architecture and mandate of aid and development institutions.

So how well did they do at Busan? To what degree does the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation that was launched with the Final Statement from the meeting reflect this approach to meeting the needs of fragile and conflict-affected states? I wasn’t at Busan, and have based this assessment on the Final Statement, which is the official summary of the outcomes of the conference. Rather than assess the statement as a whole, I am simply concentrating on its relevance for development in conflict-affected or fragile countries. I rate the outcome of Busan as fairly mediocre with a score of 40%, as explained below.

1.       Change & uncertainty

Change, yes – it frames the opening discussion in the Final Statement. The role of China at the meeting made some aspects of change vividly present. The document reflects on the increase in co-operation between developing countries and on the emergence of new aid providers. But this is not developed in the rest of the statement. Taken as a whole its flavour is more-of-the-same. Where it might have been possible to recast how to meet the challenge of development in the light of the changes in our understanding and in the world over the past and the coming decades, what we get in the Final Statement are just a few tweaks.

Fragile and conflict affected countries are mentioned on page one, but then pretty much relegated to a single paragraph much further on. This seems like not enough recognition considering that 1.5 billion people live in them.

As to uncertainty, it is barely acknowledged. Being realistic about this, perhaps it’s not really permitted in official communiqués of this nature. But that means that a lack of humility is still hardwired into the international aid and development discourse. That perhaps helps explain a failure to ask hard questions about how to promote peace and development in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, which is something international donors and agencies are still struggling to work out – as they readily admit informally.

Score: 3/10

2.       Consensus

The Final Statement says “Our partnership is founded on a common set of principles that underpin all forms of development cooperation.”  So far, so good. But given the superficial recognition of the need for change and for new approaches, it is no surprise that a superficial – perhaps one can call it a fake – consensus was once again contrived. The temptation to go for it proved irresistible.

These shared principles are in themselves fine but they are neither profound nor inspirational:

a) Ownership of development priorities by developing countries.

b) Focus on results

c) Inclusive development partnerships

d) Transparency and accountability to each other

Apart from the welcome emphasis on results, this contains little that is new and masks a wide range of different interpretations, goals and strategies. Because of that diversity of interest and opinion, I argued that agreeing to disagree is preferable but, to nobody’s surprise, the Busan forum reverted to type for such meetings and promoted agreement on technical means rather than strategic goals. Thus the final statement lists numerous examples of ways in which actors must cooperate and collaborate, but is quite silent about what they can and should agree to achieve. Obviously it’s a lot easier to agree on how to work together, than on goals or strategies, which are inherently more ideological.

Because a too-easy consensus among everyone would be wrong, a sign of success would be a recognition of the need for a deeper and therefore more selective collaboration. The one place where this comes through is in relation to the New Deal developed by the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. This is a valuable statement by a group of fragile and conflict-affected states, donor governments and international agencies that is specifically directed at the development and peacebuilding needs of fragile and conflict-affected countries. The Final Statement welcomes the New Deal and continues, ‘Those of us who have endorsed the New Deal will pursue actions to implement it’ – thus distinguishing between those who are prepared to give the New Deal a passive welcome and those who want to make it work. Had it not been for this willingness to forego unanimity in action – which usually results in inactive unanimity – the New Deal would have been seen as an initiative that failed at Busan. Instead, it is one that comes out of Busan as a going concern with an increased degree of international legitimacy behind it.

Score: 5/10

3.       Aid, or development?

There is an all too common elision between development and development aid; the latter tends to dominate discussion of the former yet is in the end merely a potentially important but relatively limited component, rather than its central element. Thus a successful HLF4 would have agreed that future forums and the international development discourse should be about promoting effective development progress, not just best practice in aid. HLF4 did not go so far but does include this statement:

‘Aid is only part of the solution to development. It is now time to broaden our focus and attention from aid effectiveness to the challenges of effective development. This calls for a framework within which:

  • Development is driven by strong, sustainable and inclusive growth.
  • Governments’ own revenues play a greater part in financing their own development needs. In turn, governments are more accountable to their citizens for the development results they achieve.
  • Effective state and non–state institutions design and implement their own reforms and hold each other to account.
  • Developing countries increasingly integrate, both regionally and globally, creating economies of scale that will help them better compete in the global economy.

‘To this effect, we will rethink what aid should be spent on and how, in ways that are consistent with agreed international rights, norms and standards, so that aid catalyses development.’

As far as verbal commitment goes, this represents some progress. Yet when one gets beyond the broad statements of principle, this and rest of the Final Statement is still overwhelmingly about aid modalities, rather than about how governments, citizens, businesses and international institutions can bring about change. Nothing much new is said about international trade or international crime and nothing at all about the need to change foreign policies that reinforce repressive governments in fragile countries. So it remains to be seen whether the words will be matched by action. At best, the statement provides a useful marker for future intentions, to which governments can be held to account in the future.

Score: 4/10

4.       Operationalisation

The high ambition of getting global agreement tends to lead to an unambitious convergence on the least demanding positions and commitments. Therefore I argued that some of the most important progress over the next few years will not be based on global undertakings but on commitments made between a smaller number of actors. This gives a chance to put into practice the new thinking associated with the World Development Report 2011 and the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. The role of a global gathering should be to highlight and encourage such innovative work.

There is the endorsement of the New Deal as already remarked, and an acceptance of the need to take a less risk-averse approach to change, and for development agencies to delegate greater responsibility to their in-country staff. And Hilary Clinton’s unexpected acceptance that the USA would join the International Aid Transparency Initiative  received applause. But otherwise the HLF4 Final Statement falls pretty flat in this regard. The closest the statement gets to supporting innovative approaches is in this passage: ‘We welcome the opportunities presented by diverse approaches to development co-operation, such as South-South cooperation, as well as the contribution of civil society organisations and private actors; we will work together to build on and learn from their achievements and innovations, recognising their unique characteristics and respective merits.’

Score: 4/10

Overall Score

Taking the average of the four scores given above, and based on the Final Statement and with regards its relevance and positive impact on development in fragile countries, the HLF4 gathering in Busan gets an overall score of 40%. If that were the mark given to a student, I’d have to assume his or her professor would add: Not good enough; more effort needed.

Of course I’d be interested to know how others felt, and especially those who were present at Busan who will no doubt have picked up positive outcomes which I’ve missed.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Abdoulaye Toure permalink
    December 15, 2011 10:29 am

    very interesting but no comments yet

  2. Mark Clark permalink
    February 20, 2012 3:36 pm

    Thanks Phil – I really like your suggestions and comments and hope more take notice. I agree there is a lot more that can be achieved by avoiding the false value of consensus and freeing-up smaller, more creative, groups to take bold adaptive processes to see what peace building and development impacts emerge.


  1. Four measures of success at Busan « Phil Vernon's blog

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