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The tension between values and interests in overseas aid

July 22, 2018

This is the text of my contribution to the OECD-DAC’s valuable States of Fragility 2018 report, published 17th July.

Aid budgets are never secure, as voters’ perceived interests always weigh more heavily in the balance than those of voiceless people far away. This is particularly true today, as governments are under increased pressure to justify aid budgets in an increasingly populist world. At the same time, embodied in development cooperation has always been the concept that it is right to help people improve their circumstances, reduce suffering and flourish as individuals, communities and societies. The onus is therefore on governments to demonstrate that aid is effective, is spent carefully and without waste, and that it is in voters’ own interests to help people elsewhere in the world. This inherent tension between interests and values is analogous to the tensions in medical practice. Hence the admonition to “do no harm” – drawn from medical ethics – has become familiar in development discourse (as in Mary Anderson’s work).

Development in fragile contexts is especially fraught with such tension because its outcomes are more uncertain than in other contexts. Political institutions in such places also do not readily allow international actors to obtain the equivalent of the medical patient’s consent or be held accountable by citizens there. As a result, the ethics of international development place a high value on the need for responsible and informed practice.

The tyranny of ‘what works?’ and value for money

This phenomenon has contributed to simplistic notions of effectiveness. The emphasis on finding “what works” in fragile contexts, implies that the only methods to be tried should be those that are already known to succeed. Yet the outcome of development engagements in fragile contexts is by nature uncertain. Although lessons learned over the past decade have indicated they should use long-term, adaptive and holistic approaches tailored to the specificities of each context and in which local people and institutions are in the lead.

These approaches, however, tend to sit uncomfortably with over-simplified notions of causality and effectiveness. A truism of aid – as Andrew Natsios famously wrote – is that the most easily measurable interventions are often the least transformational, while the most transformational are often the least measurable. This is especially true in fragile situations, where structural change is essential. Development actors may know the right goals to aim for, but that does not mean it is easy to achieve them. There are no algorithms or simple linear pathways for reducing fragility.

Indeed, no-one can be certain of how to achieve success in fragile contexts. History suggests that progress will happen differently in different contexts. Good aid programmes are those that encourage and accompany this evolution, applying resources and knowledge intelligently, responsively, carefully and collaboratively to maximise positive, if uncertain, outcomes. Achieving these will take many years and many donor country electoral cycles. Such uncertain, context- and time-specific programming lends itself poorly to the idea of sticking to what is already known to work.

The focus on “what works?” feeds into mechanisms designed to demonstrate value for money. Given the scarcity of funds, it is essential to show voters and beneficiaries that money is being well spent. But value for money analysis is often done a priori as part of decision making before the impact (i.e. value) of a programme is known. This puts programmes that are appropriate for fragile contexts at a disadvantage compared with simpler and more predictable approaches elsewhere. The twin lenses of value for money and the what-works question thus can contribute to poor decisions, leading to funds being allocated to places where operations are cheaper and easier, and to shorter-term, simpler, less transformational programmes, rather than those which address the complex causes of fragility.

Fear can distort the framing of aid

Fear has also become more audible in the discourse around aid to fragile contexts. Politicians can benefit by framing aid as a way to keep citizens at home safe from uncontrolled migration or terrorism. This helps reassure voters their governments are keeping them safe and also helps to justify aid in the public mind.

But this framing can also distort development programming. An example is the use of aid to keep potential migrants where they are. Much aid to Syrian refugees is tied to preventing them from leaving Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which may not be the best solution for them as some of them may never be able to return home, whatever the outcome of the war. Nor is it necessarily the best policy for these host countries, where the rapid influx of large numbers of refugees has resulted in citizens that are as concerned about the impact of refugees as their counterparts in wealthier nations.

Ambitions that aid will somehow solve the migration issue in the short term are misplaced. Research shows that development progress tends at first to stimulate migration rather than deter it, and remittances from migrants are often critical to the resilience of people back home. Funds that seek to reduce migration can therefore risk undermining both development progress and coping strategies. Besides, experience and common sense suggest that surge funding of this sort in fragile places with under-developed institutions and limited absorption capacity is unlikely to succeed.

Fear of terrorism has also become influential over development programmes, more of which are now expected to address the risk of violent extremism in some way. This is worrying because there is still much to learn about both drivers of and effective responses to violent extremism, yet many projects are already operational. From lessons learned thus far, reducing extremism calls for nuanced, long-term programming approaches designed to build social cohesion, based on a detailed understanding of local conditions. These also need to operate in partnerships of trust with communities and especially with the people most likely to be at risk, and who are not always easy to identify. The right programmes can take many years to develop and succeed. Their impact, though, can be undermined by the heavy-handed approaches of security actors, found to be a major source of grievance, some of whom have been trained and supported by the same donors who are providing development aid.

Fear and narrow definitions of value are just some of the ways in which development assistance is being pushed into uncomfortable territory, where the balance between short-term perceived interests and altruism is becoming harder to find. The distortion of aid by extraneous factors will always occur, as Tony Klouda has written, especially as the proportion of international aid programmed in fragile states continues to increase. The foregoing analysis suggests that for international interventions to be effective in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, they must be clearly and consistently framed above all to reduce fragility and foster resilience. Making this a central pillar means that other factors can be clearly judged by whether they will contribute to or undermine this goal.

This also would allow value for money analysis to factor in the need for programmes to be intentionally adaptable, long-term, holistic, and tailored to local specificities within a non-linear view of change, and to take into account both the higher cost of operating and the higher risk of failure in such contexts. Because aid in fragile contexts will remain particularly prone to ethical dilemmas, more transparency about the challenges of working in these environments would help move the debate about development and aid onto a more stable footing. Finally, it would be timely to provide more nuanced ethics guidance to officials often struggling with the tension between values and interests to help them navigate this difficult terrain. Finding a balance between these matters, because if aid fails in the fragile contexts where need is greatest, then it could undermine the case for providing aid at all.

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