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Melbourne Sound Relief, Rainbow Brigade, by Alexander Kesselaar www.alexkess.com

People power for aid effectiveness

Hans Zomer | 16 October 2011

Effective aid work means enabling NGOs to bring about real, lasting change for poor people.

The Busan High Level Forum follows up on earlier summits on aid effectiveness, in particular the 2005 Paris Declaration and the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action, which were organised as aid donors realised that the current donor landscape is not conducive to delivering on the MDGs.

The 2005 summit started from a very technocratic point of view, and formulated a set of principles and mechanisms for greater donor coordination: the idea was to make “overseas aid” more effective. The 2008 summit, rightly, broadened the discussion, and looked at how to get better at bringing about “Development” (not just do aid better), and how to get “civil society” involved. At the Accra summit, Governments realised that to “make poverty history”, the international community must do more to address the root causes of poverty.

Since then, NGOs and citizen groups from around the world have been working together to articulate their view of what “addressing the root causes of poverty effectively” means. These discussions resulted in the formulation of the Istanbul Principles on Development Effectiveness and the Siem Reap Framework for Action – both documents well worth a read.

What these documents say, in essence, is that “Development” cannot be delivered from the outside, and that “Poverty” is not merely a lack of money, food or shelter.

“Poverty” is not a lack of material goods:

  • To be poor is also to lack control over one’s life and resources.
  • Poverty is not simply a matter of scarcity: it is the result of human interaction. People keep other people poor.
  • Poverty is exclusion – from social, economic and political processes that affect one’s life.
  • Poverty is political – reflecting inequality and injustice.
  • Poverty is indignity. Poverty is the denial of access to the resources, capabilities, security and power that people need in order to realise their human right to live with dignity.

And the inverse, “Development” is the continual provision to the well-being of a country’s entire population and of all individuals: This term refers not just to economic development or, narrower still, economic growth. Development is about reversing poverty and inequality, increasing the choices and opportunities available to the poor, and protecting their human rights.

“Overseas Aid”, then, is not just about service delivery. Rather, it is about bringing down the costs of, and the barriers to, participation in essential services (health, education) and in economic and political life. Development is essentially a political process whereby poor people are empowered to claim their rights.

The role of NGOs in this process is to enable participation in political and social processes (at home, and abroad!), and to support citizens in their efforts to breach the monopoly of power and end marginalisation of large sections of the population. Instead of focusing on delivering the services that poor people cannot obtain, NGOs should try and ensure their access to those services, and to jobs, and to protect people when they are seeking to claim their right to those.

The NGOs that work in this way will not be the “whites in shining armour” so loved by Western media. Instead, they will be Facilitators, Transition Managers and Behind-The-Scenes-Supporters. Such NGOs will make it their mission to be embedded in local civil society, and to provide the “enabling environment” for local citizens’ initiatives to reach their goals.

Effective NGOs should be connectors & bridge builders: between citizens, governments, companies, academics, consumers. Rather than running their own, stand-alone, projects, these NGOs seek to work through alliances, hybrid networks and coalitions.

And these NGOs should be supported in their work. As a recent OECD study has pointed out, when it comes to supporting NGOs, institutional donors make all the right noises, but actually don’t fund the type of NGO work that they say they like! And they don’t really help to create the space for NGOs to do that work, either (Reality of Aid study). Similarly, most citizens donating to NGOs are more interested in the level of administration costs than the real impact of the organisation they support.

It seems that when it comes to NGO work, donors want to pay for “life saving” projects, but not for the type of programmes that bring about real, lasting change for poor people.

If the upcoming Busan summit can address that issue, then it will really have made a contribution to the international “aid effectiveness” debate.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Dochas Network's blog

Photo credit main picture: Melbourne Sound Relief, Rainbow Brigade, by Alexander Kesselaar www.alexkess.com