Alpha Barry: No man is an island; no donor is an island

Development Policy28 Jan 2010Alpha Barry

This article represents the personal opinion of the author.

As has been mentioned by others, the recent WRR report on Dutch development cooperation, ‘Minder pretentie, meer ambitie: ontwikkelingshulp die verschil maakt’, is a positive contribution to the ongoing debate on the subject in the Netherlands. The report gives a good historic overview of Dutch development cooperation and it is good that the writers did not shy away from a broad approach, nor from touching on topics that some may perceive as being controversial. But while the report is extensive in its international view during its analytical stage, it seems to be somewhat ‘hiding behind the dikes’ with regards to its conclusions and advice. In this regard, for me, a few things stand out.

First of all, the call for focus (specific areas of specialization and/or countries) is clear in principle (though a debate around a specific number of countries strikes me as somewhat absurd). However, the report barely touches on international processes with regards to development cooperation. It is limited in its advice on how Dutch development cooperation could best make use of these. It is desirable for the Netherlands to have its own capacity for analysis and the programming of its development aid (especially in specific niches), but how best to do this in line with other donors and partner countries is crucial from an efficiency, coordination, and local ownership perspective. Though progress with regards to the Paris Declaration has been mixed at best, especially at the EU level, serious gains could be made. There are some positive signs on the ground and in the political arena (see the ‘Council conclusions on an operational framework on aid effectiveness’ from the 17th November 2009). As the WRR report notes, one of the big issues in the current international aid architecture is the large number of actors and the lack of coordination. The WRR report suggests the Netherlands should advance with a few other ‘like-minded’ donors; that is exactly the EU approach.

In light of the above, the calling into question of the ODA standard is also surprising. Though few would argue that the standard is somewhat arbitrary (as far as financial needs may be concerned or about how it is defined), it does play an important role internationally. It is important to have agreed upon international definitions to be able to frame the discussions, and though they have often been missed, many international agreements and targets have been built on the ODA standard. This of course does not mean that development aid should be limited to ‘ODA activities’, and the Dutch use of the HGIS nota framework is one way to deal with this. Why throw out the baby with the bathwater?

A second important element which the report touches on is policy coherence for development. Though the WRR report seems negative on the much-disputed links between development aid and economic growth (for a more positive study, see Arndt, Jones and Trap’s UNU-WIDER paper, ‘Aid and growth: have we come full circle?’, October 2009), the call for improvement with regards to coherence with development aims in other policy areas is crucial. One wonders if in the much-cited Commitment to Development Index (in which the Netherlands scores well) the role of the Netherlands in, for example, the arms trade or the impacts of the Dutch tax system on developing countries are considered. The political will for progress in the area of coherence in the Netherlands could use some impulse, and the WRR report provides some interesting concrete suggestions which should lead to some good public debates – and hopefully political action.

Finally, the call for a separate NLAid is not surprising (the Dutch wouldn’t be the first to have such a split) and it may have some advantages, but careful analysis is needed to ensure that this will solve more problems than it will create. One particular issue is the risk of not capitalizing on the potentially much more rewarding link between the Dutch Human Rights strategy (falling under the political responsibility of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, with an important role for the Dutch embassies, strong links to coherence issues) and Dutch development cooperation. Especially with regards to the international post-2015 MDG debate, the synergies between the two schools of thought seem to be gaining importance (see, for example, Foresti, Higgins and Sharma’s ODI/OECD project briefing, ‘Human rights and pro-poor growth’). Two fully separate institutions may not improve the possibilities for cooperation and communication between the specialists and policymakers in both areas.

The Netherlands, as the WRR report notes, has a long and rich tradition of commitment to development cooperation. As the field gets busier, and insights change, reflecting on where and how the Netherlands can best contribute is essential. Optimization of the Dutch efforts should not only reflect on improving the shortcomings we see in our own system, but also reflect on their (potential) impact on the international system.