Ambitious diagnostic – questionable therapy

Development Policy10 Feb 2010Louk Box

In this review, I make a few critical comments on a report that I find very well done. The analytical part is carefully constructed and conceptually well based. It links up with present debates and enlightens these. If I make some comments, it is in an effort to contribute to public debate, which may be better served by critical comment than by exclusive praise, especially at a time when populist denunciations have the upper hand in Dutch politics. A general trend emerges whereby political parties at the fringes favour the limitation of Dutch international involvement. My comments, therefore, address the report’s policy recommendations rather than its analytical basis.

  1. The WRR report contains, in its first part, a uniquely nuanced analysis of the current state of development aid policies and practice in a post-2001 setting, with a particular focus on bilateral aid. It may well become a classic among readers of development studies. As a government advisory council, the WRR is rather donor and state-centred in its orientation, which gives the report a clear focus.
  2. In its second part, the report calls for less pretention and more ambition in Dutch (bilateral) development aid. This part reduces the complexity of development policymaking (less pretention) to bilateral arrangements, and does not make an elaborate case for (multilateral) policy coherence. In so doing, it misses the mark by reducing policy complexity into politically unrealistic simplicity; it raises the stakes for policy coherence, which it does not elaborate on sufficiently.
  3. The report is unfortunately not based on an adequate historical understanding of the genesis and adaptations in development policies in general, and for the Dutch case in particular. By foregoing a solid analysis of the development of multilateral institutions and policies on the one hand, and civilateral ones (cooperation among civil society actors) on the other, it bypasses two formidable aid and cooperation channels. The multilateral channel lies at the origin of Dutch aid (in 1949) and the civilateral one is an outstanding contribution to the world of international cooperation (as of the 1960s). The report also virtually bypasses the academic and technical ‘Dutch Model’ of capacity development.
  4. Any Dutch minister for development cooperation (DC) has to balance the requirements of the different channels and the interests associated. By foregoing any analysis of the two mentioned channels (multi & civil), the report reduces the problems almost entirely to bilateral aid, and then especially to sub-Sahara Africa (which is probably one of the weakest areas of Dutch DC). This ill serves the purpose of a real debate about policy coherence, because if the two channels are inadequately covered, the argument for policy coherence becomes a rather theoretical one.
  5. The report correctly states that the knowledge base for development (or aid) policies is in decline, yet one may wonder to what extent the evidence is convincing. It may well be true that Dutch researchers have a declining productivity in development-oriented research, but the proof of this could have been more convincing. At the international level, social scientists working in the Netherlands have a solid reputation in associated fields, be they in development economics, the policy sciences or in specialized fields like religion and development or humanitarian aid studies. Both the national government and university administrators have favoured the reduction of the relevant fields of studies. International education institutes were not allowed to compete for NWO research grants, and development research groups were closed in universities (Utrecht, Tilburg, Rotterdam) even though they had a certain international fame.
  6. The report is conceptually rather state-centred, which is an asset after the facile market rhetoric of the past decades. Yet it also provides limits to its orientation. The focus in the second part is on making Dutch bilateral aid more efficient and effective, but the question may well be asked to what extent this is the right stress. Civic driven change processes have become ever more important, especially at a time when the state has relinquished many of its traditional responsibilities to the market. Whereas the report pays considerable attention to (the failures of) state-funded NGOs, it gives much less attention to the successes of civil society movements (which may or may not have been supported by the former).Local governance issues are treated less elaborately than national governance institutions. Yet for development to take hold, it is at the local level that changes have to take place. By stressing the need to strengthen Dutch aid offices at the national level, one may well wonder if the classical mistakes in bilateral aid will not be made again. In addition, one may wonder to what extent the professionalization of Dutch experts in these offices will not lead to further imbalance with local expertise.
  7. Conceptually, the report follows a general growth-oriented model. There is much to be said for such an approach, except that the real question is not whether there should be growth, but what type of economic growth is assumed. By pleading for economic growth and taking its distance from poverty-oriented approaches, the report makes itself vulnerable to the critique that it might follow development theories of the past.It may be true that neither multilateral, nor bilateral, or for that matter civilateral aid programmes have been successful in adequately reaching the poor and making a change. Yet there is ample evidence to prove that long-term policies in favour of access to public services do pay off in terms of enhancing the capabilities of the poor, as Sen et al. have argued.Add to this the report’s critique on aid for education and health, and one wonders where the authors stand in the debate on growth and distribution. The report is careful not to fall into the trap of the shallow debates of the 1970s and 1980s in this respect, yet does not sketch a clear alternative line at a time of global financial and economic crisis. Its rather easy-going and optimistic appraisal of the private sector’s contribution to international development only makes for more confusion.
  8. The report strongly criticizes the fragmentation of (Dutch) aid efforts, especially the ones by civilateral actors (like the so-called co-financing agencies). It notes the large diversity of activities undertaken, the large number of countries involved, and the link with (opportunistic) NGOs in the global South. It therefore recommends a reduction in focus and in government funding, something that is fully in line with present government policy. The question remains: has the WRR adequate evidence to make such drastic recommendations?First, the recommended reduction in bilateral aid recipients may be questioned. It is likely to lead to a focus on a few ‘donor darlings’ in Africa, which may not lead to a quality increase of the aid programmes. Second, reduction to a few sectors (like water and agriculture) assumes that the relevant expertise is available in the Netherlands, and can be transferred. Traditional tropical expertise has declined rapidly over the past three decades (witness the elimination of tropical studies from Dutch universities). Third, comparative studies on the effectiveness of the three main aid channels are few and far between. Even though all channels are deficient in reaching the very poor, there are indications that civilateral programmes have more impact on dealing with social and equity issues (like access to land, water and public services). Add to this the formidable social capital that was developed by Dutch NGOs with over 3000 affiliated local organizations in the global South and one may wonder about the wisdom of wishing to reduce civilateral funding to reduce fragmentation.

In other words: a good diagnostic, but please don’t apply the therapy. The analysis makes good reading for every person involved with international cooperation. The therapy suffers from reducing the inherent complexity of development aid to the simplicities of traditional bilateral aid, foregoing the advances that the Netherlands has made into links with multilateral and civilateral agencies and initiatives.