An evolving policy agenda

Development Policy05 Feb 2008Simon Maxwell

From the perspective of the UK, we look to the Netherlands for a generous, knowledge-based and well managed approach to aid. You are admired: for having taken the size of the aid programme out of political debate, by mandating a fixed 0.8% share; for having a strong academic base, in both natural and social sciences; for maintaining close relations between researchers and the policy makers in DGIS; for running an efficient aid programme; and for being reflective about what works and what does not. In addition, you are robust in international dialogue. The existence of the evaluation is testimony to the seriousness with which you take international development. There has been nothing comparable in the UK in terms of evaluation.

However, that does not mean Africa has been out of our minds. In fact, Africa was the pre-eminent concern throughout the period covered by the evaluation, 1998–2006. This was the time of the International Development Targets, which became the Millennium Development Goals; of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers; and of commitments to increased aid and to debt relief, for example in Monterrey, at the Financing for Development Conference in 2002, and at the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005. It was also during this period that the Africa Commission published its report and the EU agreed a single Development Policy Statement. Many of the concerns reflected in the evaluation were also on the agenda in the UK. These included the mechanics of a poverty focus; the implications of a shift to budget support; the balance between social and productive sectors; governance and corruption; the links to security and foreign policy; aid coordination; and harmonization and alignment. In that sense, the Netherlands and the UK have followed similar trajectories, with similar concerns.

If we stand back and look at the aid system as a whole, then the evidence seems to support the view that aid has contributed to growth and poverty reduction in Africa. In addition, the evidence shows that humanitarian aid has saved many lives. The critics of aid, like William Easterly, exaggerate the problems. On the other hand, the evidence also supports the view that there are many imperfections and opportunities for improvement: Roger Riddell has laid these out in a recent book, and the evaluation touches on many of the same points. We could even add some arguments, like the need for better structures to underpin mutual accountability, in which the rich countries are accountable to poor ones, just as the poor are to the rich. Improvement, of course, is a continuous process. Was aid to Africa ‘better’ in 2006 than in 1998? Probably. Was it good enough? No.

In making further improvements, the key task is to see the wood for the trees, and this, to my mind, is where there are lessons hinted at in the evaluation – about overall political policy-making, about the commitment to multilateralism, and about the capacities of aid agencies in the future. This is a different kind of discussion to the normal one we have about fine-tuning bilateral aid instruments or about further progress on the Paris agenda. Let me say a brief word about each.

First, it was clear in the mid-1990s, but is even clearer now, that ‘development’ requires joined-up thinking across aid, foreign policy, environment, defence, and many other sectors. In the UK, we opted in 1997 for a separate aid/development ministry, the Department for International Development. In the Netherlands, you maintained aid within the foreign ministry, initially with some separation, but later with a greater commitment to integration of the ‘Ds’ – diplomacy, defence and development. It is very important to understand the comparative costs and benefits of these models, especially in complex geopolitical cauldrons like the Greater Horn of Africa. There are two caricatures: on the one hand, all effort is concentrated on delivering primary health care and education, while all around conflict flares and is ignored as someone else’s problem; on the other hand, all aid is subsumed within some greater political or strategic project, involving client states as bastions in the war on terror and with precious little attention to rights, democracy or poverty reduction. What principles should guide us between these two extremes? What allocation of resources is most appropriate? What political machinery sets priorities and adjudicates trade-offs?

Second, harmonization and alignment, the two key ideas underlying the so-called ‘Paris agenda’ are fine as far as they go, but really offer only a partial answer to the problems posed by the proliferation of aid agencies, special purpose vehicles, vertical funds and the rest. It is really disturbing to read of poor and poorly resourced countries, trying to cope with over 50 aid donors overall, in some sectors as many as 20 (for example, in the health sector in Ghana or Egypt), and up to 200 visiting donor missions each year. Why are there 90 global health funds? Or 28 UN agencies working in water? For some time, my mantra has been ‘don’t just harmonize, multilateralize!’ Overall, 80% of aid is bilateral and only 20% multilateral. Shouldn’t it be the priority of all aid agencies to reverse those proportions? If we were to go down that road, not least in Europe, what kind of conditionality would be appropriate in order to improve the quality of the multilateral system? How does collective action work in the Bretton Woods institutions, in the UN and in the EU? Who has the skills to broker global deals? In the UK, the current discourse on this topic is described as ‘multilateralism with edge’.

Third, aid agencies have choices to make about the skills and capacities of their staffs. Is it appropriate for them to hold reservoirs of expertise in particular sectors, like agriculture or health? Or would they do better to concentrate on recruiting and training staff who know about the international system and about how to get things done in Washington or New York or Brussels? What kind of in-house learning and training is necessary to support a multilateralist force de frappe?

All this suggests an evolving policy agenda, for which an evaluation can provide the perfect platform. It is certainly necessary and useful to engage at a regional level in Africa, and to learn the lessons of experience. As we look forward, our engagement with Africa will pose new challenges. Africa itself is changing – more democratic than it was, in many areas more peaceful, and growing faster now than many OECD countries. Our framework of engagement also needs to change. Part of that is revisioning aid.