Arend Jan Boekestijn: An imminent revolution in Dutch foreign aid?

Development Policy20 Jan 2010Arend Jan Boekestijn

On Monday, the WRR, a Dutch government think tank, presented its long-awaited and highly critical report on foreign aid to minister Bert Koenders.

Koenders, a humble servant of her majesty, immediately responded by saying he felt the report had ‘interesting and constructive contributions to offer to the foreign aid debate’. I would summarize the rest of his comments as follows: ‘A number of recommendations in the report might offer me the possibility to modernize foreign aid further, as I started doing at the beginning of my term’.

Seldom was a politically inconvenient message defused in a manner so blatantly obvious, and seldom did the WRR publish a report so much at odds with existing policy. All signs point to an imminent revolution in foreign aid.

While many socialist and Christian democratic politicians – and all of their colleagues further to the left – have internalized the notorious Millennium Development Goals for all they are worth, the WRR report has concluded, with almost clinical distance, that combating hunger and disease should no longer be the main priority in foreign aid.

No country has become rich by fighting poverty. From now on, all efforts will need to be directed at creating development opportunities and economic growth. Poor Koenders! He had just elevated the Millennium Development Goal ideology and Jeffrey Sachs to almost godlike status, with himself as its earthly representative, only to be thwarted by the WRR’s new ‘God is dead’ message! I fear that some of the foreign ministry’s fine china may not have survived the report’s publication.

That is not all. Koenders had just deflected an attack on the foreign aid budget by the Christian democrat CDA. Study groups are still considering several drastic cost-cutting measures, and it is unlikely they will spare the sizable budget for foreign aid. The WRR’s heretical challenge to the sacred 0.7 percent figure – the fraction of GDP currently contributed to foreign aid – could not have come at a worse time.

Koenders was quick to spin the issue by saying he would like to see a debate about more than budgetary matters alone, but the WRR’s words will not be so easily undone. Its conclusion that the 0.7 percent obsession is in dire need of some perspective can be considered a pre-emptive strike on the foreign aid budget.

The foreign aid lobby will not succeed in its efforts to frame compliance with the 0.7 percent norm as a sure mark of civilisation. It was already hard pressed to do this, since only a few countries heeded this norm, and civilised nations like France and Germany don’t even come close to complying with it. Now that a distinguished group of ladies and gentlemen like the WRR – who can hardly be accused of being right-wing extremists either – have also embraced this barbaric practice, it seems unlikely the left-wing vanguard will be able to turn the tide. Since the 0.7 percent norm is completely arbitrary and was established in an era when Africa was short on savings, I say good riddance to it. If we took 1950s theories on development aid seriously, we would be getting money instead of handing it out.

Add to this the WRR’s dangerous argument for separate, professional organizations, which are not affiliated with the embassies, responsible for the local execution of aid policies. Steam must be coming out of many an ambassador’s ears, since this will strengthen the argument for proposed cutbacks on foreign representation. At Dutch NGOs, steam must be leaking out of every bodily orifice. Their steady influx of cash will soon become a trickle, and the proposal for aid contracts to be put out to public tender will put an end to the excessive overheads and other dead wood. Soon, the foreign aid aristocracy will no longer exist.

This is not to say that the WRR report itself is God’s honest truth. I will only point out two limitations here. The report appears fascinated by Nobel laureate Douglass North’s theory on closed societies, a fascination I share myself. But if it is true that the elites in closed societies mainly concern themselves with the containment of violence, leaving little room for development, it would seem to me that offering them any form of financial support is very unwise indeed. The WRR feels that this might nonetheless be sometimes possible, but it does little to substantiate this optimism.

The same goes for that age-old crown jewel of Christian democratic ideology: the support of civil society. I understand that the CDA wants the consequences of its 19th century founding father’s ideology to be felt deep in the Congolese swamps. But North teaches us that the successful reinforcement of civil society will immediately be neutralized by the regime, because it poses a threat to its monopoly on violence. African regimes are scared to death of the middle class, with good reason.

Finally, foreign aid has always been dominated by hollow slogans like ‘good governance,’ ‘gender’ and ‘ownership’. The WRR has now added a new slogan: ‘modesty’. ‘Aid can only offer a modest contribution to development, under very specific conditions that do not always exist,’ read the report. If that is true, and trade and remittances by migrants are more important than foreign aid from other countries, the sacrosanct 0.7 percent contribution will soon be finished with.