Arjan de Haan: NLAID? The ambition and politics of aid

Knowledge brokering27 Jan 2010Arjan de Haan

Someone who has been out of the Netherlands since the mid-1990s can only be stunned by the turns the country has taken: it is now legitimate and indeed encouraged to talk about Holland, we have mysteriously turned anti-European, and the immigration policies show how a previously unthinkable urge to hide behind our dikes has come to dominate the cosmopolitan view that I thought I grew up with during the 1970s and 1980s. Development aid has become the next kop van jut and, again for the naive outsider, it is stunning to see the extent to which internationally respected Dutch policies have been criticized from the inside.

The WRR team that wrote ‘Minder pretentie, meer ambitie’ does not fall into the category of naysayers of aid. Far from it: they provide what is probably one of the most balanced assessments recently published of what aid can and should achieve. Their report describes very comprehensively, and in a very readable form, how the world has changed, providing very important recommendations regarding the focus of Dutch development aid, such as:

  • it needs to become more specific, knowledge-driven and professional (by setting up ‘NLAID’)

  • development needs to become central to all government policy, not just aid, and global public goods and governance need to become more central to the concerns

  • private actors need to be involved more strongly, and Dutch NGOs differently, in a development aid that ‘makes a difference’.

Put in this way, these recommendation do indeed provide excellent starting points for the public debate that the minister encouraged when he received the report last week, particularly on the mismatch the WRR observes between the objectives of aid in the 21st century and the way that aid is being delivered. As a professed outsider to the Dutch debates, three questions come to my mind.

First, it would be helpful to consider why there seems to be this gap between the WRR’s observations (and apparently those of specialists like Paul Hoebink, whose analysis informed the report) and the international reputation of the Dutch aid programme. This gap is regularly shown in informal conversations, DAC peer reviews, and perhaps most importantly the Commitment to Development Index, in which the Netherlands comes third in terms of the extent to which its overall policies help to support development. Surely it is no coincidence that Dutch trade and investment policies are relatively good (which is not to say they are good enough, but better than the UK policies, for example, which are much admired by the WRR even though DFID officials firmly believe they need to do better).

Second, it appears that the golden age of Dutch development is over. Somehow – although this is not made explicit nor, I think, recognized abroad – during the 1990s, while the rest of the donor world was recovering from its aid fatigue, the Netherlands moved from being an innovator in development to one of the more mediocre players. And, in the words of Hoebink, even naive when it comes to the multilateral organizations. While the goal is, of course, to move forward, I believe it is critically important to understand why, and indeed if, this decline has taken place, and what if anything can justify a renewed and sharpened ambition. While others have commented on the lack of political analysis in the WRR report, I detect the lack of a policy analysis, not just in the WRR report, but in the development studies and commentary more generally.

Third is my question, or hope, to make more explicit the international comparisons the WRR report very usefully introduces. Most explicit of course is the reference to USAID and UKAID in the proposal for the focused and knowledge-driven NLAID. The comparison with USAID is unfortunate, as I don’t think anybody will cite USAID as a good example (in fact, USAID is the opposite; US aid efforts are managed by about 20 different departments and subject to regular Congress ‘appropriations’). The comparison with UKAID is not very fortunate either, as the establishment of DFID in 1997 was a political not technical decision – and a very progressive one at that. Moreover, the term UKAID was merely introduced as a label to try and ensure that the UK’s aid efforts are better recognized by UK citizens and taxpayers. Within the professional DFID organization, which I was proud to be part of for ten years, its technical staff were taught – including by senior journalists – that doing the right thing must be accompanied by being seen to do the right thing.

Whether an NLAID will be created or not is not the most important question. What do matter are the arguments which lead to the conclusion. I think that the priorities put forward by the WRR – a better understanding of new global interdependencies, a professional organization (or indeed organizations, as this is not just about the ministry) able to respond to this, and even the call for more internationalist ambition in a country that seems to have lost this broader outlook – are indeed the right ones.