Danielle Hirsch/Paul Wolvekamp: Lack of recommendations on coherence

Development Policy05 Mar 2010Danielle Hirsch, Paul Wolvekamp

Both ENDS mission and core competence is to strengthen civil society towards environmental sustainability and social equity. From that perspective, the WRR’s strong recommendation to focus on general policy coherence as a pre-condition for successful development aid, and its clear analysis of the lack of such coherence in the Netherlands, is heartening.

However, while the authors themselves express concern about the direction of the debate, we fear that this report will also fail in generating an inspiring public and political debate on policy coherence. The general conclusions and recommendations leave out any practical recommendation on the institutional change needed to achieve such coherence. By shying away from such fundamental discussions in its summary and recommendations, the WRR fuels the shallow political debate about Dutch ODA, instead of generating a more constructive dynamic.

An outstanding example in this respect is the analysis of the institutional structure of ODA within the government in the context of policy coherence. While in a position to advocate for a broadly mandated ministry for international sustainable development that would guarantee policy coherence, the WRR recommendations focus on the creation of a specialized NLAid. Such an institution would be based in recipient countries, and would therefore have even less leverage over other sectors, such as trade, environment and transport, than the current DGIS. Our sense of discomfort with the report and the ensuing political debate is further increased by the tacit assumption by the authors that a technical-economic approach that emphasizes growth would ultimately benefit the poor. The report seems to ignore that economic growth, such as we know it today, is often accompanied by a destructive onslaught on key natural resources – forests, rivers, wetlands, farmland – and massive displacement and marginalization of hundreds of millions of people who attempt to eek out a living. Countries that have passed through successful economic growth cycles, such as Malaysia and Thailand, count numerous victims: indigenous peoples, fisherfolk and farmers who had to vacate their land to make space for golf courses, hotel resorts, palm oil plantations and so forth. These people have disappeared into the oblivion of emerging mega-cities. Since the dominant political and economic patterns exclude these people, it is crucial that development cooperation continues to focus precisely on increasing their chances of survival.

This leads us to the way in which the report addresses civil society. Whereas the report makes a series of comments and observations on the role and quality of civil society, a few stand out.

While the WRR calls attention to the fact that one of the strengths of Dutch development cooperation is its focus on building strong Southern civil societies, and recognizes the effectiveness of global coalitions of civil society to achieve fundamental changes in global governance, again the recommendations do not reflect these observations. On the contrary, the report recommends that in future a Dutch government agency – NLAid – becomes a dominant player in partner countries. Likewise, the report quotes the opinion of a few that the MFS system has passed its expiry date. We feel this conclusion is premature. While Dutch NGOs will indeed have to use the coming five years to seriously reflect on their own role, it is now also important to review the results of the MFS system, which has been totally reorganized already.

The report calls for professionalism in Dutch NGOs but fails to address the specifics of that recommendation. While there is room for improvement, the main challenge in this respect is that NGOs have to find a balance between the professional, business-like approach that is being called for, and the ability to be flexible towards Southern organizations and the people we work with. Together with the WRR, we would like to discuss how to avoid the push for professionalism crowding out all the space there is to build long-term relations between organizations operating in different cultural and social contexts, which again is a pre-condition for achieving policy coherence at a global level.

Where the report argues that Dutch financing of Southern civil society can be taken over by sources of financing in the South, such as ‘philanthropy, vertical funds and their own government’, we call for a reality check. In fact, Both ENDS and networks in a number of Southern countries have long been developing local funding mechanisms, fiscal reforms and alternative sources of finance. Our experience shows that progress is slow, and that the political situation in many countries hinders such innovations.

In conclusion, we feel the report provides an excellent opportunity to inspire public debate on the quality of aid within the broader context of policy coherence. What is now called for is further, concrete recommendations on how to achieve that coherence. We therefore hope that the parliament and political parties engage with the WRR and civil society to generate a better understanding of the institutional and political implications of the key conclusion of the report.

This post also appeared on the Dutch version of this blog ‘Minder pretentie, meer ambitie’