Don’t swamp the SWAp

Development Policy05 Feb 2009Frans Bieckmann

In the late 1990s, the so-called sector-wide approach (SWAp) became a fashionable new method for handling development aid. It was part of an international quest for more efficient and effective aid delivery that would truly contribute to poverty reduction. Donors agreed to start coordinating their funding: for example, the health sector in, say, Zambia would be guided by a single policy and expenditure programme instead of by a myriad of programmes and projects. And the responsibility and leadership would be squarely on the Zambian government.

What has come of this approach? This question has been the subject of a debate at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a summary of which can be found under the title ‘The Dutch treatment’. The Broker invites its readers to join the discussion.

The starting point is the insightful paper by Ellen van Reesch, Ten years into the sector-wide approach: did we do what we intended to do? In December 2008, this paper was included in A Rich Menu for the Poor, the sourcebook published by the Policy Analysis and Advice Division (DEK/BA) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which discusses a range of topical and practical issues in development cooperation.

Evaluations show that sector-wide support has resulted in a significant increase in public spending for social services. However, has this also led to better services and, consequently, improved living conditions for the poor? It is the issue of efficiency versus effectiveness that is at stake. Of late, donors have had a strong tendency to focus on aid efficiency, rather than development effectiveness. In the case of SWAps, this has led to a strong emphasis on donor harmonization, the role of central government and the ‘supply side’ of public service delivery – a focus that has clearly had its downsides. Van Reesch argues that attention to the participation of local governments and civil society in policy formulation and implementation has been lacking. And so has sensitivity to political processes and to accountability to citizens from politicians and service providers. Contrary to the good intentions, it is not evident that sector approaches focus on addressing the structural causes of poverty and inequality.

Some participants in the debate argue that the notion that civil society can provide checks and balances in the sector approach, or participate effectively in consultation processes, was politically naïve from the start. Many CSOs simply lack the capacity or the will to play that role. On the other side of the argument are those who point the finger at the SWAp itself. They claim it has essentially become a mechanistic approach, which can never achieve the ‘systems transformation’ that is ultimately needed to achieve true development. You are welcome to join the debate.

International Association of Humanitarian Studies (IAHS)

International Association of Humanitarian Studies (IAHS) On 6 February 2009, the International Association of Humanitarian Studies (IAHS) will be launched. The IAHS is a response to the growing academic interest in the causes, politics, dynamics and effects of humanitarian crises, and in how people and institutions react to these crises. Academics from a wide range of disciplines – including international relations, international law, development studies, anthropology, conflict studies and migrant studies – share these interests. But so far there was no venue for them to meet and discuss their different insights and understanding of humanitarian crises. The secretariat of the IAHS will be based at the department of Disaster Studies in Wageningen and will be launched during the World Conference of Humanitarian Studies in Groningen, 4-7 February 2009. (Visit the Humanitarian Studies website for more information.)

An email-debate on the sector-wide approach: Did we do what we intended to do?

Summary of the debate by Francis Kettenis, Policy Analysis and Advice Division (DEK/BA) at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In May 2008 we started an email-debate on ‘the sector-wide approach’. The key question was: Did we do what we intended to do? We received 19 contributions from both within and outside the Ministry with enlightening insights and suggestions which can help us to modernize SWAp further. A summary will be given below which is not meant to be representative of all contributions but which contains remarkable differences in positions and opinions. In case you would like to react to the summary please send an email to Francis Kettenis.

We started the debate with the request to address the following three statements (see also Annex 1):

  1. Donors and partner countries alike should adopt a rigorous mental shift from an ‘aid delivery’ to a ‘development effectiveness’ perspective.
  2. (Dutch) NGOs and development agencies should invest more in their counterparts’ capacity to demand effective participation in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of their national (sector) policies as well as local level decision making processes.
  3. Which suggestions would you have for enhancing the poverty focus of SWAps?

Ad (1) Donors and partner countries alike should adopt a rigorous mental shift from an ‘aid delivery’ to a ‘development effectiveness’ perspective.
Some participants do not agree on the need for such a mental shift as they have different views on the basic intentions of SWAps and on the roles donors should play. It is stated that the proposed shift in focus would broaden SWAp to a more general concept of sector development. In doing so, we risk ignoring SWAp’s basic character as a specific aid delivery approach. Moreover it is argued that this way we (as donors) loose the little clarity we have on our specific responsibility and results.

Another opinion is that SWAps were never designed or intended to be aid instruments for and by donors or a top-down planning device, but that donors have interpreted the SWAp’s definition this way. The long term impact of SWAp on capacity building and institutional development is regarded as a necessary condition for ‘development effectiveness’.
One contributor challenges the paradigm SWAp is based on by referring to Chambers (2008): ‘We are trapped in a paradigm of predictable, linear causality and top down command and control. This paradigm leads to a mechanistic approach with specific mechanistic procedures, instruments and protocols’.

Critics of the linear mechanistic approach prefer to focus on systems transformation instead of aiming at outcomes which have been top down defined (MDGs). Three key principles are mentioned which are relevant for efforts of donors to support SWAps while assuming the role of process consultants and aiming at systems transformation:

  1. The development of sectors is the ‘client’s’ problem, not our problem. There should never be spending pressure on the side of the donor. We should never be more ambitious than the people in the sectors we work with.
  2. The level of external inputs should be proportional to the growth of internal feedback loops to guarantee enough accountability mechanisms. This means f.e. that endogenous feedback mechanisms such as those that follow from paying taxes and user fees should not be undermined.
  3. Sequencing of interventions, best fit solutions and good enough policies: first things first, and let us keep it simple. We outsiders cannot fix things, we can only contribute to slow endogenous processes of transformation.

Ad (2) (Dutch) NGOs and development agencies should invest more in their counterparts’ capacity to demand effective participation in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of their national (sector) policies as well as local level decision making processes.
A number of participants argue that the general idea that civil society provides checks and balances in the sector approach or participates effectively in consultation processes is politically rather naïve. Many CSOs simply lack the capacity or the will to play that role. Another obstacle is the limited acceptability of NGOs to governments, at least in some countries.

It is noted that a distinction should be made between NGOs and CSOs as NGOs are accountable upwards to their sponsors whereas CSOs are accountable downwards to the grass roots level which they represent.
Effective accountability stimulating demand is essential to counteract the emphasis on the supply side that has characterized many a SWAp, according to one participant. Domestic accountability has a bigger chance to emerge and be nurtured within a decentralized setting.
According to one of the participants, NGOs in partner countries can contribute to articulate the needs of the poorest. However, the poorest hardly have a voice, even not in local NGOs.
Several warnings are being issued: be attentive to political NGOs which only lobby and collect funds with just one office in the capital and be wary of the many NGOs that keep up a façade of effective activism; maintain the diversity and local focus in the NGO-sector to prevent ‘blue print’ or ‘one size fits all’ approaches.

Some mention the need for capacity development (at decentralized level). This requires more than the willingness of external investors and requires an internal drive taking ownership. To organize such ownership effectively requires a process of change that is time consuming because invariably existing power balances are unsettled. Yet donors have a far shorter time horizon than such durable capacity development requires.

Others suggest for Dutch NGOs, in order to deal with the limited radius of action, to join forces with other international NGOs and CSOs, regardless of national identities and to form (international) operational coalitions.

Some argue that support of Dutch NGOs for service delivery should be restricted to a minimum as they otherwise fill gaps in a malfunctioning national system and permit failing national authorities (in countries like Tanzania) to get off the hook. In this way they may weaken the call for accountability. In these countries support for pressure from below is preferable.
Furthermore it is stated that more coherence between the work of Dutch embassies and Dutch NGOs is needed.
As advocacy and watchdog mechanisms are often weak in developing countries donors can play a useful role to help bridge this gap while they support systemic efforts (through Public Expenditure Tracking Studies, pilot score card experiments, publication around it). One is reminded however that this is not more than a gapfilling exercise while the system is strengthened.

Ad (3) Which suggestions would you have for enhancing the poverty focus of SWAps?
This question is closely related to statement (1). Before offering suggestions as to how to enhance the poverty focus of SWAps several participants question whether there should be a poverty focus and/or whether this focus should be reinvented.

Some agree that the poverty focus in development (activities) is donor-driven or that poverty reduction is development lingo. It is pointed out that civil servants and politicians in Africa and India do not like to talk about poverty. Moreover, many governments have strong and legitimate priorities besides -and even before- poverty reduction. This is a key problem for the ownership agenda and for strengthening of local capacities and potentials through SWAp.

Another participant sees the need to reinvent the overall objective of poverty reduction and to make this the guiding principle for SWAp instead of the other way around. This would only imply an elaboration at technical and operational levels of how to match the poverty focus with sector support and SWAp. No policy paper is needed! In order to do this three strategic decisions have to be made to adapt SWAp policy:

  • provide sector support at regional and district level, where necessary;
  • do not hesitate to review our TA policy, especially for regional and local governments;
  • deploy a much more strategic use of project aid as an integral part of our sector support.

While applying SWAp one should be conscious of three dilemmas which are inherent to the SWAp process itself:

  1. In case the central government is not or is insufficiently delivering the services agreed upon with the donors funding, direct interventions of non state actors and project aid could help to increase services delivery and contribute to poverty alleviation. At the same time this would undermine the very SWAp principles.
  2. Budget support is meant to enable budget processes to become more transparent and to improve PFM. It has been argued however that budget support might easily lead to less transparancy and in the end can in itself contribute to corruption. The current policy and financial alignment reinforces the position of the central government but undermines decentralization and downwards accountability.
  3. While SWAp is meant to contribute to the enhancement of ownership of the recipient country (government?), in those cases where sector aid covers more than 50-75% of the national sector investments it can also undermine ownership.

Some participants are proponents of a phased approach to enhance the poverty focus of SWAps. First focus on effective service delivery and then gradually move towards better earmarking public action. Once the broad targeting service delivery is becoming efficient and sustained in volume the local authorities involved in planning should become sensitized about identifying and prioritising particular poor groups. There is no agreement as to the possibilities of reaching the marginalized groups. Not everyone is optimistic about the prospect of analytical instruments to better map, monitor or analyse and their results being used. There are doubts as to the capacity (leadership, skills, incentives) on the government side as well as on the side of civil society and donors to pursue noble theory and convert it into pro-poor results on the ground.

Donors should find entry points where poverty reduction is most accepted and even appreciated by the elites (e.g. personal security; better skilled workers for industries; export traders with better access to smaller rural farmers).

In a very practical sense it is pointed out that there might be a mismatch between the limited capacity of Dutch embassies and the large quantity of decentralized authorities with whom intensive dialogues should take place.

Other participants suggest to start the implementation of the poverty focus with a proper poverty analysis, with the identification of poor people/poverty pockets and vulnerable groups and to start with understanding the poverty impact of programmes. Reaching the poor should be explicitly stated in the goals and objectives of SWAps.

After the analytical phase it is suggested to determine how to integrate the specific issues of poor (/vulnerable) groups into the broader social and economic developments of a district, province, region, country including possible linkages with the different (interlinked?) sectors. This focus on bottom-up planning could be combined with an actor oriented approach (like SGACA), according to another participant.

To put it differently: addressing the interest of the poor means addressing the balance of power amongst stakeholders. This can be done as follows: strengthen inclusiveness; increase domestic accountability; apply pro-poor instruments for service delivery, financing etc.; support local non-state organisations that promote the interest of the poor; promote an enabling environment for non-state DPs to be involved in crucial policy debates.

For more information contact Thea Hilhorst, professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction.