Fewer donors, less waste

Development Policy08 Jul 2010The Broker

De auteur, Karel van Kesteren, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Bulgaria, responds to the background article “Building a new structure” in the context of the online debate about Dutch development cooperation triggered by the report Less Pretension, More Ambition by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). He proposes to reduce the number of donors by multilateralising and task division.

So far, I have not contributed to the debate on the WRR report, since I had already chosen for a different option: the publication of a book* about my thirty years of experience in development cooperation, working for the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs. The central theme in this book is the chaotic organisation (rather: lack of organisation) of development cooperation as collective effort world wide. Dozens of donor countries, hundreds of multilateral institutions and tens of thousands of private organisation, each basically doing what they deem fit (almost invariably stand-alone projects), inspired by their constituencies in the donor countries In the book I describe the negative effects of this (increasing!) chaos and fragmentation I have seen in practice: overlaps, activities that are contradictory or cancel each other out, ‘white spots’ i.e. themes in which no donor is interested, market distorsions as a result of a wide range of hidden subsidies with aid money, ministers and officials in recipient countries who cannot do their work as they continuously have to attend donor visitors and missions, lack of lasting results as a consequence of the isolated character of donor interventions, weakening of the recipient countries institutions as donors lure away all competent staff for their own projects and offices, lack of continuity because of the constant shifts in donor priorities, and – last but not least – the corruption that is made so much easier in an environment of a disorderly abundance of sources of donor money. This deplorable state of affairs results, of course, in a suboptimal use of financial resources. In plain language: to wasting them. My guestimate about the size of these losses is one third of the development money in the world, 40 billion out of 120 billion US dollar. The WRR report dedicates some pages in its descriptive part (chapter 5.2.), but does not really translate its observations in policy recommendations. The reactions to the WRR report are equally silent on these problems (with the exception of those by Paul Hassing). How can we explain this lack of attention for what obviously is a major problem in development cooperation? Has it to do with what Upton Sinclair said: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it’? To me the course to choose is clear: far less donors. By multilateralising aid, for EU countries by combining their efforts at European level, and, to the extent that bilateral aid still will continue: drastic measures to divide labour among donors, with regard to sectors/themes AND with regard to recipient countries. Concerning non-governmental private aid similar streamlining measures are needed. A debate on ‘intervention ethics’ as called for in the WRR report could help in this regard. In areas such as combating climate change or regulating the financial sector, it is generally recognized that global action is required: more and better global governance. In the 21st century the same should apply to the development challenge. If the new Dutch government takes up that challenge, we may see a new enthusiasm for development issues and reversal of the trend toward mounting scepticism!

* Verloren in Wanorde. Dertig jaar ontwikkelingssamenwerking, een persoonlijk relaas (KIT Publishers)