Jan Willem Gunning: Radical and refreshing

Development Policy18 Jan 2010Jan Willem Gunning

This is an impressive, refreshing and radical report. It is impressive in its description of the current state of Dutch development aid: it minces no words in making clear that the status quo is unacceptable. Dutch aid is scattered over a large number of countries, lacks a thematic focus, is often more concerned with direct poverty alleviation than with long-term development, and is not professionally organized. The report is refreshing in its insistence that things can and must improve. It is radical in what it proposes: a professional organization active in ten countries and focusing on areas where the Dutch can claim to have special expertise (such as water management and agriculture); an end to the aid dependence of Dutch development NGOs; the use of aid to finance global public goods.

I have three criticisms. First, the WRR is right in stressing the importance of structural development but is dangerously misleading in describing support for health and education as ‘palliative’. Second, many of these proposals have been made before. Limiting aid to a small number of countries, for example, was proposed some 25 years ago by the National Council for Development Cooperation (NAR), and it was the key plank in the programme of Eveline Herfkens when she became minister of development cooperation in 1999. But it failed; in spite of all the rhetoric, Dutch aid still goes to many countries. Similarly, it has often been argued that Dutch aid should be taken out of the hands of the civil servants in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (dedicated, but rarely development experts) and handed over to a professional organization based on the British, French or German models. The report does not cover this policy debate and therefore does not ask the obvious question: why were these common sense proposals never seriously implemented? Why would reform succeed now if strong vested interests have successfully blocked it so often in the past? A possible answer is that there is now a new sense of urgency, a wider awareness that business as usual is not an option. But it is a pity that the report does not discuss the political economy of aid. Reform can only be successful if the likely opposition is taken into account in its design.

My third criticism is that the report does not really engage with the critics of aid. If governments are accountable to donors rather than to their own taxpayers (a familiar and legitimate criticism), then what does that imply for the way aid is to be organized? I would argue that donors should credibly commit to long-term assistance, ending in 10-15 years depending on the circumstances of the country. The problem here is to achieve credibility (it is well known that donors hate to turn off the tap) so that the recipient government has an incentive to prepare for the post-aid period. This key issue is not discussed.