Joop Koopman: Fresh ideas from the WRR are welcome

Development Policy10 Mar 2010Jan Koopman

First of all, I think the WRR report has fulfilled a useful objective: it gives a frank, detached and authoritative view of what our endeavour in the field of development cooperation has achieved and what improvements could be made for the future. Fortunately, there seems to be quite a consensus among the key players in the field on this observation. This is good news, as the debate on development cooperation has so far been dominated by ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’. These zealous exchanges are not helpful and undermine the broad acceptance of the obligation of the wealthier countries to contribute to the development of the poorer nations. In conclusion: the report is a valuable document, not in the least because of its language and often fresh ideas to reconsider strategies and the means to achieve these.

Secondly, I would like to make a few comments on the number of countries our cooperation should embrace. It is very true that the span of control, with respect to the number of countries for which our effort really would make a difference, is limited. But one should be aware of the inhibitions of our politicians. Every new minister would like to leave his or her imprint on the course of development aid during his or her reign, which is also true for the top of the administration that undergoes changes as well from time to time. Consequently, the number and the choice of countries involved in the programme are always being modified after elections. And, alas, these shifts are not necessarily the result of thorough evaluations.

Furthermore, new ministers may be eager to start with a limited number of countries but, in the course of their tenure, will not always be able to resist the pressure of certain countries to be included in the programme because of emergencies, or what have you. In addition, ministers will be tempted, whenever the opportunity arises, to buy their influence in a region or country by granting it a special status. These facts of life should be taken into account when contemplating a reduction in the number of countries with which to conclude a (structural) relationship. It may therefore be wise allow for the inclusion of some countries for a one-dimensional relationship, in order to solve a particular problem for a limited period of time.

Thirdly, the thought of devoting a (fixed) percentage of total aid to the establishment of a knowledge base sounds attractive. One should, however, not underestimate the difficulties involved in the establishment of such a base that truly corresponds with the felt needs of a particular country. There is no such thing as undisputable knowledge. The notion that the donor country knows best should be avoided. From an objective point of view that may well seem to be the case, but its relevance is determined by the acknowledgement of the actors in the recipient country about what knowledge is lacking. I dare to say that as someone who worked closely with such officials (at the same side of the table, so to speak) for a number of years in a number of countries involved.

Fourthly, a few remarks on the organization of development aid. Of course, the model of an agency such as DFID has its advantages, as is true for the Dutch model. There is, in my view, one negative aspect of the ‘outsourcing model’ that should be thoroughly addressed. That involves the danger of too little knowledge and clout in the parent ministry to exercise sufficient control of the goals to be pursued, to (politically) account for the achievements of the agency and to evoke the necessary popular support for its activities.

As a fifth and final point, I would like to take issue with the criticism of maintaining such a symbolic aim as a fixed percentage for development aid. I believe in its value because it functions as a beacon that does not need to be defended and discussed every time new budgets have to be established. But these discussions are usually based upon emotions and values, rather than on an objective set of arguments. So, given the assumption that we have our house in order, it would be appropriate to stick to our normative approach, as it also has been agreed to in the context of the UN. If we were to skip this norm, the commitment of other nations would definitely suffer.