Kavaljit Singh: An Indian perspective on WRR issues

Development Policy22 Feb 2010Kavaljit Singh

I very much welcome the debate in the Dutch society on the future of development aid. Thanks to The Broker for inviting an Indian citizen to comment and contribute to the ongoing debate. I wish for similar debates and processes to also be initiated in other countries (both donor and recipient) to make a better assessment of international development aid.

An in-depth comment on the WRR report is beyond the scope at this stage, but below are my observations based on a quick reading of the findings of the report. Some of my observations are specific to the WRR report while others are related to the discourse on development aid in general.

First, one welcomes the observation made in the report that ‘development only depends on aid to a very limited extent’ and ‘development paths are pre-eminently country and time-specific’. There is no country in the world which has solely developed and removed poverty due to development aid, bilateral or multilateral. Even in those countries where the impact of development aid is generally considered to be positive and long-lasting, it has played a supplementary role strengthening local and national initiatives. Also, what may work in India through development aid may not work in Rwanda or Peru, because societies differ in terms of history, culture, economy, politics, underlying power relations and popular aspirations.

I would like to emphasize here that development is not a smooth, linear process as it could generate new conflicts based on class, caste, gender and identity. Nor it could be achieved through technical kits and approaches aimed at replicating models of knowledge banks and governance structures.

Second, the WRR report highlights the role of economic growth in achieving development. In principle, there is nothing wrong per se with achieving economic growth, but equally the quality of growth matters. If economic growth is too dependent on highly specialized service sectors in the developing countries and bypasses agriculture and small- and medium-sized industries (as in the case of India), then economic growth can be distorted and would make no or little difference in the lives and livelihoods of the vast majority of the population, who are dependent on agriculture and small industries.

Third, it is not the size of development aid that matters, but the quality of aid. To improve the quality of aid, policy efforts are required at both donor and recipient countries. The Netherlands is one of the few donor countries which have shown how a limited quantity of development aid can help in contributing pro-poor developmental strategies while working closely with a combination of state and non-state actors (including government agencies, NGOs, universities, research and exchange programmes) in the recipient countries, particularly India. There are very few bilateral donor agencies which follow such a diverse approach.

Some of the critical voices in the Southern world, that seek greater accountability and the democratization of political and economic powers, have often received support from Dutch aid agencies despite the fact that such support is often viewed with suspicion by the ruling regimes. Although aid agencies should not meddle in party politics, some Dutch aid agencies have shown to the world that they cannot remain oblivious of the political economy context in the recipient countries. This indeed is a welcome development and needs to be strengthened.

Fourth, the report suggests a new organizational model and structure of development aid for the Netherlands (NLAID), akin to what other Western donors have adopted. Before a similar model is adopted by Netherlands, it would be worthwhile undertaking a comprehensive assessment of the outcomes of such structures and processes, given the fact that many critical voices have come out lately about their increased bureaucratization and ineffectiveness, besides the growing dependence on the ruling establishment in the recipient countries for operational and strategic purposes. Thus there are costs and benefits associated with each organizational structure model. Besides, a new organizational structure should not be viewed as a panacea to all the problems in the business of development aid.

At the broader international level, what is needed is the revisiting of modes of interventions and intellectual models on which the present agenda of developmental aid is firmly rooted.

Last, the report seeks professionalism in development aid at various levels. In principle, there is nothing wrong per se in seeking professionalism, but how shall one define professionalism? Typically, professionalism is often associated with academic credentials. However, the report does not explain who is a professional: an investment banker working in a Wall Street bank, or a bicycle repair mechanic working in a remote village in India? The investment banker may be ‘quant’ – a PhD analyst who deals with complex quantitative instruments and models. On the other hand, the bicycle mechanic may be illiterate but good when performing tasks based on his skills and knowledge. There is nothing unprofessional about them or their work. Both are professionals and specialists in their own ways. No one is more or less professional or specialist. Both perform their activities based on varied skills, knowledge and specialization. Therefore, professionalism has nothing to do with educational degrees or even economic and social status.

In this context, an aid worker or agency that is able to perform the task effectively and honestly should be considered as professional, irrespective of academic qualifications and degrees. Any move towards the opposite could prove counterproductive, as the quality of aid is also dependent on the people managing the aid. Put simply, people matter.