Laurent Umans: aid and cooperation

Development Policy30 Jan 2010Laurent Umans

The WRR prefers the term ‘aid’ to ‘cooperation’. Acknowledging the argument that the term cooperation would mask the inequity of the relationship, I argue that the nature and logic of aid and cooperation are different and that the WRR does not acknowledge these fundamental differences in its analysis of aid. Aid is a unilateral transaction based on the logic of the gift, a strategy of intervention and a faith in steering and knowing. Cooperation is an interaction based on the logic of the reciprocal gift, a strategy of facilitation and a faith in adapting and learning. The WRR falls short on analyzing these two modes that existed in the past, and fails to call in its recommendations for a fundamental revision of the intervention drive still present in current practice and their own recommendations. Thus, I propose to complement the call to be more specific and broader with a call to be more deeply involved in cooperative relationships with a new development ethics.

The WRR report contains many good elements but I want to focus on one critical issue that I tend to disagree with. The report on aid mobilizes the classical image of donors and recipients, subtly reinforced with analogies such as encounters of a doctor and patient (p. 153) or a visitor of a developing country and begging children (p. 145). The sentence ‘ontwikkelingslanden zijn nu eenmaal niet bevolkt met louter zielige mensen die simpelweg geholpen moeten worden’ (p.186) in fact states and reproduces the image of ‘the Other’ as pitiful, helpless people. This particular framing (and not only the above remark on terminology) results in a discourse on help and aid. Obviously with several consequences, such as the trap of dependency, neo-patrimonial relations, the increasing resistance to paternalism, the choice for an interventionist approach, the modernist assumptions on the ability to make, steer and know. The report rightly notes and questions these consequences, yet, fails to recognize other practices within development cooperation. This choice to stay within the interventionist mode is why the WRR seeks to enlarge the power of NLAid: concentrated and higher budgets in the countries where it operates, better expert knowledge focused on Dutch priorities and more political leverage. ‘Less pretention, more ambition’ is an agenda to boost the power to intervene.

Not all cooperation is classical aid in the sense of a transaction in the form of a gift profoundly dominated by the power/knowledge configuration of the donor. A substantial part can be characterized better in terms of a reciprocal gift: in exchange for policies, reforms and/or results, cooperation takes place. The Other is a partner whose development is accompanied. The Self and the Other are interdependent (although not equal). This requires first and foremost a relational competency of the ‘donor’ and a political will, as well as the ability to share. The management of global public goods is an excellent area for this mode of cooperation. But also, in what is the WRR’s first objective of improving livelihoods, this mode will become dominant. This questions several of the recommendations regarding NLAid that are tied in with the interventionist mode.

A third mode of cooperation is the support of self-determination and endogenous change (mentioned in the analysis but not taken as an ethical and political stance in the recommendations). The Paris Declaration can give a boost to this mode yet there are many examples of current practice that seem a blind spot of the WRR. This mode requires not only knowledge and relational skills, but also organizational empathy: the ability to sense and make sense of developments in very broad terms. This will be a major challenge for NLAid. It also requires political change: the subordination of restricted self-interest to the interest of the Other, which the WRR does address. This will be a major challenge for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The discussions of the developments within development aid have focused too much on the fashions, channels, instruments and modalities and too little on the mode (interventionist, facilitation or self-determination). Not distinguishing these modes reduces current cooperation to ‘classical aid’ and does not do justice to its nature. Nor does it elaborate the agenda of the relation between the three objectives and the three modes. For example: where and when do we intervene in the management of global public goods? Are we equipped to do so? The research and policy agenda still needs to be broadened.