Leon Willems: Wanted: New perspectives

Development Policy26 Mar 2010Leon Willems

It is refreshing that the WRR report is unmoved by the strategic communications speak that is typical for the development sector, defensive and focused on self-interest. Rightfully it concludes that there is much room for improvement, that there is too much focus on poverty reduction and not enough on job creation. The report is also blunt about aid addiction negatively motivating the initiative of people and accountability structures of nations.

Small and middle-sized companies form the job engine of any society in the Netherlands as it is in developing societies. Development aid did not sufficiently fuel this job engine nor did it foster the ability of people to help themselves. Prince Claus’ visionary remark still stands: “On ne developpe pas; on se developpe.” One cannot develop people; people develop themselves. Looking at the WRR report in that way, it deserves credit. But it is not new. Providing access to capital for small entrepreneurs was already a topic ten years ago!

The same is true when we look into the battle for coherence (for development) in foreign policy. The positive impact of development is since a long time annulled by the negative impact of trade barriers, EU agricultural policies, geostrategic warfare and arms trade. The report is mentioning the problem but does not provide clear policies.

The flaws identified are known, urgent and need response. But is the real problem not that all good intentions never seem to transpire in our sector? There is an argument to be made to that effect. Let us start from there.

To treat the existing development machinery and ‘aid-software’ it becomes clear that the WRR report searches for solutions along two lines: economic determinism and professionalization. The report mentions topical solutions by recommending the creation of NL-aid, limiting the number of target countries to ten, stressing the need for clear and limited practical objectives, while the aid should be centered around fields of Dutch expertise like water and agriculture. Whether the results of the Dutch expertise have been good enough over the past years in Yemen (water) or subsistence agriculture (Africa) can be argued. Although relevant, it would lead into a mere technical debate.

To evaluate the suggested WRR-solutions it might be helpful to compare them with another praised report, investigating the ineffectiveness and disastrous results of UN peacekeeping missions in the nineties, the so called Brahimi report. This report investigated the disasters of UN peacekeeping in Rwanda, Somalia, Liberia and former Yugoslavia. Brahimi recommended that the UN should only enter peacekeeping missions with a clear mandate, limited goals to be set in a foreseeable timeframe, with a small and professional team of peacekeepers supported by a consensus in the Security Council.

Since Mr. Brahimi formulated these recommendations to the UN Security Council, it did not prevent the UN to start even bigger missions with unclear and disputed mandates in Congo and Sudan. A massive UN-footprint in Liberia had destroyed development and self-reliance in Liberia. Other UN-missions were designed for strategic interests in Chad and Ivory Coast. The net result of the devastating report has been that the UN peacekeeping department has expanded becoming the biggest employer in the UN staffing almost 100.000 people. One third of this workforce busy providing services and (more importantly) assessing and controlling the other two thirds. And of course this bureaucracy has invaded and asserted all other expertise fields of the UN, creating inner UN battles between UNDP, Unicef, UNDPKO and WFP. Not one of these peacekeeping missions were established without quoting the Brahimi report as a source of reference for designing the shape, mandate and force of the mission. In other words, good intentions, brilliant ideas, recommendations for the good can turn into a twisted, alienated and ineffective self-driven bureaucratic machinery.

How much money does the Netherlands spend on multilateral support to the UN funds and UN administered projects? How is that monitored and held to account by the Dutch people? Why does the WRR report not reflect on this large chunk of ODA money? The day a Parliamentary Enquiry will start in the Netherlands to investigate the use of that money, most probably WRR the suggestion to create NL-Aid will be overshadowed by doubts and people will wonder whether another non-accountable slush fund has been created. The WRR will defend itself by stating: we will do it differently. But that is exactly what the Brahimi report already did with the same good intentions: focus on specialized knowledge, embark on effective operations and set limited tangible goals. The result? The opposite happened.To materialize the good intentions of the WRR-report it suggest to stop the knowledge drain inside the ministry as a result of the bi-annual job rotation schemes. Creating NL-Aid will not stop the brain drain, although these job-rotation schemes are indeed affecting and eroding the efficiency and organizational knowledge. But it is in the nature of specialists to keep on moving every two to three years. Just look into the iNGO-world with staff constantly moving, not different from USAID, DfID agencies that the WRR cherishes. After working for over three years in the Sudan someone can demonstrate the gazillion number of contacts changing monthly.NL-Aid will also not prevent the disruptive effects on long term development planning by the frequent government changes. NL-Aid might become an easy target for short-term politics. This has already started pestering the development sector in the last three decades. Every new development minister started to invent the wheel. NL-Aid will be an easy subject to fashionable mood swings in the aid sector. Development policies concentrated in fewer hands at the rudder with broader implementing powers, will make the boat swifter but also less focused on long term goals. US-AID proves this warning to be taken very serious.

The proverb says the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions and the search for technocratic solutions are shaping the recommendations of the WRR report: if we organize things better and state our intentions, the organizational framework will follow suit. Maybe that is also why the WRR focuses on government led schemes, chooses a new bureaucracy and does believe that stating common public goods will solve the problems of fragmented and incoherent aid efforts.

A last remark regarding NL-Aid. Following international trends, this new bureaucracy will not implement projects and funds itself. It will have to issue Tenders and Calls for Proposals. That will drive the aid-sector into a competitive market. Is that necessarily progress or cost effective? Look at the devastating organizational efforts that are involved in the competition for government funds in the USA. The final results will be more costly, since only the large organizations will be able to have people and departments assigned to join the big competition for aid money. The smaller, far more cost effective, often more specialized NGOs are the losers. Before the idea can be proposed for decision, a comparison and feasibility study should be made. The UN-experience should be a warning or even a reason to exclude this option by not boarding it altogether.

Defining global public goods as the WRR report suggests would be a good start. But do not limit it to seemingly un-politicized goals as clean water or climate change. Instead of poverty reduction, a new value based approach should cater for the complexities of international relations. The primary goal should be to enable a secure and dignified life for all people, enshrined in the international charter of human rights and freedoms. These form the cornerstone of the aspirations for global security and sustainable livelihoods.

The issue of human security is one of the more striking omissions in the WRR-formulation of common goods. It should have been mentioned in a drastically changed world facing international terrorism and its counter measures. This topic precedes more traditional areas of development. Public goods are applicable to the provider in the same way as to the receiver. If freedoms are constituted in the West, why not for the receiving party? To give an example from one of the Dutch expertises not mentioned by the WRR, but worldwide acknowledged to be a Dutch strength, the strife towards independent professional journalism. Media support can be given to support the goals of NL-AID (strategic communications) or it can be used to allow freedom of expression in the receiving country.

Is there a difference? Very much. Strategic communications will sell antiterrorist objectives with fumes of development aid and scents of human diplomacy. The net result in Afghanistan: in Helmand province DfID stopped funding a local newspaper because it published a critical article about the rude behaviour of British soldiers kicking in doors of civilians. USAID binds the media development NGOs to certain restrictions in reporting in conflict zones. Maybe the Dutch military do a different job. But also the famous 3D approach known as the Dutch approach like in Afghanistan, will continuously balance the short term military perspectives with long term development goals of fostering participation and ownership by the resident population. That is not preferable and undermines the Dutch mainstream ideology to underscore worldwide the liberal freedoms for all marginalized and oppressed people.

Fragility of states, vulnerability of people and lack of human security are the dividing and defining problems of our time, they are insufficiently addressed in the WRR report and they need ardent and hard debate. Debate and define new theories of civic change. Just as we need to encourage ardent criticism and ironic scepticism about geo-strategic goals invading development objectives.

The noisy debate about aid ineffectiveness, including that of NGO’s, should not distract the policy makers to put things right. In stead of eroding the classic development goals by narrowing down the poverty reduction goals, it should enrich the discussion with a new perspective. The road out of hell is providing tools and perspectives towards liberty, freedom and self-determination. That would be nice new Dutch approach.