Running with the herd

Development Policy04 Feb 2008Nils Boesen

Reading the summary of the ‘Evaluation of the Dutch Africa policy, 1998–2006’ is, from an outsider’s perspective, déjà vu.

The search for policy coherence; the excessive focus on social sectors; the neglect of productive sectors, urban poverty and civil society; the focus on fewer countries and fewer sectors (and then not anyway, but still leaving country and sector orphans…); the shift (not evidence-based) from projects to sector approaches and budget support with concern for sustainability and graft of own aid; mainstreaming of gender to the point of extinction ….Familiar themes and movements within other bilateral agencies in Europe! Healthy reactions to previous disappointments? Yes, maybe, but when everybody chooses education, health, Mozambique, Tanzania, and budget support at the same time and in largely the same manner – then it becomes visibly problematic. The IOB evaluation captures this very well, recognizing that the Netherlands has maybe done as much or more than many other bilateral agencies to find and follow what appeared to be the new right ways.So, for this observer, the point is not whether what the Netherlands did was partly good, partly less good – the point is that the donor community tends to move in the same direction until they discover that this was not exactly working as expected, whereafter they run collectively in a new direction. Herd behaviour, frankly.

Where are we running next? The evaluation points to productive sectors (and you will not be alone); urban poverty (welcome, you may meet your friends); more emphasis on the politics of development and aid (governance all over until the Chinese card is played?); a more nuanced view of budget support as a one-size-fits-all answer to the failure of projects. This is an oversimplification: there are a lot of good things that have come to stay – policy coherence; the focus on conflict prevention; attention to the need to understand the realities on the ground; less belief in the salience of indicator-driven, top-down agendas like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

But where are the signs that the IOB will not, just like the custodians of history in other agencies, confirm in eight years’ time that the next swing already underway is just the pendulum going to another corner already visited or revisited without convincing results? What could tell a different story – of less herd behaviour – in eight years’ time?

Running in individual directions? That is hardly the answer. Instead, it is time to work jointly, so that the collective knowledge can foster policy-making and prioritization on a wider scale. Not the Dutch thinking about their priorities and choices, then the Danes and Brits and Germans and Swedes doing the same. And the rest of the agencies of EU member states – soon 25 bilaterals, each wanting to run with the herd!

Instead, it has to be seriously considered that the herd should stop being an unguided flock of individual country agencies. Instead of herd-like harmonization, the time is ripe for mergers and acquisitions: moving towards a European competitor to the World Bank, co-managed by EU member states and the European Commission, and gradually closing the increasingly redundant bilateral aid agencies. It will far from solve all problems, but it would certainly open the way for a refreshingly new IOB report in eight years’ time, when such an agency could be a reality.