Seth Kaplan: The key is self sufficiency

Development Policy25 Feb 2010Seth Kaplan

Although many reports and books discuss the problems with development aid, few have been as bold in setting out so comprehensive an alternative vision.

I complement the WRR on its work – but wonder to what extent the Netherlands will be able to implement his proposals. After all, there are very logical reasons why Western development agencies – and governments – do not make optimal use of their resources to help poor countries. Why will the political processes and financial interests working against genuine reform allow change now when they have not in the past? And as the report rightly emphasizes, ‘financial transfers are not, by definition, the best tools for contributing to development’. This is not just a matter of spending money better, but also of opening markets, transferring knowledge and fighting corruption. How will these things be tackled now when they have not in the past?

For me, the one key element that should drive all change is that aid should work towards making ‘countries and peoples self-sufficient’. This ties together many of the report’s recommendations: the emphasis on knowledge development within recipient countries; the shift of money from northern to southern NGOs; the call for greater investment in ‘infrastructure, agriculture, and economic activity’; the proposals to make Dutch aid more professional, more concentrated, and more customized to local environments.

An important part of this strategy must be capacity building within states – giving the countries themselves greater ability to solve their own problems. The best way to do this is to focus on key ‘nodes’ that promise to have multiplier effects across institutions. For example, organizations should be established that will improve the quality of governance, teaching, administration and management, and law. Building up human capital is essential, but building up the institutions that enable states themselves to do more of this on their own is even more valuable.

One example of this approach is a project that I am now attempting to launch in Southern Sudan. By establishing a state-building institute completely run by local Sudanese, I hope to develop more local capacity to analyze, interpret and resolve local development challenges. If done well, such an organization will improve the quality of governance, public services and livelihood opportunities, all the time weaning the region off the need for outside intervention.

Aid certainly has a role to play in helping poor countries, but it fails in its basic mission to the extent that it does not nourish the capacity to be self-sufficient. Alleviating humanitarian crises and poverty are important goals, but they should not dominate more long-term objectives. Unless money is invested in ‘structural improvements in countries using sustainable economic activity’ and in building an ‘effective government which can play a facilitating role’, aid’s negative effects – including dependency and the reinforcement of neo-patrimonial structures – are likely to predominate.

More must be done to empower local populations – who are, after all, the ones most intimate with their own assets and liabilities, their own sociopolitical challenges, and their own values – to manage their own affairs. Only by developing frameworks that foster self-sufficiency, and that build around locally valued institutions, skills and social networks, is development likely to succeed.