The main enemy to change is consolidation of current structures

Knowledge brokering15 Jun 2010

Jeroen Rijniers, working alternately for the Ministries of Development Co-operation and (currently) Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality

Many would agree that form follows function, or structure strategy. However logical that principle may sound, it will probably not apply to the renewal (if any?) of Dutch development co-operation. It seems unlikely that new functions or strategies can be formulated independently from current forms, structures and related networks and interest-coalitions. Therefore, one might just as well state that in this case function/strategy follows form/structure.

In the context of one of the key messages of the WRR report, i.e. the need to make development co-operation more productivity and economic development oriented, this is problematic. The key sector able to make such a change happen, the private sector (farms and firms), is relatively underrepresented in strategic discussions and decision-making in the development sector. Development co-operation policy is very much the domain of governments, NGOs and knowledge institutes. But none of these physically produce, or innovate technologically; and that is what productivity and economic development is all about.

In any case, in (re)designing the future of development co-operation (post-WRR report) politics will probably focus on structures rather than content. It is plausible that the new Dutch Cabinet will firstly decide on budgets and departmental organisation. Subsequently, it might formulate a couple of general policy intentions more or less in line with the WRR recommendations, such as more emphasis on economic development, private sector involvement, Dutch expertise areas and fewer countries. Once these broad contours have been established, functions and strategies will follow, very much determined by the structures and budgets chosen. I would therefore argue that not so much substantive arguments (reason), f.i. as brought forward in the debate that this website has been pursuing, but mainly institutional arguments (interests) will determine the future of Dutch international/development co-operation. It is unfortunate, but to understand possible changes and to influence outcomes, rather than analysing and understanding ‘Africa’, ‘poverty’ and ‘development’, we should focus our attention on the Dutch institutional landscape, its embedded interests and its relations of power.

If development co-operation should shift its focus to economic development in LDCs and build on perceived Dutch strengths, as the WRR argues, it seems inevitable that agriculture and water have to become centre stage. This is in any case not a bad choice, because global food security is definitely one of the most pressing global issues and puts agriculture directly in relation to social aspects (poverty and lack of access amidst abundance), demographic trends (feeding 9 billion people in 2050), ecological limits (scarcity of land, water, nutrients), climate change, loss of biodiversity, cultural patterns (more protein-rich diets) and the economic environment (price volatility and trade barriers). Obviously, numerous innovations in production chains, as well as upscaling of these, are needed to meet these challenges. And for the larger part these will have to be performed by the private sector in developing countries. The question then is: how can the development sector, traditionally dominated by governments, NGOs and knowledge institutes, switch to the entrepreneurship-oriented approaches, policies and instruments needed?

Here we should turn back to the new logic: function/strategy follows form/structure. There are three plausible options with regard to institutional arrangements:

1. No change in architecture, so continuation of the current institutional arrangement (a Directorate-General within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for development policy, or even international affairs, and total ODA allocation). In line with the above, this means that no fundamental change in policy orientation and approach can be expected.

2. A governmental re-shuffle: more development and ODA-allocation responsibilities and tasks shift to sector ministries (like EZ, LNV, V&W, VROM, OC&W, VWS) or to interdepartmental structures. This could result in more direct and closer linkages to relevant and strong Dutch sectors, like water (VWS) and agriculture (LNV, EZ), and subsequently lead to more entrepreneurship-oriented development co-operation policies and instruments. A precondition is, of course, that the sector ministries are serious about typical development co-operation priorities like poverty alleviation, gender, alignment and aid-effectiveness.

3. A professional development organisation, like the proposed NL Aid. In that case it is possible to re-orient policies and instruments fundamentally and give the private sector a much larger role right from the start. However, provisions have to be added to link such an organisation to development diplomacy, which is a unique selling point of Embassies.

Concluding. The main enemy to change is consolidation of the structures as they are now. If we look for the more radical changes that the WRR proposes, like in this case more emphasis on economic development and private sector involvement, it is crucial that new actors come into play. Not just as partners in implementation, but on the level of strategic thinking and designing. This is not a question of policy change, but requires a new architecture of the development co-operation sector in the first place.