The state of the Dutch aid and democracy

Development Policy05 Feb 2008Doris Voorbraak, Stephen Ndegwa

We have argued that politicians are the ultimate arbiters of the success of foreign assistance, and that development has always been intimately related to political interests, the distribution of resources and unequal access to power and information. No great new insights, but articulating development as a political process steered by political drivers has implications for the way aid gets shaped. If Dutch parliamentarians are the ultimate arbiters of Dutch bilateral aid programmes, this evaluation provides some disturbing insights into the state of the Dutch aid and democracy.

As noted in the IOB report, some widely promoted policies (fewer partner countries, less project focus) have been building facades while policy intentions were not realized. General budget support (GBS), the largest spending category, has ‘no worked-out policy’ and GBS decisions (and implicitly other aid decisions as well, e.g. on Sudan) are more often politically motivated – at the discretion of the Minister – than guided by lessons of an elaborate and technocratic ‘track record’. Allocation predictability therefore becomes a questionable reality – yet it is what is widely advocated for in other forums.

For us, four concerns are especially significant to note – and to guide deliberations on improving the effectiveness of Dutch policy in Africa.1

The centrality of politics

Amidst the changes noted, one issue sticks out clearly in Dutch development aid policy and practice in Africa: politics trumps. Sometimes this leads to spectacular success; more often to questionable effectiveness. This is apparent in at least two ways. First, and quite disturbing, is the damage to the notion of political accountability of the aid bureaucracy to Dutch politicians. Besides signaling a fundamental failure of democratic accountability, this is important for client countries because the presumption is that citizens in developing countries can best hope to affect Dutch policy and practice through intermediaries speaking to political rather than bureaucratic power.

Second, as the general budget support policy decisions – and strikingly, the Sudan example – suggest, Dutch politics of foreign policy trump any prior technocratic considerations. The arising vagaries are multi-fold: aid predictability is unattainable, the credibility of technocratic frameworks is illusory, and stated policy and practice become inconsistent.

A credibility gap

The gap between what we preach and what we practice is disturbingly striking in this review of Dutch aid over the last eight years, especially around two issues: (i) a professed proper planning and actions based on rigorous analysis and well thought-out policy; and (ii) consistent application of policy once adopted. This is what we preach to developing countries; this is what the regime of conditionality in its various guises is based on. That major policies and/or funding instruments as well as the shifts from one to another policy/instrument (e.g. GBS, the rural and agriculture sector support) were carried out with ‘no worked-out policy’ or no ‘explicit policy change’ analysis is problematic. Dutch and broader aid credibility is undermined by the inconsistent implementation of adopted policy: e.g. a third of GBS was unpredictable, ‘incidental’ support; and the debasing of support for rural and agricultural sectors even as Dutch and other donors spoke to its centrality for pro-poor growth.

The convergence effect

In spite of the above issues, Dutch Africa policy and practice can and has had spectacular success. This has happened where there is clear – and deliberate – convergence of the internal and foreign politics, HQ bureaucratic creativity and accountability, and consistent follow through at the country level. The cited examples on Dutch multi-level efforts – at the EU level, and recipient country support in cotton and cut flower sectors – are particularly important both for the point they make about the superlative importance of coherence and the fact that the two areas cited represent the direction that aid architecture discussions need to move toward.

[So far, aid architecture discussions are about designing better architecture for foreign aid instruments, not for development, which requires more than aid. Unwittingly, perhaps, the hidden gem in the Dutch experience may indeed be to provide impetus to the argument that the development architecture in the 21st century includes shifting the enterprise itself – from a discussion of money, aid instruments and a ‘South’-facing dialogue to a ‘North’-facing set of instruments: using developed country leverage to challenge and change trade regimes, converging the politics with technocratic and bureaucratic compliance, and shifting support from social sectors to productive sectors.]

The ethics of development aid

Fundamentally, then, this Dutch aid experience raises the issue of the ethics of development aid. For us, this is the ultimate bottom line of the IOB report. We believe the effectiveness of Dutch aid is in fact an ethical responsibility – because of the fact that lives and livelihoods are involved, magnified by the millions of people affected, and the obligation for accountability to citizens in a democratic country. In development, effectiveness is not only a bureaucratic or political calculus, it is an ethical imperative.

Going forward, we hope Dutch foreign and development aid policy and practice in Africa will be concerned with four dimensions of effectiveness (which we view as missing or substantially unmet over this recent period):

  1. accountability and responsiveness to Dutch citizens via Dutch politicians and the parliament;
  2. faithfulness in the use of an information asymmetry that privileges bureaucrats but also obligates them to develop and pursue policies only on rigorous analysis;
  3. conscientiousness in the use of Dutch leverage in international and foreign policy arenas consistent with and in furtherance of stated development objectives; and,
  4. a duty/responsibility to citizens of developing countries arising out of claims of partnership and comity in efforts to improve their livelihoods and dignity.

Obviously, these flaws in accountability and transparency in a country famed internationally for promotion of human rights and democracy reads peculiar to us. This is similarly so on the effectiveness front, where Dutch commitment among its peers is clear.

We have no doubt that this report will stir up an internal debate that will lead to improvements in Dutch policy in Africa. These comments – not a gratuitous attack – are intended to contribute to the process to right the missteps noted in this highly commendable IOB evaluation.


  1. The views expressed in this paper do not represent official World Bank positions.