The twists and turns of Dutch policy

Development Policy05 Feb 2008Stephen Ellis

Reading the summary of the evaluation of eight years of Dutch Africa policy, I am struck by the tension that clearly exists between attempts to make development aid a technical activity, on the one hand, and various political demands on the other.

Technically minded development officials like to plan ahead and make clear agreements. The policy of designating a number of partner countries for development cooperation is a clear example. In many fields, arrangements of this sort are shared not only with developing countries, but also with the various multilateral organizations that play such an important field in development matters. Dutch policy is therefore to some extent determined by long-term commitments by many parties, of whom the Dutch government is only one. Examples include the Millennium Development Goals and those cases where each donor to a particular country agrees to support a particular sector, like education, health or justice.

The problem with this is that when a crisis occurs, there may be political reasons to respond, even if it means ignoring existing plans. This happened in the case of Burundi, which received budget support in 2006 despite the fact that it was not in principle eligible for this sort of help. The reason was that the peace process in Burundi was at a critical juncture that could not have been easily foreseen a couple of years earlier, and it was felt that the Netherlands should do something to help. Another example is Sudan. Between 1998 and 2006 it received more help than five partner countries combined, despite never itself having been designated as a partner country.

It is pointless to lament the fact that the best-laid plans of development ministers and officials have to confront political pressures, since it is inevitable. The problem arises because development policy continues to invoke an ideology that tries to exclude politics. Yet development assistance is always political in the broadest sense. This does not mean that development aid has to involve socialists aiding only socialists, for example, or Christian Democrats helping only their opposite numbers in Africa. The point is that even a decision to support poverty alleviation has political implications. ‘Nobody has attained political maturity’, Joseph Schumpeter once wrote, ‘who does not understand that policy is politics’.
This is a rather obvious point, but it is surprising how often it is forgotten in discussions of development.

A related point that is often overlooked is the degree to which the development policy of a rich country like the Netherlands has, in the end, to satisfy a domestic constituency. I take it that this is the main reason for some of the twists and turns of Dutch policy, such as the decline in support for agriculture and rural development in favour of other policy areas that seem to appeal more to the development lobby in the Netherlands itself or even to the broader public.

There will always be emergencies that cause officials and ministers to change their plans to deal with a need that was previously unforeseen. There will always be political pressures, subtle or not so subtle, on a ministry to take up a particular cause. I often think that it would be healthier for the development debate if this were explicitly acknowledged. It would also help counter the sense of strategic drift that seems to run through the evaluation of Dutch Africa policy over the last eight years.

That there are fashions in development is really just a reflection of the fact that it is a less technical business than is often thought, and more political. A current vogue is for attention to ‘fragile’ or ‘failed’ states. I put these terms in quotation marks because it is not at all clear how precise they are. What we can say is that powerful countries have become concerned by the existence of other countries in which the state itself has almost disappeared, as in Somalia, or in which it has lost the ability to exert a monopoly of violence over its national territory. In the 2002 US National Security Strategy, President Bush stated that America ‘is now more threatened by weak and failing states than … by conquering ones’.
It is no accident that US thinking on this matter has changed rapidly since 9/11, and that other donor governments have followed its lead. Fragile states have now become a main concern of development policy makers. Yet it remains unclear what exactly is meant by ‘fragility’. For development activists, the hallmark of fragile states is that they do little or nothing to help alleviate poverty. But for military and security officials, their key characteristic is the possibility that hostile armed groups could use their territory for military purposes.

Despite the lack of an agreed definition of state fragility or state failure, an accepted approach among aid agencies is that dealing with a fragile state requires a so-called ‘whole of government’ approach. The thinking behind this is that countering state fragility requires more than the traditional work of aid and development cooperation, but may also require the use of military resources. Defence ministries in donor countries have an interest in this matter because their home governments believe themselves to be threatened by fragile states in various ways, including in regard to military security, disease, and migration. A great number of government departments need to be associated with the problem of dealing with state fragility abroad: development ministries, but also ministries of defence and foreign affairs, intelligence departments, and possibly even justice and health ministries. So far, the Netherlands appears to have gone less far down this path than some other donor governments. The main problem is not even the bureaucratic difficulty of securing communication and cooperation between different departments of government. Rather, the biggest obstacle is achieving a common strategic approach between agencies and ministries who can agree that they are concerned about fragile states, but cannot agree on precisely why they are concerned.

I suspect that in the next few months we will hear a lot more about this matter of fragile states. But we should keep matters in perspective. Whether or how a particular country develops has very little to do with aid, and much more to do with local society and politics.


Unfortunately, due to the age of this contribution and several migrations to online content management systems, the footnotes in the text may have been lost. The footnotes below are listed in its original order of appearance in text.
  1. Quoted in his obituary of Joseph Schumpeter by Arthur Smithies (1950) American Economic Review, 40(4): 644.
  2. Quoted in Stewart Patrick and Caysie Brown (2007) Greater Than the Sum of its Parts? Assessing ‘Whole of Government’ Approaches to Fragile States. New York: International Peace Academy, p.33.