Time to change IOB methodologies?

Development Policy04 Feb 2008Joan Boer

None of the conclusions are really surprising. When will IOB change its way of analysis is the first question that comes to mind? And if IOB has evidence of what works in African circumstances they should make the case rather than implicitly referring to paradise! (‘it’ doesn’t focus on the root causes). Do we have replicable good practices that make an impact?

Some elements in that debate, which I think is much more important than the present process of describing ‘almost everything’ that went wrong and the ‘I told you so’ approach of IOB:

1. Long-term, predictable aid relations, rather than a continuous ‘and now for something completely different, because we have new government coalition approach’, and/or hit-and-run choices with the sustainability and capacity of flowers and fish. Contrary to present practices, Africa is not a garden centre with pots to be arranged and rearranged to please the donor customers. What those customers miss (or aren’t interested in?) is: Knowledge of the political undercurrents at country and surrounding regional levels and a personnel policy and conditionalities that perfectly match that objective. We were right to get out of Kenya in 1998/9 in terms of a government-to-government support relation – as the 4th cycle of more of the same political misappropriation since 1974 indicated. But who knew about it, and what have we learned from it? And does IOB really believe in objective assessments, as they seem to indicate when referring to the track records or ‘research’?

2. Realistic expectations of what can be accomplished (not much in four years) and the political courage to communicate that and to hang on when things get a bit rough! Follow the trends not the fads and the headlines of the day, and know what is really significant and what is not!!

3. Simple conditionalities. PRSPs have become a Christmas tree, with something for everyone (
voor elk wat wils). So let’s abandon them rather than refine, recalibrate or what have you, and go on to something simpler that might also commit the Chinese and Indians, such as the World Bank’s ‘doing business approach’, if only because it is based on evidence and neighbours, rather than theory. And don’t some of those indicators indirectly refer to human rights?

4. No national flags or other types of branding. This monument is mine!!

5. Compare horses with horses! ‘The sectors were too much a Dutch affair’, maybe … but how about the choice of projects in the previous 40 years? Ever visited a place where we did integrated rural development 10 years after we left? Islands of happiness, I once called them, with respect to their capacity to survive over time. And again what’s the trend – is it better than before? Or is it worse, and if so, why?

6. The place where a problem surfaces is not necessarily the right place to solve it (the youth football team syndrome); the hence micro-macro thinking, up- and downstream, and coherence that was developed as part of a parcel.

7. A division of labour between the government and NGOs/private sector, rather than maximum autonomy strategies on both sides of the fence because both need to prove to their home constituencies that they are ‘indispensable’ or need more funding.

8. No input but (realistic) outcome indicators, as basic education again proves.

9. The MDGs are proxies for progress over an area that is much wider than ‘objectives or goals’

Some remarks with respect to the IOB’s conclusions:

1. Too little continuity and focus. I agree; see point 1 above. And as long as our parliament (and those of the other 35 donors) remains our central reference point it won’t change, so what is the real space given to this factor, and have we used it adequately?

2. The shift from project to sector and budget support. The sectoral approach was an organizing principle, not a binding legalistic framework (although as a concept this may be difficult to apply in the given human resource casting). In short: projects remained possible after embassies had made a convincing case that the stated objective was the right one, and could not be reached through forms of budget support. A presence at local level only (read project support) has – as evidence indicated – only low chances of survival (compare IOB Rural Development of the 1980s). And don’t forget that macro-economic currency developments were one of the unplanned but decisive externalities that enabled the Mali project that IOB refers to become a success.

3. Ownership. Ultimate responsibility lies with the recipient societies (rather than with governments alone). For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, its logical primary counterpart was the ‘sitting government’. One of the essences of PRSP processes is to include civil society and allow for a division of labour between the government and NGOs within one policy framework.

4. Gender – that’s what mainstreaming is about, and is not necessarily bad!

5. Improving cooperation between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministries of Finance, Agriculture, Economic Affairs, Defence and Education – a long uphill battle!

6. Knowledge and research. A bullshit statement and, in my opinion, not linked to the shift from project to sectors. On the contrary, many of the key institutional aspects played out at the meso rather than at the project micro level! And there was no collective memory to build on at that level of undercurrents (see my previous statement on the 4th cycle in Kenya).

My conclusions – IOB missed the opportunity to contribute to a forward-looking debate on Africa based on realities rather than vague theories. Perhaps it is time to change IOB’s methodologies?