We need vision and leadership

Development Policy23 Jun 2010Paul Hassing

Paul Hassing responds to the background article “Getting the basics right” in the context of the online debate about Dutch development cooperation triggered by the report Less Pretension, More Ambition by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). He proposes to differentiate basics by implementation channel.

Hassing is employed by the Ministry of Foreign Affaires since 1991. This contribution is the authors personal opinion and does not reflect in any way government policy.

The concept of getting the basics right suggests that there is such a thing like an optimum policy for international cooperation. It would provide the basics for cost effectiveness. But does it really work that way? Are donors backed up by national political circumstances that allows them to choose for the most obvious approach? Following the debates preceding the elections in The Netherlands one cannot but to conclude that elections simplify development cooperation to certain priorities: more private sector support, agriculture, environment, more involvement of the Wageningen University, focus more support on water management, secure the role of the civil society, no cuts on the budget, etc. It is difficult to see our future representatives in Parliament as those that really discuss and choose on the basis of knowledge and concepts. Where is vision and leadership?

The most straight forward and likely conclusion is that our representatives are a reflection of their internal debate, within political parties and their associated institutions. Even the national debate on is conservative in nature: maintain the budget, do not question the role of civil society or poverty reduction, define more areas of intervention and more national thematic involvement. One could well argue that our national debate has been blocked since the Pronk period. It is correct that poverty reduction has been defined broader over time as Hoebink is arguing. The consequence of this is that the thematic priorities have expanded with every new minister. The latest thematic discussion in IS, 2010 confirms the proliferation of thematic priorities; art will enhance democratisation and hence add to poverty reduction!

At the same time discussions on the effectiveness of implementing channels (bilateral, multilateral and NGO’s/private sector) have been poor. As a consequence the percentage of spending through these different channels has not changed substantially and our commitment to the present architecture of development cooperation has not changed really.

It is not particular cynical to conclude that international cooperation is based on the perceptions within donor countries, by the voters and by our representatives of political parties and not so much by the needs in developing countries.

The WRR report proposes in my view a small Dutch revolution: listen to what the priorities of developing countries are (national diagnosis) and handle accordingly. Stop with poverty reduction as the overarching goal and adapt the more generic goals of development (Grotenhuis calls it sustainable global development). Stop developing global concepts as a concept that fits for all developing countries. The consequence of this would be to stop prioritising thematic themes (water, agriculture, hearth, etc) or special approaches such as capacity building or institutional development The WRR holds a strong argument. Dutch development cooperation does not listen to developing countries because then cooperation would not spend around 80% of its total budget on just two sectors namely education and health. Van Ojik claims that it contributes to poverty alleviation but that is not the issue.

And developing countries also complain. The Heads of States in Africa have already asked at WSSD at Johannesburg in 2002 that Africa should be more supported with infrastructure: roads, electricity, water, harbours and ICT. The international donor community and the international development banks did not really respond to this request. Now 8 years later, fortunately China does!

Policy recommendations.

The question by Jan Willem Gunning lays at the heart of this debate: ‘Why would reform succeed now if strong vested interests have successfully blocked it so often in the past’. Look at the reactions at and at various national conferences on this issue. They claim that little is wrong with the present approach (Karimi, Borren, Monteiro, van der Ham, Grotenhuis, Kleinrensink, Brouwers, van Ojik and others) and each of them claim that their particular organisation is doing much better than average or just embarked on the right approach. The budget should not be reduced now, particularly not now, with this prevailing financial and economic crisis. What this debate is also saying, is to secure their working processes and position as if the world has not changed over the last 15 to 20 years: Continue distributing more and more funds to NGO’s in developing countries, register and construct counterparts at their own demand, pay relatively high national salaries, introduce western rules and regulation, become more and more subcontractors of constantly changing Dutch policies and building a civil society in developing countries analogue to their approach and/or ideology. These vested interest were not at the heart of present debate, could not be discussed although the WRR report did suggest to modernise the NGO sector and that the present NGO model is no longer sustainable. One could argue that the WRR report should have gone further then just suggesting the need for change in the same way as it has suggested changes in the bilateral policy. Was there any reasons for the WRR not to do so?

A real omission of the WRR report is an analysis of global developments and the role of the multilateral cooperation. The debate of the past 3 to 4 years on the multilateral policy (seen policy note to parliament, 2009) seems to be ignored by the WRR report or was not seen as of major political importance. Would it not complement the WRR to add an addendum to this report on this issue?

New basics for development cooperation.

To be more specific at the request from The Broker, the new basics will be outlined for each of the implementing channels for development cooperation: Civil society, bilateral and multilateral.

1 – Civil society.

The modernisation of the basics of the civil society cooperation could be designed along the following lines:

  • Self-reliance. Developing countries are in charge with size and pace of the modernisation of their society. It means that external funds (DGIS) for civil society should be channelled through appropriate national channels. This would strengthen the national democratic dialogue and processes and more in line with national norms and values.
  • Independent and autonomy. The maximum government funding to Dutch NGO’s should not exceed the funding from civil society. This would mean a substantial reduction of funding to Dutch NGO’s. To fully reinstall independency the NGO’s decide in which countries they prefer to operate and with whom. No complementarity to bilateral policy anymore.
  • Transparency. The accounting and administration to individual donors and to the Dutch government will be the same. No longer different transparency to different donors.
  • Thematic NGO’s will be supported within a national thematic preference as suggested in the WRR report. They will act as knowledge broker, advisors and much less as implementers of programmes and projects. Exception for fragile states with poor functional institutions.

2 – Bilateral policy.

It is remarkable that the Dutch bilateral policy is little discussed over the last 10-15 years. Cooperation with Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Philippines, Peru, just to mention a few, have been discontinued. The argument was often effectiveness. Are other bilateral programmes more effective? Has that been proven?. Why do Dutch NGO’s with Dutch government funding continue in these countries while bilateral programmes are not anymore effective. Why do multilateral programmes continue in these countries? Why do private sector programmes do continue? What are the vested interest here?

Was it to please parliament that urged coalition partners to formulate an answer to rising internal doubts and criticism? Why reducing the number of countries for bilateral cooperation and not asking the same from NGO’s, multilateral cooperation and private programmes? One could even ask why ‘’everybody in the sector” (academics, NGO’s , businesses) kept more or less silent. Did these partners realise that as long as this outfacing of countries was not effecting them, it would be to their benefit not to raise the discussion? Did Dutch politicians took notice that a reductions of countries would not be questioned in Dutch society as long as the NGO and private sector programmes were not or only slightly effected? Where was the debate?

How is it possible that countries are facing day to day corruption but hardly any corruption has been reported by embassies, NGO’s or private sector. Do Dutch rules and regulations really prevent corruption more then bilateral rules and procedures by other donors? Is a zero tolerance attitude the real key to non-corruption? Or do people that are involved, hold similar interests and thus prevail a non-reporting attitude. Is in corrupt countries like Kenya, Guatemala and Vietnam Dutch development cooperation not subject to corruption? Is this another “silent” defensive attitude of the sector?

The modernisation of the basics of the bilateral policy could be designed along the following lines:

  • Demand driven based on national diagnostic and be willing to invest also in large infrastructure if required.
  • No more thematic priorities within bilateral cooperation. Present separate thematic funding will be phased out in the coming three years. Exception is research and development. Reduce and outface thematic funds at multilateral level.
  • Substantial policy coordination within EU context and on national thematic technical assistance. The choice for a thematic assistance will be decided upon in EU context.
  • Implementation of bilateral programmes through NL AID. Policy development, political transparency and policy cohesion through staff bureau of minister (and embassy).
  • Support a limited number (20) of developing countries with a substantial budget. Funding will also come from a reduced and restructured multilateral cooperation.
  • Special programmes (bilateral or multilateral) for global public goods only based on mutual interests such as climate change, topical forest, epidemic desease and human security.

3/ Multilateral policy

The power balance in the world has changed. No longer two ideological blocks oppose each other whereby the United Nations acts as a forum to debate ideological differences. The present world consists of multipower blocks that compete for political influence and secure interests. The stability of this multipolar world is threatened by terrorism, violation of human rights, limited access to information and rising fundamentalism. The leadership of the US and the UN is questioned as well as the institutions that are associated with it. For the EU, the US is no longer the logical , natural partner. The previous US administration has been very clear on this point. The present US administration indeed looks for more partnership. But what will a next US administration do? It is time for the EU to stand on its own feet and capitalise its own power. Not to dominate the world but to cooperate with the world and at the same time expose our political and cultural values. International cooperation should become part of this overall foreign EU policy. More then now! The present fragmentation by member states is not effective anymore in a quickly developing multipolar world. The EU has to catch up. But how to do this?

Is the present multilateral architecture still effective? To be more precise; are UN institutions and programme still well placed to deal with HIV/aids programmes in Southern Africa or solar panels in Fiji. Should the UN not go one step further and have the ambition to bring power blocks together in a dialogue and discuss policy issues of mutual interest? Should the UN develop into a real knowledge centre fro policy dialogue and try to unite the world around specific global issues: human rights, food crisis, energy challenge, fundamentalism, regional security. To be trustworthy in this debate should the UN not stop to implement specific programmes and projects that could well be implemented by the individual power blocks? Why should the UN system in the field of international cooperation also implement bilateral programmes while this is already done by others. Why “copy and past” programmes that can be also well implemented by others. What is the added value? Would it not be more effectiveness terms for The Netherlands to cooperate within the power block of the EU and promote EU political and cultural values. If so, why then to continue funding the UN with specific programmes and projects? Is there any proven added value in terms of effectiveness or politics interest from UN funded programmes? If not, then one could well argue that there still is a political role in fragile states (peacekeeping, secure basic services, rule of law and communication) for the UN where individual power blocks have a perceived biased interest.

Similarly, one could question the effectiveness of the world bank vis-à-vis the regional development banks. Although it seems to be a relation between big brother and small brother the banks compete with each other for scares lending. What is the effectiveness of a world bank with regional knowledge of Asia, Latin America and Africa and the regional banks having the same knowledge. Why are shareholders (The Netherlands and others) supporting both types of banks in the same region. Why not split up the world bank and merge the regional components with the regional banks. Would that not make lending cheaper and be more acceptable for borrowing countries?

To be more specific, the modernisation of the basics of multilateral policies could be designed along the following lines:

  • Restructure the UN programmes, projects and agencies (FAO, WHO and others) into knowledge and policy centres (including policy coherence) to facilitate the dialogue between power blocks and analyse and discuss international trends.
  • The savings on multilateral organisations will be used to strengthen bilateral policies and coordination within the EU.
  • Special window will be opened for fragile states, emergency aid and refugees only.
  • Coordination of global public goods but no funding responsibility. A new negotiating model has to be developed including civil society and businesses that have an ability to contribute to global governance.
  • The world bank will be restructured along the same lines as the UN system (the two might merge). The regional banks will be strengthened more as the prime lender of last resort. The loans of the world bank will be transferred to the regional banks. The headquarters of the Latin American development bank will move to the region.
  • Coordinate within the EU: streamlining of national agencies, thematic specialisation by member states, coordination of policy in stead of subsidiarity, policy coherence at EU level, one EU agency for international cooperation in developing countries.