WRR debate at the Institute of Social Studies

Knowledge brokering08 Feb 2010Jojanneke Spoor

Shouldn’t the WRR report have emphasized the role of society more? How can multilateral aid be transformed to truly tackle global concerns? What is the status of civic driven action? These were just some of the questions that Peter van Lieshout was confronted with during a debate about the WRR report Less Pretention, more Ambition at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague.

As the main author of the report Van Lieshout was asked to respond to concerns and criticism and to lead the way to an open debate. The Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) has announced that the outcomes and input of discussions like this one will be incorporated into the English version of the report that will be published later this year.

There is a widely shared appreciation for the work done by the WRR. However, some people present at the ISS are concerned that the report’s recommendations are based on a more superficial idea of Dutch aid than that implied in its analysis. The authors seem eager to push aside the focus on the social sector, which in their opinion has proved to be ineffective over decades of Dutch development aid. Some participants, however, point out that focusing on the social sector is a relatively new approach, which started in the 1980-90’s, and therefore it is too early to disregard its merits.

One of the central arguments in the report is that Dutch aid has focused too much on poverty alleviation and the mitigation of direct needs. “Be clear on what your goals are” is its main recommendation. At present, the sector is not sufficiently clear about its objectives. The authors of the WRR report believe that the development sector should focus on economic growth and that health and education projects are not the way to go about this. Van Lieshout emphasizes that he does not disregard the value that such projects have in and of themselves, but that the fact that NGO’s tend to implement them by default must be reconsidered. Several participants challenge this assertion. They argue that investing in the social sector is important to battle population growth, increase people’s health and professional skills. All this will have a positive impact on the economic infrastructure. Most importantly, some people point out, economic growth in itself doesn’t automatically lead to development. We all should know by now that redistribution of wealth is anything but a given.

The overall objective of the WRR report is to rethink the concept of development. What do we mean by it? And how do we achieve it? The report advocates for a more diagnostic approach: starting from the local level to find out which binding constraints to development are most pressing. In other words, we should leave behind the idea that everything can or should be done at the same time.

Kristin Komives (ISS) thinks this diagnostic approach is great. But it’s not new. It has been tried in the PRSP process, where it failed miserably. She questions whether the WRR recommendations will overcome these problems. Maarten Brouwer (BUZA) would welcome a more profound analysis of the interactions between binding constraints on several levels. Not just applied to economics, but incorporating constraints in society, the administration and politics.

Rolph van der Hoeven (ISS) is pleased that the WRR report brings the basic but big development questions to the table for all of us to discuss (this should not be the prerogative of the World Bank and IMF). “We must try and lift the debate on Dutch development to an international dimension”, he says. Others agree and mention that the Southern voice, the voice of the supposed beneficiaries of aid, must be heard much louder in this discussion. The need to incorporate and make use of the social capital of ‘the diaspora’ is also stressed.

Van der Hoeven feels that the report is wanting in its analysis of multilateral cooperation. How can aid contribute to the international aspects of redistribution policies? We should think much more along the lines of international taxation, so that we can move away from aid and towards a more global, international, integrated system. The report argues in favour of policy coherence, but isn’t specific enough in its recommendations for this.

Less Pretention, more Ambition urges the Dutch government to be more focused: get to know how a country works. Stay for a while to figure out who to align with and who to avoid. Separate diplomats from aid workers. The Dutch way of placing aid budgets with the embassies allows for political games. The report suggests that it might be beneficial to distinguish between diplomats and aid professionals. Van Lieshout briefly touches on his proposed idea of setting up a new institution to manage aid under the name of NLAid or NethAid.

Kristin Komives (ISS) wonders whether this proposal doesn’t imply a step backward on the issue of ownership. Contrary to the current method with the PRSPs, the so-called diagnostics in the WRR proposal appear to be the responsibility of, mostly foreign, experts. Also, if Dutch development aid were to focus on 10 countries and only a few sectors, how can we ensure the cross-sectoral approach that is necessary to achieve lasting change? The WRR suggests it is the government of the receiving country that should manage and monitor the cross-sectoral implementation. But isn’t this wishful thinking, dismissing the realities of political conflict and corruption?

Maarten Brouwer (BUZA) acknowledges that the Dutch government needs to improve its knowledge of development processes and practices – which is one of the WRR recommendations. But he feels that more analysis is needed to determine where exactly the knowledge gaps are. In his experience, for instance, there is no lack of technical knowledge on agriculture. Brouwer: “What is needed is a broker role, being able to communicate well to government structures, having networks available, being able to scan the real problems, to see and enter at the right moment in negotiation processes.”

One point that generated a lot of criticism from participants at the ISS debate is the WRR’s critical stance on NGO’s. Van Lieshout believes that the way NGO’s currently function needs rethinking. He detects growing resentment against NGO’s in the South. New legislation in Kenya and Ethiopia that hampers NGO activities exemplifies this. Van Lieshout: “Despite the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and ideas on harmonization, NGO’s still run lots of small projects. Instead, we need to think bigger, broader.” Lucien Stöpler (Terre des hommes) responds that this is already being done. There are many initiatives of coordination between NGO’s on the ground. Stöpler feels that the report dismisses these initiatives too easily without having investigated how they work. Paul Arlman (Plan International) adds that NGO’s are a most useful source of knowledge when it comes to building up expertise and focusing development efforts on a few countries and sectors.

The WRR report argues that it is time to realize that aid is not that important. “The importance of aid is exaggerated by people working in aid as well as by those criticizing it”, says Van Lieshout. Trade, migration, tax policies and property rights play a much bigger role when development is at stake. There is as yet no clear answer as to how to tackle these issues. The WRR therefore suggests that money should be invested in finding the answers. It recommends that future ministers for Development Aid have two main responsibilities: 1) Bilateral aid, and 2) Setting up a policy infrastructure to deal with global issues (a globalization agenda).

Maarten Brouwer limits his comments to the analytical part of the report, awaiting the official Cabinet response. But he does express that there are omissions in the analysis which, had they been addressed, would have led to other recommendations. The main issue that has not received the attention it deserves is the struggle and strife that always accompany development work. The antagonistic character of development itself is missing. Brouwer wonders whether the focus on economic growth doesn’t paint too easy a picture. Because when there’s economic growth, there suddenly is a precious cake to share. He also wonders whether the WRR avoidance of the subject of civil society organization and the issue of emancipation are related to its choice for a largely harmonistic approach.

Louk Box, director of the ISS, closes the discussion by inviting all those present for two coming events on the same topic. On 4 March Roger Riddell will give his answers to the question “Does Aid Matter?” On 18 March Arend Jan Boekestijn will explain why his answer to that question is “No”.