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Debating precision

by Hans Dembowski
Whether something is working well or not depends fundamentally on one’s standpoint. Societies are complex systems. It is impossible to assess any socio-political setting in strictly objective terms. Since time immemorial, economists and sociologists have struggled with this truth.

Nonetheless, it is necessary to check whether development aid has the desired effects. Rich nations spend almost $100 billion annually on official development assistance (ODA), and they have promised to increase their aid budgets. They must prove it is worthwhile.

What is even more important is that donors and recipient governments agreed on “management for results” as a principle of cooperation at High-Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness in Paris and Accra – and rightly so. It is pointless to only count the quantitative input of ODA. Results must guide further action. That, in turn, means that effects need to be assessed. It matters a lot, of course, who is to do so, and what methods are to be used.

Well-established democracies are constantly gauging policy effects. Public debate never stops. Governments are permanently being scrutinised – in market halls and bars, among neighbours and colleagues, in the mass media and academic studies. There never is an all-encompassing consensus, and the more varied the opinions, the better. This is the least traumatic way for societies to learn, and it is possible, if they are ruled by majority vote and do not allow minority opposition to be suppressed.

In rich nations, scores of institutes and organisations engage in controversy, provide analyses and thus enhance public debate. Their abundant input contributes to reaching pragmatic compromises in all fields in which total societal harmony is impossible. Developing countries, however, typically suffer from a lack of data collection and analysis. They only produce and exchange a limited body of socio-political knowledge. But insights must be spelled out and debated for any society to unite and advance as one. Authoritarian attitudes, of course, hamper such discourse – or even stop it altogether.

Donor agencies have long been monitoring and evaluating their own activities. They have an understanding of how the political economy of the countries they work in tick. In any case, they possess knowledge that is relevant for shaping public opinion in those countries; and in some cases, it might even serve nation-building purposes. Obviously, donors’ knowledge should be made freely available in the lingua franca of the countries concerned. Constructive public debate could thus be stimulated and supported.

It is absurd, therefore, that bilateral donor agencies should still complain about the World Bank withholding studies and refusing to release them. It is an anachronism that donor agencies fail to exchange more systematically all relevant information among one another. But it is even more vexing that their insights do not sufficiently contribute to domestic debate in the countries they are supposed to help to develop.

The success of reforms anywhere depend on how social forces interact when balancing out interests. Debate over priorities, resources and strategies are inevitable; and so is debate over effects. This must take place in a compentent and inclusive manner, based on ample information.Objective precision of assessments, however, is neither necessary nor feasible.