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Aid effectiveness debate

Demanding democratic ownership

The High Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness have tackled important issues, but so far only led to disappointing results. Civil society organisations demand the democratisation of the aid effectiveness agenda.

By Antonio Tujan Jr.

The High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF) in Busan in November will mark the end of a reform era and – hopefully – the beginning of a new era. If things go well, more will be achieved in the new era than in the old one. No doubt, development cooperation needs to improve fast. Far too little progress has been made to date.

The first decade of this century saw the international community commit to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). That went along with pledges to increase aid and to improve its effectiveness through better management and delivery. The OECD-hosted Working Party on Aid Effectiveness organised a series of HLFs in Rome (2003), Paris (2005) and Accra (2008).

These events resulted in commitments for aid reform. Most far-ranging was the Paris Declaration in 2005. It defined the five core principles of aid effectiveness:
– national ownership by the developing countries,
– donor harmonisation under developing country leadership,
– donor alignment to procedures and institutions of developing countries,
– managing for results and
– mutual accountability.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are engaged in the aid effectiveness debate. They have been pushing for deeper, more meaningful reform. In 2008, the Accra HLF recognised CSOs as development actors in their own right. Some of their concerns were adopted by the HLF, including broader country ownership or more effective and inclusive partnerships. Many demands, however, were not met. The most important of these were aid reforms that would enable people to use their human rights (“right-based results”) and introduce democratic ownership free from foreign interference.

In formal terms, the Paris commitments ended in 2010. Official OECD assessments show mixed results. The overall targets of the Paris Declaration have not been met, but reforms are on track.

It is, of course, difficult to assess these matters in objective terms. Core chal­lenges include measuring multidimensional concepts and the absence of a truly independent oversight body. Unsurprisingly, different actors draw different conclusions. Even though the aid effectiveness agenda has taken root to various degrees in various countries, the overall picture of implementation remains bleak.

Nonetheless, there is a strong basis for moving on with the agenda. Many countries remain interested in the issue, and it is absolutely clear that the MDGs can only be achieved if development cooperation improves fast.

CSOs – and the people in general – want to see results that have meaning to their lives. Such results must be felt at the grass roots level. Partnerships need to be geared to truly supporting the building of democratic governments that are responsive to people’s needs.

For CSOs, the core issue is to deepen aid effectiveness reform. This is what they have been demanding for years. That the HLF Busan will tackle a broad agenda is an achievement for the CSOs. However, it is not certain that Busan will focus on rights-based results, and co-equal partnerships based on relationships of mutuality between countries. Busan may still be dominated by donors instead of responding immediately to people’s needs.

Politics will have its impact on Busan. The global arena has become more troubled since Accra. Relevant issues include the global financial crisis, political turbulences affecting many countries and the increasingly obvious impacts of climate change. CSOs will nonetheless strive to maintain the reform momentum, promoting and expanding the space and scope for fundamental reform.

It simply does not make sense to consider aid effectiveness merely in a narrow technocratic sense. National policy ownership of developing countries is not enough. We need democratic ownership. Accountability must be enhanced on all fronts. Development results must relate to people’s rights. The international architecture of development cooperation must become inclusive and give scope to
peoples’ participation.

A guiding principle

Development effectiveness depends on the realisation that, ultimately, people are the real wealth of nations. Therefore, development must be people-centered. This approach is essentially based on human rights. The international community must recognise the people’s and nations’ right to development through the democratic transformation of unequal power relations within and between nations.

The human rights approach to development offers a holistic framework for implementing development policy. Democratic ownership needs to incorporate solidarity, sovereignty, coherence, social justice, equality, environmental sustainability, decent work and mutual accountability. To be meaningful, the HLF in Busan must tackle these issues.

Particular attention needs to be paid to democratic and inclusive ownership of development. In other words, ownership must be people-centred. The participation of developing countries’ citizens – and not only of their governments – must be ensured. Parliaments and CSOs must get a say in drafting national development plans.

So far, there is consensus that the recipient country’s ownership of policies and processes is the cornerstone of making aid effectiveness reforms succeed. The underlying principles, obviously, are national sovereignty and non-interference. These principles, however, do not fit in easily with the fundamental nature of development cooperation, which obviously is not about national isolationism. These principles, moreover, are challenged by the international architecture of development cooperation in which donor governments are in a stronger position than those that receive or even depend on aid.

Since Paris, the ownership principle has evolved gradually. The Accra HLF broadened the concept of national ownership to include actors and stakeholders such as civil society, the media, the private sector and parliaments in all stages of the development process. This increasingly inclusive view of ownership is a result of CSO involvement and lobbying.

The HLF in Busan must convincingly reaffirm CSOs’ role in development affairs as actors in their own right. CSOs are critical for effective development. They are voluntary organisations that act on behalf of their constituencies. True democratic ownership thus depends on full participation of CSOs in all stages of the development process, including the drafting of development plans and strategies.

Since CSOs need an enabling environment to play their role, the HLF 2011 needs to agree on minimum criteria for such an environment. Relevant aspects include policies, laws, regulations and administrative practices. National strategies need to be drafted in democratic and inclusive processes. On that basis, they can serve as the framework for policy coherence at the national level and help identify finance gaps that aid flows can fill.

The global governance dimension

The Busan summit will delve into many important aspects of development co­operation, including development finance, aid exit, climate change financing, aid for trade and others. The ultimate question, however, will be how to ensure implementation and continuity of the effectiveness campaign. In short, who or what shall succeed the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness? The international community needs a body that can take on more functions and is more inclusive than the Working Party.

It is important to remember that the Working Party is basically an illegitimate body because it was not created by an ­international agreement or convention. Nonetheless, it has become an important agent for a more inclusive architecture for development cooperation. To some extent it has even managed to assume an independent stance that is predefined neither by donors nor recipient governments.

In the long run, however, this will not do. The Working Party needs a successor with a full mandate. This successor must become more effective than the Working Party is now. It needs to go beyond facilitating intelligent international declarations. It needs the bite to ensure implementation.

These demands are challenging. Many issues need to be tackled. Can such a body benefit from the legitimacy provided by the multilateral framework and mandate of the United Nations? Will it benefit from the work already done by the OECD? What role are the UN Economic and Social Council ECOSOC and its Development Cooperation Forum to play?

The new architecture needs to be inclusive, democratic, rights-based, equit­able and just. Democratic ownership will be key in order to address the currently prevailing power imbalances. Membership and participation must therefore ensure full representation of all branches of government as well as equal membership and participation of CSOs along with other non-state actors.

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