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Preconceived donor criteria

by Demba Moussa Dembélé
Development success depends on the statisfaction of the communities concerned. The issue is of a profoundly political nature. Results cannot be measured in simply technical terms, argues Demba Moussa Dembélé of ARCADE, a non-governmental organisation in Senegal. [ Interview with Demba Moussa Dembélé ]

What should official development assistance (ODA) bring about?

ODA was supposed to narrow the gap between rich and poor countries by raising standards of living and improving indicators in areas like health, education and employment. But the reality is that the gap between North and South has become wider than ever, and the number of poor people is going up. So developed countries came to the conclusion that their aid was being wasted through corruption and the inability of recipient countries to use it more efficiently.

Hence the call for aid effectiveness.

Yes, in the face of criticism from public opinion in donor countries and from international NGOs, donor governments want to show that ODA is making a difference. They publish statistics on key sectors of recipient countries - for instance, on how many children have been immunised against measles or how many people have died from malaria et cetera. Other statistics deal with education, infrastructure and a host of other issues. They serve to show the public in donor countries that ODA is contributing to saving lives, putting more girls in schools and so on. The snag is that the blame for any lack of results is put on recipient countries, while the global policy environment that tends to offset the potential benefits of aid are ignored. The debate on “aid effectiveness” remains within the dominant neoliberal paradigm, so it does not question the structural problems associated with that paradigm, which has now triggered a global financial crisis of historic dimensions even in rich nations.

Do you oppose the very idea of measuring results?

What bothers me is that the focus on “results” has become a kind of Damocles sword hanging over the heads of recipient countries. But developmental success does not only depend on recipient countries’ policies. It also depends on the conditions under which aid is granted, the pace of disbursement et cetera. Moreover, international relations matter in general, just consider the world-trade regime, climate change and security issues. It is unfair to simply blame recipient countries for “poor” results. Doing so exacerbates the hypocrisy that marks South-North relations in general.

How do you define “development”?

It is about structural economic, social, political transformations to the benefit of the people. Development is of a fundamentally political and social nature. It cannot be measured in technical terms. Unfortunately, the neoliberal paradigm tends to equate “development” with economic growth. But the sad truth in Africa is that high growth rates have recently gone along with deteriorating social indicators on education, health, nutrition et cetera.

The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action emphasise the principle of “managing for results”. How does one measure results?

Well, as I just said, donor agencies have been publishing statistics on some indicators like the number of health centres and schools, and of teachers, doctors and nurses and so on. Of course, higher numbers do make better services possible in principle. But what does that say about the actual impact of additional schools, hospitals or professional staff for the wellbeing of the community affected? What satisfaction does the community feel? These are the people that matter. But economists simply assume that if more people have access to social services, the community will be better off. But what about the quality of those services? Raw statistics do not necessarily mean improvement in the quality of life. Africans wonder whether donors really care about their fate, or whether they just dispense aid to avoid criticism.

The credibility of governments is challenged, to put it mildly, both in donor countries and in developing countries is. The governments of poor countries are regularly blamed for “bad governance”, while the reputation of those of rich nations suffers from unfair trade policies, unkept aid pledges and the history of colonialism, among other things. Who, in this setting, is in a position to convincingly assess results?

Despite their colonial past and destructive current policies – on agricultural subsidies, for instance – donor countries think they have the moral authority to judge others. Terms like “bad governance” and “corruption” always refer to developing countries. Donor countries assess their assistance from preconceived criteria of their own. Accordingly, they tend to define the “results” as well. In most cases, the recipient countries have no say in assessing results.

But donors emphasise policy ownership of the developing countries.

In theory yes, but hardly in practical terms. Donors’ attitudes have not changed much in spite of the miserable failure of structural-adjustment programmes. In my opinion, civil-society organisations and UN agencies should assess ODA results. They can do so most objectively, and then give recommendations to both donor agencies and recipient countries.

But civil-society organisations have no democratic legitimacy.

They may not have electoral legitimacy, but they certainly enjoy legitimacy in terms of advocacy and competence. That is why they have become key players in the the development debate. They were the first to raise critical questions concering the quantity and quality of ODA. It is telling that civil-society organisations demand that donors and recipient countries both be held accountable for the failure or success of ODA, and not just recipient countries. Furthermore, they play a key role by publishing their own assessments. Just consider reports from Oxfam International, Action Aid, Social Watch, the Reality of Aid network and others. For instance, Oxfam International has indicated that commitments made in 2005 by G8 leaders to “double aid” to Africa by 2010 will not be achieved, despite the huge media propaganda that accompanied the statement at the time.

What role can and should scholarship and academic research play?

Research findings on the impact of ODA on developing countries can be very useful. Independent scholars provide a deeper and more critical assessment of policies and their effects, boosting the understanding recipient governments. Moreover, research can help to escape aid dependence by highlighting alternative approaches. Scholarship has played an important role in raising awareness of the flaws of still dominant, neoliberal paradigm. They helped to discredit the structural-adjustment approach and put the international financial institutions on the defensive.

Donor agencies have a long history of evaluating projects and programmes. What do you think of their efforts?

As I said earlier, institutions of the dominant paradigm like to use quantitative data to illustrate the impact of their policies. In principle, there is nothing wrong with using statistics. However, the compilation of data always involves a certain level of manipulation, and all too often that is done in line with the ideological bias of the donor agency. The IMF and the World Bank, moreover, have used bogus figures in support of claims that trade and financial liberalisation lead to greater economic growth. As it turns out, the ideology was wrong and has dearly cost African countries. In any case, the current financial and economic crisis is a devastating blow to the IMF, the World Bank and their policies.