Misbehaving donor agencies

Dinosaurs at work

International aid did not manage to abolish poverty from the world in the past decades. Therefore the governments of donor and recipient countries agreed on an agenda to boost effectiveness. The best declarations of intent of the high-level forums in Rome (2003), Paris (2005) and Accra (2008), however, are useless if donors and multilateral bodies do not respect their principles. Our authors give food for thought by recounting some negative experiences in Cambodia.

[ By Hildegard Lingnau and Tuon Thavrak ]

In a series of high-level forums, the governments of donor countries and developing countries agreed on five principles to increase aid effectiveness. The principles are (1) ownership by the developing countries, (2) harmonisation among donors, (3) alignment of the aid to institutions and procedures of the developing countries, (4) mutual responsibility of all involved and (5) management for results.

Six years after the Rome summit, four years after Paris and one year after Accra, there has been little real change, except for some limited progress (expressed, for instance, in the EU Code of Conduct). Ahead of the Accra summit, a report by the UN Secretary General accurately assessed the situation: “The Paris process has not demonstrated genuine ability to change donor behaviour or to link the aid-effectiveness agenda with sustainable development results.” The players in the aid business came to the same conclusion in Accra: “We are making progress, but not enough” (Accra Agenda for Action). Little has changed since.

Why is that so? It cannot only be that it takes time to implement the principles elaborated in the aid-effectiveness debate. The day-to-day practice of aid conveys the impression that attempts are being made to delay, water down or simply avoid the rules that resulted from the meetings in Rome, Paris and Accra. Experiences made in the area of Planning and Poverty Reduction in Cambodia offer striking examples.

Evaluation results

An independent evaluation of development cooperation’s effectiveness in Cambodia came to the conclusion that there were “dinosaurs at work”. The experts warned that these creatures were threatened with extinction unless they adapted to the new environment (Independent Review Team, IRT 2008). The team, which was composed of experts from industrialised as well as developing countries, used the term “dinosaur” for aid agencies.

Another study carried out by Cambodians on behalf of the Wolfensohn Centre for Development confirmed such findings (Ek and Sock, 2008). What follows in this essay is an illustration of the conclusions of both studies using examples from the area of Planning and Poverty Reduction.

Let us first provide the context. From 2006 to 2009, the Cambodian government took ownership of the developmentprocess and drafted the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP), involving all ministries, the parliament and the senate, the king, as well as civil society and donors. The NSDP serves three purposes: it is the nation’s development plan,its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) and its roadmap for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) all in one.

On top of the NSDP, Cambodia’s government conducted several complementary activities – in large part in response to donor wishes. Among other things, the government
– came up with Annual Progress Reports and an NSDP Mid-Term Review;
– developed a strategic plan for the Ministry of Planning (MoP) which is in charge of the NSDP process, including the establishment of yearly operational plans;
– organised a joint learning event (JLE) on the topics of sector-wide approaches (SWAp), programme-based approaches (PBA) and partnership principles; and
– organised another joint learning event on monitoring that led to the development of new monitoring indicators.
Furthermore, reforms were started to better align budget planning, policy implementation, official development aid and other relevant processes.

One would think that these activities fulfilled the requirements set by the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action. On the basis of this preliminary work, a partnership approach should not pose problems. Depressingly, that was not so, as our examples show. Because we want to pinpoint the problem rather than blame specific actors, we do not name names here, but rather provide an annonymised account:
– Donors and mulitlateral bodies continue to produce studies and reports without involving the Cambodian government. As a result, several development and poverty reports are issued (in particular by multilateral banks and UN organisations) every year. The documents correspond to the needs of the particular agency, but not to those defined by the Cambodian government. The government agencies that are concerned with these matters usually get a copy of the final draft just before publication, so that they can add a preface and prepare a speech for the launching event. Development agenices then speak of “nominal ownership”.
– In 2007/2008, a UN organisation commissioned the establishment of a new monitoring framework with new indicators without even informing the responsible officers in the Ministry of Planning – let alone involving them. That work was being done in parallel only became apparent when the MoP tackled the topic itself and invited the UN organisation to a workshop accordingly, only to be confronted with a finished product.
– A trust fund typically benefits the implementing agency, much less the government. For instance, a development bank that had been entrusted with a fund by a bilateral donor delayed disbursement to the government even after its own money had started flowing. An internal report listed several reasons for such behaviour. First it alleged that “the ministry did not react well” to donor ideas. Moreover, “disagreements between the Ministry of Planning and its partners” on the national monitoring system were said to have “further undermined the dialogue”. Next, the argument was that it had been impossible to foresee what consequences upcoming elections would have for the parameters of support. But after the government was re-elected and basically stuck to its agenda, the report said the bank’s poverty team was busy with other matters. Regarding the future, the report pointed out the goals of increasing “potential returns to bank support” and acting in favour of “discrete aspects of reform where these improvements are of direct importance for the bank’s country programme.” Cambodian interests did not figure.
– Since 2007, two multilateral development agencies have been blocking the development of SWAps/PBAs, in spite of recommendations made by independent experts working on behalf of the multi-donor programme train4dev, which is assigned to support the implementation of the aid-effectiveness agenda. Among other things, an “institutional capacity assessment” of the MoP was demanded as a precondition for a SWAp/PBA. This assessment would have had to include “a full inventory of all resources and equipment currently owned by [the] MoP, outlining numbers of staff and their positions, equipment (including computers), furniture, vehicles”. When it became clear that the assessment, conducted by an independent appraiser, would criticise the performance of donors and development agencies rather than of the ministry, the agency that funded the effort abruptly cancelled it without any justification.
– Some development agencies also show little respect for partnership in terms of public relations. When the new international definition of poverty ($ 1.25 per person and day instead of previously one dollar) was introduced in 2008, representatives of development banks in Cambodia went public without discussing matters with any government agency. They explained to astounded journalists that from now on 42 % of Cambodians according to one bank – or 37 % according to the other one – were living in extreme poverty instead of the 31 % mentioned in government documents so far. The MoP – the government body in charge of the matter and overseeing the department of statistics – was surprised, so a civil servant asked sarcastically whether he should “read the newspaper to learn what external development partners are doing in poverty assessment efforts in Cambodia”. Another one complained that many agencies understood partnership only as a one-way street.

We could easily have made a longer list. There is ample evidence of development agencies impeding the implementation of the Paris Declaration and of the Accra Agenda. And such behaviour is not confined to isolated instances as was confirmed by the aforementioned evaluations conducted in 2008 (also note box).

The way forward

An up-to-date approach to aid would have to respect the principles spelled out in the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda. That will not occur on its own. To the contrary, governments on both sides must actively strive for it to happen. All actors still have to make progress.

Development agenciers have various reasons (including business interests) not to adhere to the aid-effectiveness agenda. On the other hand, governments in developing countries – bearing in mind their often bitter experiences – do not see why they should lay their policies open and discuss every detail with donors. Given the imbalance of power in favour of donors and multilateral bodies, governments of developing countries are tempted to shy away from initiative and responsibility.

Blame games, however, do not help going forward. To end them, donors and their agencies must make clear, to themselves and to others, whether or not they accept their partners’ ownership. They should then either commit fully to real partnership or terminate the relationship. If cooperation only ever works in one direction, to the benefit of the donor agencies, it is no real partnership but rather old-time patronising. In our fast-changing multipolar world with assertive emerging powers (in Asia in particular), anyone who wants to be heard in the long run, prevent the exclusion of the losers of modernisation and contain potentially destructive forces will have to act in a different manner.

To use David Ellermann’s terms (2006: 248), it is time now to transition from social engineering by “would-be helpers” to an approach that really respects the ownership of the “doers of development”. As part of a genuine partnership, conventional unilateral conditionality should be replaced by agreements on joint monitoring indicators and the introduction of mechanisms that ensure mutual accountability, as is required by the Accra Agenda.

It is clear what needs to be done. The Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda have already spelled it out. What we need is demand-driven instead of supply-driven aid, coordinated action by the donors, SWAps/PBAs and so forth. Governments in developing countries must have more than just a say in development matters – they must take the lead. The Accra Agenda states plainly: “DC governments will lead in determining the optimal role for donors in supporting their development efforts at (all) levels.”

In order to finally see real progress, a period of compliance should be agreed upon, during which all necessary changes need to happen. Afterwards, all players should be held strictly accountable.

Both authors are expressing their personal opinions in this article. They do not presume to a make a comprehensive or final judgement on the implementation of the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action in Cambodia or elsewhere, but rather intend to provide food for thought.

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