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Fundamental values

by Hans Dembowski

“Ownership” has been the development buzzword for years. It sounds like a clear principle, but really describes a dilemma. Donor governments know that for a developing country to progress, local decision-makers must map out a reasonable course for its future. However, responsibility for doing so is not automatically taken up. Otherwise, terms like sovereignty, democracy and self-determination would have sufficed.

When donors are not led by over-arching economic interests or security concerns, they let official development assistance (ODA) hinge on evidence of appropriate ownership. But as many poor countries depend on support, a paradox ensues: those whose responsibility is constantly emphasised cannot make independent decisions. If they want money to keep flowing in, they have to stay in the good books of donors – but not necessarily of their national legislative bodies.

This dilemma cannot be resolved easily. Psychologists’ advice in such bewildering double-blind situations is to address problems cautiously and consciously. An expression of doing so is the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, in which OECD members spelled out harmonisation rules three years ago. They know they must act in a coherent and coordinated manner to promote development in other countries.

That is also understood within the European Union. Its member states have, in principle, agreed on a common foreign and security policy. They are members of the OECD, and together they account for the lion’s share of global ODA. For all these reasons, the EU has a special role to play as pioneer of harmonisation. Whether a glass is half full or half empty is always a moot point. It would be cynical to deny the progress made so far, but it would be naive to be content with what has been achieved.

It is depressing that harmonisation is basically making headway where aid recipients are relatively successful. “Donor darlings” like Ghana or Tanzania, however, do not worry the international community much. Dealing with places like Afghanistan or Congo is a very different matter, and a much more difficult one. And this is where lack of coordination is particularly harmful – if not outright deadly –, and support for well-understood ownership is most urgent. Where war is raging, or could break out at any time, long-term development work is particularly difficult anyway. And the wrangling over who will send in how many troops tends to displace the genuine development debate.

At the turn of the year, the murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and the election scandal in Kenya shocked the world. Both dramas illustrate that peaceful, successful development is a matter of international security. However, both dramas also show that such development hinges upon rich nations’ actions as a whole, rather than merely on their ODA. In both Pakistan and Kenya, OECD members were willing for too long to cooperate with questionable governments on grounds of perceived political expedience. In both cases, the kind of responsible ownership that would have been required from strategically or economically less important countries was patently lacking.

Playing it safe, however, did not work. The crises Western politicians sought to prevent with faulty compromises are now escalating. Democracy and good governance may be difficult to achieve – but they are about fundamental values, and not mere slogans for development activists and do-gooders.