Policy ownership

“We must learn to say no”

Aid money will not be made effective use of unless donor governments accept the policy Ownership of developing countries. All parties concerned still have a long way to go to fulfil the promises of the Paris Declaration, says Guatemala’s Karin Slowing Umaña.

Interview with Karin Slowing Umaña

The final document of the Busan High Level Forum stresses “Focus on Results” as a principle. The idea is to gear action towards results. What should the results of development aid be?
We must define operationally, at the global and the national level, what specific results we agree on attaining. Everybody wants aid to have the maximum impact of course. But there is quite a bit of divergence about what kind of impact various parties are trying to achieve. Some governments – both on the donor and the recipient side – are after quantifiable results like the MDGs, the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals; others emphasise good governance.

Aren’t the MDGs the overarching goals?
That is what people say, but if that was so, donors should not be retreating from Latin America and certainly not from Central America, a region that is still far from achieving the MDGs. It will take a lot of capital to overcome the great social disparities that are the main obstacle to achieving the MDGs in our region. As Guatemala is a middle-income country, donors tend to argue we should rise to these challenges ourselves. Germany for example, has strongly argued in favour of tax reform in Guatemala which, of course, is an important goal in itself.

One big advantage of the MDGs is that they are quantifiable. How much does it matter that results can be measured?
Objective data are of fundamental relevance. We cannot rely only on our feelings. Lots of people and organisations are involved in every single project, and their perceptions can differ quite a bit. We must not forget the citizens whose taxes serve to fund aid; they are entitled to know what is done with their money. That said, I do not understand why donors keep returning to the issue of assessment criteria. In 2005, the High Level Forum in Paris defined 12 indicators of efficient resource use. We should stop re-inventing the wheel again and again. We should rely on these indicators and use them to check the results of cooperation.

Are you referring to the OECD “surveys” for assessing results of international co­operation?
Exactly, I think they are of utmost relevance. In Guatemala, we did all the evaluations the OECD demanded. Accordingly, we now have strong data regarding donors’ impact on our country, and we have a much clearer idea about the challenges we and donors face for making aid more effective. The OECD should insist on survey implementation all over the world, so we would have a systematic kind of global monitoring. The OECD should equally insist on donors and recip­ients aligning their action to these surveys.

What did the OECD evaluations show in Guatemala?
They highlighted some commendable examples. For instance, Spain is supporting precisely the sectors we agreed on and is investing substantially in government institutions. Of outmost importance are their contributions to the sectors of education, water and sanitation, which were channelled through the specific line ministries in Guatemala. This approach is expensive, and progress tends to be slow, but our Spanish partners understand just how much these institutions matter. Sadly, however, only few donors have aligned their action to our domestic policy that way, using our national systems. We still have a long way to go to make the Paris Declaration come true. No doubt, Guatemala’s state institutions must also improve in order to use aid more efficiently.

What, according to you, should donor governments do to improve cooperation?
They must keep their word. Most donors still have not met the commitments they made in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. They are not doing enough to coordinate their policies, they are not doing enough to align to the policies and procedures of recipient countries, and they are not doing enough to help us strengthen our weak institutions. Developing countries and donors should work in common strategies that help both sides to overcome the challenges still to be faced to meet Paris indicators.This is another issue that did not get enough attention in Busan. If we keep operating like this, High Level Forums keep resulting in a lot of words, but not much tangible progress.

What could recipient countries do to make aid more effective?
We too must be honest and assume responsibility. We must not sign what we cannot live up to. More­over, we must strengthen our institutions and improve our capacities to negotiate more effectively with them, so that we can be in a better position to guide collective action with donors. In Guatemala, we have started an institutional reform of our system to deal with international cooperation. We trained our staff not only to implement projects, but to analyse them too. As recently as 10 January we published the “Primer informe nacional de la coope-ración”, our first national report on cooperation. Tax policy, moreover, is very important. Generating government revenue is a crucial component of becoming more independent. The rich world is right when it says that we cannot expect the international community to fund all of our development.

Which political agency could put enough pressure on donor governments to improve matters?
I think this is a challenge the G8, the group of eight leading economies, must rise to. On our own, we developing countries are not powerful enough to make donor nations change course. It will take a superior international force like the G8 to make sure that donors check one another’s action. Civil society matters too. Civil society organisations – both in rich and in poor nations – must demand more accountability concerning what is done with aid money.

In your comment on the High Level Forum in Busan (D+C/E+Z 2012/1, p. 43), you wrote that developing countries have gained more clout in negotiations.
Yes, they have. Guatemala, for instance, has assumed a leading role in Central America in recent years. We are now cooperating with our neighbours on a regional approach towards international cooperation. An initial step was our joint paper “Camino a Busan”, which means “On the road to Busan”. Speaking with one voice makes us stronger.

What can other developing countries do to become stronger in negotiations?
First of all, we should strive to become less dependent on foreign aid. That goal should guide us every day. The more we depend on aid, the less we are free to take decisions. Fiscal autonomy is of strategic relevance. Moreover, as developing countries, we must learn to say no whenever donors want to impose their rules or pursue selfserving policies. Donor governments are not supporting us for reasons of philanthropy. Their aid policy is always part of their foreign policy, and that is perfectly legitimate – but too few people in developing countries are fully aware of this. We must understand that aid is never for free. We must keep our eyes open and become better at negotiating.

Eva-Maria Verfürth conducted the interview.

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