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Bittersweet aftertaste

by Karin Slowing Umaña

Opinion

Middle income countries are struggling with income disparities: Mexico city

Middle income countries are struggling with income disparities: Mexico city

Many developing countries worked hard to prepare for the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, but in the event, their causes did not get much attention. By Karin Slowing Umaña

The delegations from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic travelled to Busan with a shared agenda. We knew what we wanted. Our preparations had taken two years and required a lot of dialogue among our countries. In Busan, however, we were hardly listened to. Other delegations from disadvantaged world regions shared our fate.

We hoped for dialogue at eye level. We wanted a debate on what steps would serve to achieve the goals that were agreed at earlier High Level Forums in Paris in 2005 and Accra in 2008. It would have made sense, for instance, to discuss why many donor countries and agencies have not lived up to their commitments. A study prepared by the Organisation for Eco­nomic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has shown that this is so. This sad fact was mentioned in Busan, but left little mark on the new agreement, which does not augur well for the implementation of the new commitments.

My feeling is that, in Busan, participants settled for diplomatic summit jargon instead of striving for tangible results. I have four ideas about what really happened in Busan:
– Donors’ alliance with Africa was reaffirmed. That is fine, but does nothing for middle income countries that – in particular in Latin America – are struggling with huge income disparities. Average per-capita income does not reveal such discrepancies and must, therefore, not serve as the only criterion for giving aid.
– Latin America has to prepare for getting less official development assistance in the near future. To compensate, the established donors want to see more engagement by non-state actors. The snag is that many private sector companies – in Guatemala, for instance – often neither pay taxes diligently enough, nor behave as fair and law abiding employers. Accordingly, donor support for building institutions of governance would still be quite valuable.
– Donors have spelled out some new and, to some extent, disturbing ideas. Yes, it matters to be able to measure results. But the language some donor representatives used to make that point indicates a tendency to impose new conditionalities. In Paris and Accra, there had been consensus that aid must not be linked to the fulfilment of conditions. Similarly, the way some donors’ emphasised development results instead of development aid, sounded as if they intended to shirk their responsibilities.
– For the first time, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China und South Africa) were invited to consider themselves as donors. Doing so makes sense for the traditional ones, but it remains to be seen what difference it will really make to enhance the quality and quantity of development assistance.

Of course there were some healthy developments in Busan too. In line with what Latin American governments wanted, the final document stresses the relevance of south-south cooperation. Our sub-continent has a solid tradition of successful mutual assistance. It is most welcome that donors too consider such co­operation valuable and effective. However, south-south cooperation cannot replace development assistance as we know it.

The aftertaste of the 4th High Level Forum is bittersweet. There are more questions than answers. What will come after Busan? Has the productive cycle of reflection and action that began in Rome in 2003 and led to the very promising Paris Declaration in 2005 come to an end? When will donors live up to their prom­ises? We’ll have to work hard to get the right answers; they are unlikely to materialise all by themselves.

We expected that Busan would provide more orientation for the next steps, but that is not necessarily the feeling we left with. Therefore, Latin American delegations decided they will meet again to assess matters early in 2012. Meetings of this kind are an expression of the aid effectiveness agenda’s most important result so far: as recipient countries, we have grown stronger. We are drafting our own policies and we are forging our own alliances. That we nowadays insist on eye-level partnership with donors is, in itself, a truly high level result – but it is certainly not enough.