Although I think aid gets a bad wrap from it’s critics, I’m hardly an unabashed aid optimist either. Development is a complicated business and – although it might seem surprising given the respective differences in economic might – there are real limitations to what external actors can achieve by means of positive change in developing countries.
It’s hubris for donors to imagine that they can play a major role in the complex transformation of an aid recipient’s economy and society that is development. And yet quite a few donors still do exactly this.
Personally, I think that the best we can really hope for from aid is the following:
- Well targeted interventions that mitigate the worst impacts of under development (provide health care and education).
- Possibly a small long run impact on economic growth (which isn’t to be sneezed at – differences in growth compound in the long run and even relatively small changes in growth rates can lead to large absolute welfare gains over time).
- Maybe some small incremental improvements in governance. Through arm-twisting (formally called conditionality), contributing to civil society, and through enabling offices auditors general and the like.
- Perhaps, very occasionally, when the planets align, the chance to be the catalyst for more significant change.
For these reasons I’ve never been a fan of the Paris Declaration; it strike’s me as grandiose and (apparently) written with a complete absence of awareness of the problematic nature of two of it’s principles: ‘Ownership’ and ‘Alignment’. Yet country ownership and alignment with the priorities of developing country states are hugely fraught issues: often developing country states are dysfunctional and barely representative of the aspirations of the people they govern. Should they (could they) really have ‘ownership’ of development? Should we (could we) really seek to align aid priorities with their political objectives? On top of that, the tricky business of achieving results is turned in the declaration into something easily solved by managerialism – ‘managing for results’.
The Paris Declaration will fail.
But perhaps that’s not so bad because, for all it’s faults, it is still an improvement on what came before. Importantly, buried within it’s formulations is the establishment of an international norm: that aid ought to be given with the genuine intent to improve development outcomes in developing countries. And, so long as this survives, something important has been achieved. Nations won’t always adhere to the norm. But at least there’s something there for them to be judged against when they fail. Some form of countervailing pressure against too much self-interested giving.
Moreover, once Paris has failed hopefully people will think more carefully about success in aid. And about placing some more pragmatic structures on top of the Declaration’s ethos.
That really would be an achievement – and I think it’s already happening.
The most important implication for donors is to make the country context their starting point, not the promotion of a particular donor-led agenda.
In the complicated world of aid that’s progress.