Waylaid Dialectic

April 3, 2011

Let context rule…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 6:45 pm
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Great post at Global Dashboard by Clair Melamed.

Our understanding of what creates ‘development’ – or what enables people to live happier lives – seems to be becoming more complex as we understand more about what makes change happen.  But maybe the world of ‘aid’ needs to move in the opposite direction and be a bit more modest, or at least transparent, about what bits of this development can actually be helped along by what kinds of outside intervention.

Can a donor really promote ‘empowerment’ or ‘good governance’ in any meaningful sense?  Are even things like ‘economic growth’ beyond the scope of international aid?  Maybe it’s better for outsiders just to concentrate on things that aid does well, like health and education and leave the really hard stuff to the experts – people who are living the reality of these things in the country concerned.

This makes me wonder if it might be more honest and more useful, to separate out outside involvement in different aspects of change.  So maybe official development aid  should be a much simpler beast, less worried about economic growth or political change in the long term and instead focusing in on a few things that we know will make a difference to people’s lives right now – health, education, social protection, infrastructure.

She’s isn’t 100% certain about all this, but I think her thinking is more or less on track. Although I do think a little more nuance is required. Specifically, I think what aid can or can’t achieve depends a lot on context. Certain things will work in some countries, other things will work in others. In country X you might be able to promote better governance, in country Y it might be completely beyond the abilities of outside agents.

So choose what you do based on context. Also, choose how you do it based on context to. Where the state functions well-enough, if you’re funding health, disburse your funds through the systems of the state. Where the state is dysfunctional find another way.

Just is because something is desirable don’t assume that aid can deliver it. Just because a particular aid modality works well in Sweden don’t assume it will work in the developing world.

Let context rule.

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