The Changing Development Agenda is Getting Uncomfortable

Getting a clear picture of how the Aid business works, or should work, is a difficult proposition.  One thing is certain: it’s in the process of change. In Africa, resources like oil and gas, sprouting democracies and a growing middle class have created a completely changed picture from the post Cold War home of famine and despair that characterized the first Millennium Development Goal discussions.  The second MDG round coming up in 2015 is naturally generating a lot of preparatory debate – undoubtedly a very healthy exercise. But as the pundits juggle the concepts, some of the guests of honor seem to be getting uncomfortable and wriggling in their seats.

The Washington based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recent report CombatingGlobal Poverty notes the changed environment and proposes a restructured approach. Instead of building government capacity to deliver health and education services, an approach that addressed the needs of the poor, governance should be the goal. And instead of “ending poverty” development goals should focus on creating wealth on the “teach a man to fish” formula.
Unfortunately, the new plan for a new time turns out to be distinctly uncomfortable to the principal western donors.
First off, development funding that comes out of developed country budgets needs political justification. A very logical argument that bringing “third world” countries into the global economy is good for everyone has been available but hasn’t received much air time. Charity is the preferred paradigm, with a quiet mix of political quid pro quo. So refocusing development in a way that will be effective and appropriate will make it harder to fund.
Concurrently, on the recipients’ side of the equation, most of the present funding is now channeled through Developing country governments. The new scenario will shift to more direct delivery of resources to projects on the ground bypassing government coffers. To whatever extent this will improve the effectiveness of projects, it won’t be popular with recipient governments.
It may well be that an Africa, inclined to the west and transformed by a balanced growth, could be a crucial component for medium and long term global stability; just as the Marshal plan in the last century. But altering the flow of aid away from Government won’t be popular in official circles in Africa. While on the other side of the scale in the west, development itself doesn’t have a high enough political mass to ensure the transition.
The second area of proposed change in the CSIS report is entitled Governance and here the conflicts and pitfalls hidden within the publicly extolled concept are even more daunting. My own experience strongly supports a development architecture that improved governments’ ability to deliver regulation, security and structural change. But Governance is a term similar to conjoined twins because it comes along almost undetachable from Democracy. And this connection is born of ideology, not practice.
For example, in recent years Rwanda has been the target of growing criticism over its democratic record. And perhaps in political terms this is quite worrying. On the other hand, in terms of its ability to implement policy the Rwandan government seems a runaway success. East Africa, where I live, and I am sure its neighbors in Central Africa are equally astounded at its progress against corruption that they can’t begin to imagine how to accomplish themselves. It seems clear though that what enables the Rwandans to be successful is not democracy and is, perhaps, the absence of it.
Similarly Richard Dowden’s (African Arguments) recent piece on Ethiopia’s apparent development acceleration ExtraordinaryEthiopia or Ethiopia hailedas 'African lion' (David Smith The Guardian) both make the point that efficient management, not ideology make the difference by quoting Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi “There is no connection between democracy and development”.
The development practitioners in the front line maybe edging towards a potential model that disassociates democracy from development or even implies democracy as a deterrent. Input from the people that know how things work is essential but the implication here of the effective way forward puts western donors into a very tight corner. The first thing the development playbook says about such a strategic crossroad is to seek a solution through openness and discussion. The “Participatory Method”. Put the issue onto the agenda; allow it to make its way through the grinder of workshops, strategy sessions, international “Events” and blogification. A position based on consensus will emerge.
But as we look toward the process of formulating the new MDGs this somewhat glaring anomaly seems unaddressed and cryptic rather than participatory. Democracy and effective implementation are hiding under the Governance umbrella and refusing to separate.
In this context, CSIS’s effort to refocus the debate seems instead to highlight Development’s greatest PR drawback: its insistence on championing of openness, when in fact it is itself congenitally opaque. Mr. Runde (CSIS Project Director) may be doing his best, constrained as he is by an institution in good standing within the beltway. But his document asking for a focus on the “Growth Governance Nexus” is surely an attempt to segue from the old doubletalk to the new.
That’s fine for him, in his environment maybe it’s as far as he can go. But for the rest of us a better use of his “Nexus” would be a stepping stone to getting the debate out of the closet and into the open. What is the development industry after? Development or compliance with a western status quo. If the Western democracies want to succeed in extending both development AND democracy they will use the MDG debate to decode their message and have confidence that the underlying advantages of their system will be apparent and attractive. The last thing they should do, if they want to succeed in this new geopolitical phase, is to pitch such obvious confabulations. The African reaction will not necessarily take them to task, but that is not because they do not understand. Any new development formula for the post 2015 period needs to take this understanding into account. Anything less implies an unworkable lack of not only transparency, but also respect.  

That the underlying duplicity of their position is becoming ever more evident must be obvious to the powers that be. No wonder they are squirming.


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