Aid effectiveness forum at Busan: what would success be for countries in conflict?

The Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness convenes in Busan, South Korea, on 29 November. Two thousand representatives of governments, the UN, other multilateral organisations and NGOs will meet to discuss and come up with a statement on how development aid can be delivered more effectively. So what would a successful High Level Forum look like for countries affected by armed conflict, which face the toughest development challenges?

(This post is co-authored with Phil Vernon, with input and comment from several colleagues at International Alert.)

The Fourth Forum

To the initiated it’s HLF4. The previous three were in Rome (2003), Paris (2005) and Accra (2008). The central output is the final statement – the Outcomes Document. For Busan HLF4 the wording is largely agreed and builds on the output from the previous three.

In one way it’s all a well-oiled piece of machinery. Yet economic and social development and international development assistance are anything but well-oiled. There’s a disconnect between what leads up to and out of Busan and the reality both of development and of development assistance.

A successful Busan HLF4 is one that finds some way to bridge that gap and address the realities.

New thinking on development and conflict

More than 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by violent conflict. None of those countries has yet achieved a single Millennium Development Goal (MDGs).

For all that the MDGs are, as I have argued in previous posts, flawed, generic and blunt instruments for measuring and guiding progress, they are what the international development assistance community has committed itself to – both to be guided by and to be assessed against.

And by that standard, for conflict-affected countries, it’s not working.

There has been a lot of reflection on this over the past few years:

  • The World Bank’s World Development Report 2011 outlined a new approach to development assistance in conflict settings. It emphasises jobs, inclusive public institutions and the confidence of ordinary citizens in their state and their future.
  • There has been renewed focus on the need for concrete results from aid, to help citizens in recipient countries hold their governments to account. This chimes well with the growing emphasis on transparency among aid donors, recipients and intermediaries.
  • There is an increased recognition that development is not just about the economy, health and education but also about how people are governed, their access to justice and whether they are safe from danger. And some development assistance is being used  on the lines of these insights.
  • Emerging economies like China, Brazil and India are providing increasing amounts of aid, bringing different approaches that are not part of the old aid orthodoxy.

Understanding complexity

Programming aid effectively is difficult, especially in conflict countries. It is not just a question of being more efficient, getting more coherence between donors without wasting time in endless committee meetings, and emphasising projects that produce quick and visible impact.

The very purpose of aid has changed in recent years to embrace the previously unfamiliar language of peacebuilding and statebuilding. It has thus become far more ambitious – and rightly so. Any number of successful development aid projects do not necessarily equate to promoting development, unless peace and the institutions of the state are being built at the same time.

Twenty years ago an aid programme might have built schools and trained teachers. Ten years ago it might have strengthened a government’s capacity to plan, provide and oversee education, including a grant for school building, operating costs and teacher training, while looking to a parallel programme to increase tax revenues to cover recurrent costs. Now some donors want to foster better relations between the state and the people, increasing responsiveness, responsibility and citizenship. This requires change in some of the institutions at the heart of governance and society.

New challenges – and persistent ones

Progress has been made, then – especially in the analysis – but many problems remain, especially in the practice:

  • It’s widely agreed that building responsive and responsible citizen-state relations is key to peace and prosperity but not much is known about how to do it, especially at the speed and on the scale that meets people’s expectations. How to get the balance right between progress and stability?
  • The lack of decent work for young people is widely acknowledged as a failure of development and a major threat to stability. The orthodoxy says the private sector should create jobs – but that won’t happen at the scale and speed, or with the dependability and stability, that are required in the aftermath of violent conflict or repression. Should we ignore the orthodoxy and go for externally funded 30-year public works programmes?
  • Climate change brings new challenges – pressure on resources like land and water, the collision between growth and green priorities, the task of adaptation – together with huge new spending budgets. These are largely managed separately from other aid, raising the risk of increasing incoherence among donors and recipients.
  • In conflict countries and fragile contexts, the practice of aid organisations has not kept pace with new understanding of the purposes of aid. Without urgent change, they risk being unfit for purpose.
  • We have not yet got the right metrics for assessing progress towards stability. It cannot be done with the same metrics that suffice for health or education and it is increasingly tiresome that aid agencies seem to be pulled towards inappropriate indicators by the results agenda. Rigorous qualitative indicators and a time-frame appropriate to the task are key components.
  • The behaviour of governments continues to hinder development. The foreign policy of some donors undermines their own aid goals while some recipients use aid primarily to hang onto power.

A new road after Busan

As so far drafted, the Busan Outcomes Document reflects a lot of new thinking on aid – statebuilding and peacebuilding, human security, transparency and results. But it fails to reflect the scale and complexity of the challenge of supporting development in conflict-affected countries in a changing world.

There is a fairly widely shared view that this is the time to end the High Level Forum process. Let Busan be seen as fourth and last. The world is changing and however the actors in international development want to come together in the future to discuss common issues and concerns, this format belongs to the world before the 2008 crash, before the collapse in confidence within the EU, before the recognition of how important the new big players are.

Changing format will – as any organiser of major events and processes will tell you – have a big impact on how participants will view their gathering. Changing format will permit them to break painlessly from old orthodoxies and assumptions that have served their purpose. It will let them get to grips more decisively and clearly with the challenges identified in the World Development Report 2011 among others.

Success at Busan

All that said, how will we know if the Busan High Level Forum is a success, justifying the presence of 2,000 busy people? Five critical factors in the speeches and statements at Busan will offer evidence of success:

  1. Recognising change and uncertainty: The way development and aid need to be framed in policy discussions has fundamentally changed over the decade since the MDGs were agreed. They looked progressive then, unimaginative now. We need new tools and methods to achieve and to measure success. Good work has been done – more needed. Participants at a successful HLF4 will define this challenge and set out a process for meeting it.
  2. Getting a balanced combination of agreement and disagreement: Beneath the technical language of aid, development is political and contentious. It speaks to different theories of progress and change. International forums about aid in the past have glossed over this, focussing instead on agreements about process issues. Not unimportant, but when consensus is achieved that way, it is a shallow and artificial agreement that often leaves aid practitioners trapped by official niceties into policies they know are flawed, targets they know are unreal and actions they know are ineffective. Alongside that, the emphasis on the technical masks the big power political, strategic and economic rivalries that are also part of the context. Participants at a successful HLF4 will recognise that their different interests and perspectives lead to quite different views about how development happens and how to aid it. This will allow the issue to be debated more openly as the international community starts to prepare for the world beyond the MDGs after 2015.
  3. Improving the effectiveness of collaboration: Regardless of the difficulties of getting agreement beyond the technical and surface level, international agencies, governments and civil society do need to work together. But  – and this especially applies in conflict-affected countries and regions – they need to work together where and when they have a deeper level of agreement that covers more of the core problems. Thus, in line with getting recognition (and therefore respect) for differences of view and approach, participants at a successful HLF4 will agree to promote and mandate a more selective but deeper collaboration among the different actors.
  4. Development – not aid: Aid is important and the way it is planned and used matters. But the time for meetings about aid effectiveness is over. Future meetings and processes should be about development strategies. They should debate what constitutes development and identify the policies and behaviours of citizens, governments, businesses, NGOs and IGOs that are most likely to promote progress, and figure out how to encourage them. Participants at a successful HLF4 will agree that future international forums should be defined in terms of promoting effective development progress, not just best practice in aid.
  5. Operationalisation: Getting global agreement on critical issues is hard and results in a convergence on least demanding positions and commitments. So it is worth recognising that some of the most important progress over the next few years will not be at the global level. Rather, it will be found at the level of specific countries, organisations, working relationships and programmes of activity. This implies a need to encourage individual countries and organisations to push ahead with operationalising some of the new development thinking associated with the World Development Report 2011 and the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. Participants at a successful HLF4 will agree to prioritise the operationalisation of these new approaches to promoting development in conflict-affected countries.

2 thoughts on “Aid effectiveness forum at Busan: what would success be for countries in conflict?

  1. A few comments on an interesting post:
    – Sri Lanka is probably the exception to the rule, where despite over two decades of armed conflict the country is on track to achieve many of the MDGs – probably says more about the superficiality of the MDGs than it does about Sri Lanka’s achievements, but one factor that is probably an important one is the universal social policies of pre-war, post-independence government that created a strong base for achieving social progress, and also strong expectations of the state.
    – Some of the ‘persistent challenges’ identified are not specific to conflict-affected countries – e.g. jobs, climate change. We need to rethink, reimagine development and the role of development assistance in it.
    – agree that building responsive and responsible citizen-state relations is key to peace and security. However, as the Sri Lankan experience shows, stability in a post-war situation, can exacerbate the contradictions of capitalist development, reduce the legitimacy of the state power and itself create inequalities and social injustices.

  2. Pingback: Busan: Hopes for more aid effectiveness after High Level Forum | Hala's Blog

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