At the end of November, 2,000 representatives of governments, international agencies and NGOs met in Busan as the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness. But how effective was Busan for conflict-affected countries?(This post draws heavily on an article co-authored with Phil Vernon that appears on the International Alert home page)
5 criteria for Busan
Just before the meeting, working with colleagues at International Alert, I proposed five criteria by which to judge the success or otherwise of the outcome. Here they are in summary form:
- Change and uncertainty: A successful HLF4 would be one that recognised that much has changed in this field since the start of the century, causing a great deal of uncertainty – and would set out a way to meet that challenge.
- Fake consensus: A successful HLF4 would resist the temptation of shallow consensus and acknowledge that there are different interests, perspectives and approaches – it would, in short, agree to disagree in a grown-up way.
- More effective collaboration: A successful HLF4 would promote deeper – which necessarily means more selective – collaboration between different actors.
- Development, not development aid: Success at HLF4 would be reflected by focusing on development and not sliding unthinkingly from the extraordinarily difficult questions of what development means and how countries develop, into the usual concentration on technically better aid instruments.
- Operationalisation: Finally, a successful HLF4 would encourage countries and organisations either individually or in small coalitions to pursue innovative activities.
So how well did they do at Busan? Does the Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation that was launched with the HLF’s final statement offer real benefits and gains for conflict-affected countries? I wasn’t at Busan nor was anybody from International Alert (and by the end of this article you’ll know whether I regret that), so the scores that follow are based only on the final statement. And note that I am only looking at its relevance for conflict-affected countries.
Change & uncertainty
Change, yes – it frames the opening discussion in the final statement. And by all accounts, the role of China at the meeting made one aspect of change vividly present. The document does reflect on the increase in co-operation between developing countries and the emergence of new aid providers. But that’s not developed as the statement proceeds. Taken as a whole, the flavour is just more of the same.
Uncertainty is barely acknowledged. To be realistic, it’s not really permitted in official communiques of this kind. But that means that a lack of humility is still hardwired into international aid discourse and into its architecture.
And as for conflict-affected countries, in which 1.5 billion people live – they get a mention on page 1 and a paragraph to themselves later on. Not good, not enough and certainly not good enough.
In paragraph 8 of the final statement, we read, “Our partnership is founded on a common set of principles that underpin all forms of development co-operation.” And that’s it, right there – that’s the fake consensus.
These shared principles are not bad but nor are they profound or inspirational:
- Ownership of development priorities by developing countries
- Focus on results
- Inclusive development partnerships
- Transparency and accountability to each other
The focus on results is new at this level but otherwise this is familiar terrain in which re-statement is easier than investigating why implementation is more complex than was initially anticipated. Rehearsing these unobjectionable and largely technical points masks a wide range of different interpretations about what they mean, which themselves reflect different strategies, goals and underlying principles.
Because there is a great deal of diversity of interest and opinion, it is surely better to agree to disagree – but to nobody’s surprise, the Busan forum reverted to type for such meetings and promoted agreement on technical rather than strategic goals. The final statement lists numerous examples of how actors can cooperate with each other but is silent about what they can and should aim to achieve.
In the same vein, a sign of success would be that recognition of the need for more effective co-operation (and not just quantitatively more moments of co-operation) would feed through into encouragement for a more selective approach. There could be diversity within this approach, with any government deciding to work most closely with these organisations and states on one issue and those organisations and states on another.
The one place where a push for honest collaboration comes through is in relation to the New Deal developed by the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding. This is a valuable statement – drafted well before the Busan meeting – that is specifically directed at the development and peacebuilding needs of fragile and conflict-affected states, made by a group of governments of such countries plus donor government and international agencies. The Busan final statement welcomes the New Deal and continues, “Those of us who have endorsed the New Deal will pursue actions to implement it” – thus distinguishing between those who give the New Deal a passive welcome and those who want to make it work.
Had it not been for this willingness to forego trying for unanimity in action – which usually produces unanimous inaction – the New Deal would have been seen as an initiative that failed at Busan. Instead it comes out of Busan as a going concern with heightened international legitimacy.
Aid – or development
In the all too common elision between development and development aid, the latter tends to dominate discussion of the former. Yet in the end aid is merely a potentially important but relatively limited component of development – not the central element. So a successful HLF4 would have agreed that future forums should be about promoting effective development progress, not just best practice in aid. HLF4 did not go so far but does include this statement:
“Aid is only part of the solution to development. It is now time to broaden our focus from aid effectiveness to the challenges of effective development. This calls for a framework within which:
“a) Development is driven by strong, sustainable growth.
“b) Governments’ own revenues play a greater part in financing their own development needs. In turn, governments are more accountable to their citizens for the development results they achieve.
“c) Effective state and non-state institutions design and implement their own reforms and hold each other to account.
“d) Developing countries increasingly integrate, both regionally and globally, creating economies of scale that will help them better compete in the world economy.
“To this effect, we will rethink what aid should be spent on and how, in ways that are consistent with agreed international rights, norms and standards, so that aid catalyses development.”
As far as verbal commitment goes, this is real progress. But there are also a lot of silences and recycled general commitments in the document. Nothing much new is said about international trade or crime and nothing at all about policies that reinforce repressive governments in fragile countries.
It remains to be seen whether the words will be matched by action. But the statement provides a useful marker for future intentions, to which governments can be held to account in the future.
The high ambition of getting global agreement tends to lead to an unambitious convergence on the least demanding positions and commitments. By contrast, some of the most important progress over the next few years will not be based on global undertakings but on commitments made between a smaller number of actors. This will give them a chance to put into practice the new thinking associated with the World Development Report 2011 and the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding.
The role of a global gathering should not be to control, limit or even initiate such innovative work – but rather to highlight and encourage it.
There are some good points in the final statement on this – the endorsement of the New Deal, an acceptance of the need to be less risk-averse, encouragement for development agencies to delegate greater responsibility to their in-country staff, a general welcome for diverse approaches and actors. But overall the final statement falls pretty flat.
To repeat the reservations entered at the outset, the final statement contains more than I have covered here and doesn’t have much about conflict and fragility. Moreover, not being in Busan means I don’t know some the detail that lies behind the statement.
But taking the Fourth High Level Forum at its word as reflected in its final statement, and having set out my stall beforehand to say how I and colleagues would be assessing it, the average of the scores given above is 42%. That’s not a pass mark. If a student got that, the professor would surely add, not good enough – more effort needed.
But others who were there and saw more may judge it differently and have good grounds for doing so.