October 29, 2011, by Simon McGrath

Aid effectiveness: moving from telling to listening

International relations

At the end of November and start of  December, the “Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness” is meeting in Busan.  What lies behind this rather opaque title?

For much of the history of aid, there have been criticisms that it doesn’t work.  From the right, these have characterised aid as bureaucratic and market distorting; from the left, it has been seen as neocolonial.  Just about every critic agrees that aid undermines national sovereignty and suppresses internal drives towards development.

So, in 2003, the OECD convened the Rome High Level Forum (HLF) on harmonisation in order to bring donors together to try to establish a set of best practices for aid.  Since then subsequent HLFs in Paris (establishing targets to measure aid effectiveness) and Accra (placing greater emphasis on Southern ownership) have developed the notion.  Busan is expected to further the notion of Southern ownership but also acknowledge further the rise of new bilateral donors (such as China, Turkey and Brazil) and the emergence of new philanthropic trusts (such as Gates and Hewlett).

As with all major international fora, there is a major attempt before Busan at trying to influence the discussions.  One example can be found at the Broker Online website. In my contribution to that debate, I suggested that the very process of trying to establish international best practices for aid effectiveness was at the heart of the problem. What follows is an edited version of that story for a somewhat different audience.

National ownership is incompatible with “international best practices”.  In the field of development, such practices are supposedly “evidence-based” but are often based more in belief systems, in which a significant part of the international development community are sure of what constitutes effective development.  Aid effectiveness, itself, is a prime example. Led by the OECD, a group of international development agencies have defined best practices and others have been invited to believe in this.  Yet, a recent OECD evaluation of progress towards the Paris targets found that only 1 out of 13 had been met. This suggests that best practice is actually hard to find in practice.

In my own area of research on skills development, there are striking examples of international best practices that are nothing of the kind.   National Qualifications Frameworks are now being introduced in more than 130 countries, even though recent research by the ILO could find no clear evidence of their positive impact some two decades after their initial emergence.  This and many more of the elements of the “skills development tool kit”, such as competency-based approaches, provider institution autonomy, new funding regimes, etc., originate from Britain, yet both policymakers and academics alike bemoan Britain’s poor performance in developing skills.

What complicates this story from an aid effectiveness perspective is that much of the impetus for the spread of these “international best practices” does not come through the official aid route. In the British case, DfID has little interest in these matters as the issue of skills is not seen as central to their narrow understanding of development as simply equating to the Millennium Development Goals.  Rather, there are a range of other public and private bodies that are involved in exporting the British model through policy advice, qualifications vending and consultancy services.  This means that the narrow understanding of both development and international cooperation at the heart of the aid effectiveness agenda misses the wider picture by ignoring key actors.

Is there an alternative?  Yes, but it is not simple.  At its heart is the notion of capacity development, as suggested by the UNDP.  This sees the need for a genuine country ownership that is broad and deep.  Such an ownership cannot be built by the simple technical injection of improved skills.  Rather, it needs to be constructed iteratively by an active learning process that seeks to learn how to make good national policies by engaging national stakeholders in making policies and reflecting on them.  This approach of policy learning is preferable to the policy borrowing that too often occurs even when national ownership is talked about.  However, it is constantly threatened by the tendency for quick fixes; through the power imbalances that make international seem better than national; and because of the mythical status that international best practices can take on.  If Busan can break away from the fetishising of international best practice, it will be on the way to making a real contribution.

Simon McGrath (Professor of International Education and Development – School of Education)

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