Donors, African govts should learn to say `no!`

By Prof.Paul Hoebink

International development cooperation these days has a totally different face than it had some fifteen or thirty years ago.

Thirty years ago most donors were engaged with tied aid, building white elephants in a climate overoptimistic on economic chances and potential.

Some of the relics in Tanzania can still be seen on Kilimanjaro Airport or in the outskirts of Tanga, on former sisal plantations, now turned into big livestock farms.

Fifteen years ago structural adjustment reached the deepest waters of economic and social decline, when donors seemed mainly committed to their own projects and programmes and when coordination among donors was mainly absent.

All this has changed and Tanzania has been in the forefront of some of these changes.

Gradually poverty reduction was given its central place from the mid-nineties onwards.

Several donors were not only willing to adhere again to that objective, but also gradually saw that their insulated projects only could bring small contributions to this objective.

`Ownership` became the buzz-word on the lips of all and – more important – aid-recipients tried to gasp the momentum by presenting their own programmes, although often still pushed by a group of more progressive donors.

This all came together three years ago, when donors and aid-recipients adopted the Paris Declaration.

Donors promised to coordinate their activities with the aid-recipient, to harmonise their activities and procedures with other donors and with governments of developing countries, to align with government programmes and systems.

This all under the banner of `ownership` and `managing for results`. EU-donors have even gone a step further by adopting in May last year a `Code of Conduct on Complementarity and Division of Labour`, in which they amongst others promise to limit their presence to a few sectors only and come to a task division.

In September in Accra, the international community will try to assess how much progress has been made.

On the way up to that meeting, it might be important to draw some first lessons from past experiences.

Most donors nowadays agree that they have to refrain from individual projects and programmes and that supporting the general budget of the aid recipient government is one of the best ways to harmonise and to align.

A second best option is to give budget support to a specific sector programme. Some donors are limited in their possibilities here, because their governments or parliaments don`t allow them or allow them only to a specific ceiling to give this type of support.

But there is general acknowledgement; that `ownership` means that your financial assistance or activities should be embedded in the programmes of the aid recipient government.

A first problem that then arises, is that politicians and high ranking government officials in the donor countries often don`t understand that this is modern development cooperation: limit your programme to a few sectors and adhere to the programmes of the aid recipient government.

MPs in European parliaments, often lobbied by Western NGOs, thus push for targets on spending for health or primary education or try to promote specific activities.

Western government officials, visiting aid recipient countries, want to bring `presents` or want to have their own specific ideas on what is important translated in activities.

They thus enforce new projects on child health or on primary education not only on their own country`s aid programme, but also on the recipient government.

This is further complicated – the second problem – by the fact that Headquarters in the donors` capitals tend to follow, often slavishly, the wishes of their politicians, from whatever corner they come.

Keep in mind that these wishes are often derived from `actuality`, from fashions that arise with a `discovery` of `new` sets of `problems`.

In these HQs, there are also people `sitting` on heir own special programmes, which they try to push on their aid offices and embassies in the developing world.

It doesn`t then seem to matter, that this is not a harmonised and aligned, not a `Paris` type of activity.

For people in aid offices and embassies in Accra or Dar es Salaam, this raises quite some problems. Should they go against instructions from their HQ?

Should they tell that the task division is such that they are now limited to `education` and `health` alone, and that the local agreements tell that they cannot go into `environment`?

This demands a lot of courage and might create (new) enemies in HQ. It could happen that you don\’t then know where your next posting might be.

Still Lesson One coming from Paris for donor representatives from Dakar to Maputo should be, that on demands from politicians and HQ to expand aid-programmes in different directions the answer is: `No, this is not Paris`.

A third problem is that these days for every \’new\’ problem that is discovered by the international community, a new global fund is instituted.

These funds invent their own new themes, systems and procedures and are often much more bureaucratic than the `old` aid organisations.

Furthermore, they very often don`t adhere to the local programmes as defined by the governments of developing countries, supported by the `old` donors.

They just jump in with their own programmes, distorting local services and institutions.

That they often have a lot of money available makes it even more problematic, as staff and infrastructure might be bought away from more urging or the general problems in a given sector.

The second lesson coming from Paris is that also aid-recipient governments should learn to say more often `no! This is not in our plan` or `No! This is not in our programmes`.

Or maybe: `No, unless and only then if you change and modify this and this, because then it fits in our present policies`.

It is understandable that African governments are afraid to lose money, when they oppose donor proposals. Or, that they fear that a `no!` now might have repercussions for future financing. I think that they then should keep two things in mind.

First, if they say `yes` it definitely will raise transaction costs a lot, because in particular, these special programmes and projects will lay a heavy burden on their already often overburdened staff.

This means that the new money coming in might cost a lot more than its value at first sight.

Second, if they say `no!` or `no, unless �`they also might become `heroes`: a huge part of the international community – and not to forget also a large number of their own citizens – will say: `You are absolutely right: this is not Paris`.

The conclusion should be that the Paris Declaration brings two important lessons in one: there is a right to say `no, this is not Paris` for aid officials, and the same right is in the hands of governments of developing countries, thus also in the hands of the Government of Tanzania.

lPaul Hoebink is Professor in Development Cooperation at the Centre for International Development Issues Nijmegen (CIDIN) of the Radboud University in Nijmegen the Netherlands. He has visited Ghana and is now in Tanzania to look at the Paris Declaration efforts.

* SOURCE: Guardian


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Filed under Africa, Aid, International Aid, Poverty

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