The world of foreign aid is changing. Walk down the streets of Kampala and Dhaka and you will notice significant changes from the way things were barely a decade ago. Brand new cars ferrying around businesspeople with transnational ventures. Cosmopolitan youth wielding smartphones that allow them to bypass the old constraints of lacking infrastructure. New roads laid down by heavy machinery and workers bearing the logo of Chinese companies. It is a shifting landscape that belies the massive technological and financial transformations that have become a synonym with 21st century development.
With the arrival of start-ups and philanthropists, South-South cooperation, and access to private finance, the space for traditional donors like the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) is rapidly shrinking. Most of the ‘quick wins’ have been secured or can be achieved without much of a role for aid agencies. What will be their role, then? Essentially, DFID and its peers are left with either intractable places, or intractable problems. Large swaths of the globe that have barely any significance for great powers or global markets, such as Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or tricky processes of institutional change that are likely to attract controversy and opposition – such as public finance reform or anti-corruption – but that are essential foundations for long-term sustainable development. Donors’ jobs are going to get much harder, much more quickly.
Fortunately, over the last decade, small pockets of innovators, researchers and bureaucratic insurgents in almost every aid organisation have been quietly preparing for this exact challenge. They have devised new tools to make traditional development assistance more politically savvy, better grounded in local efforts, and more responsive to complexity and contingency. A new norm is emerging in the world of aid that sees donors not as protagonists, but as enablers or catalysts of meaningful institutional change led by local advocates and reformers. This movement has yet to find the best set of frameworks and tools to displace business-as-usual, but at the very least it is trying to address the kinds of intractable places and intractable problems that will increasingly occupy foreign aid.
Unfortunately, over the same ten years, the development industry has endured a relentless push by the ‘counter-bureaucracy’, to use the term popularised by former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios. The fact that even a small-state Republican such as Natsios could be so dismayed by the counter-bureaucracy is a testimony to its scale and intrusiveness. In the United Kingdom, requirements introduced by the Coalition government in 2010 have forced DFID, charities and private providers to spend ridiculous amounts of time with compliance tasks, striving to demonstrate value-for-money for every penny spent. Even if, as we know from our own chequered history, the complexity and uncertainty of development does not lend itself very well to bean counting and precise calculations.
The counter-bureaucracy has forced aid practitioners to choose between projects that have easy-to-measure but seldom transformative results (like vaccination and other short-term fixes), and projects that have transformative but hard-to-measure impact (like institutional reform). The former are easily translated into headlines and ministerial websites, whereas the latter are often obfuscated under layers of more or less spurious numbers that fail to provide an accurate portrayal of how development happens on the ground. And that is the perverse effect of the aid counter-bureaucracy, in the US, the UK, and elsewhere: under the ostensible goal of achieving greater transparency and accountability, it is forcing the development industry into a survival logic that worsens the public’s understanding of what aid effectiveness truly means.
Thus, while welcome changes in the developing world will make the work of aid agencies harder, the future of effectiveness begins at home, in donor countries. The lack of public knowledge about development and the relative isolation of the aid community have made it a safe target of opportunity for those battling for a larger prize: internationalism versus nationalism, openness versus closure, exchange versus protection. The aid system was born out of great power politics in the aftermath of World War II, but its underlying ideals can be traced back to an earlier moment of hope in the face of hopelessness: the 1941 Atlantic Charter in which Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt called for a world free from want and fear. That foundation of humane internationalism is what enabled the aid system to grow and mature over six decades. Today it is under attack by opportunistic leaders who use populism to mask their lack of real principles.
That is the challenge of aid effectiveness in a changing world. The development community has already spent considerable time finding better ways to deal with more difficult operating environments and more transformative forms of impact. But practitioners will not enjoy the freedom to pursue this kind of real effectiveness unless donor publics – all of us – are ready to embrace the complexity and contingency of development, but also the humane internationalism that foreign aid requires to thrive.
This was published in the April 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.
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