Helping Haiti: Should donors make the decisions?
In a widely-circulated editorial opinion piece that the International Herald Tribune printed under the headline “Don’t let Haitians help themselves“, Pulitzer prize winning journalist Joel Brinkley argues that the Haitian government is so corrupt and ineffective that “If the world wants to help Haiti, aid officials should put aside that Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. The donors should decide what to do with their money”.
In criticizing the OECD-backed Declaration that over 100 ministers, heads of agencies and other senior officials have now adhered to, Brinkley focuses on the principle of “ownership”: “Developing countries set their own strategies for poverty reduction, improve their institutions and tackle corruption.”
Brenda Killen, head of the OECD division working on aid effectiveness, replies to Brinkley.
We agree with Joel Brinkley that corruption can undo the best of efforts and intentions, and it has a strong hold in many of the neediest countries. But we strongly reject his conclusions that Haitians should not be trusted with their own rebuilding and that donors should abandon the principles of the Paris Declaration.
The Paris Declaration sets out five strong principles to make aid work for development. Brinkley zeroes in on one of them: countries must take the reins of their own development. The reasons for this seem obvious to those of us who have had the privilege of growing up and living in countries that do so – at least when we are talking about our own countries and futures.
But the principle of ownership, like the other principles that underpin the Paris Declaration, is not an expression of political correctness. It is based on objective assessments of what works – and what doesn’t – and drawn from experience in the field.
Countries like Vietnam (which has adapted the Paris Declaration to its own priorities and needs) and Ghana (which has set its own programme to achieve middle income country status by 2015) illustrate why local ownership is essential if aid is to be a catalyst for effective development. And even where systems are weak and there is corruption and inefficiency, ownership is key to uncovering and reversing this. Post-conflict Uganda in the 1990s provides a well-known example in the form of the Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys of education grants that showed a reduction in the diversion of funds from 80 percent to 20 percent over a decade – reflecting strong ownership by the public (through broad public debate and citizen engagement) and government (through reform and strengthening of public financial management systems) of the country’s post-conflict process.
Referring to the origins of the Paris Declaration, Mr Brinkley states that it came out of “decades of unproductive work”. Certainly, if the donors and developing countries that adhered to this Declaration found it worthwhile to work on making aid more effective, it was not because aid had achieved nothing. It was, rather, that the experience gathered over time provided evidence of what could be done to make it work better. The Paris Declaration made harmonisation of donor efforts imperative long before the media reported stories of duplicated and wasted efforts due to turf battles among donors.
One of the major obstacles to aid effectiveness during the decades referred to by Brinkley as “unproductive”, was that a substantial part of aid was tied to conditions and services set by the donors. In other words, donors – not recipients – controlled it and how it was used. The Paris Declaration has helped to reverse this situation, and today almost 90%of aid is untied.
But above and beyond the specifics of aid effectiveness – which are often very complex and process- oriented – there is another, overarching lesson that today seems obvious: aid is not an end – or a solution – in itself. Nor can it take the blame, or the credit for that matter, for what has or has not worked. The problem in Haiti is about much more than aid, and here – as in so many other places – the Paris principles must be applied not in isolation, but rather in the context of much larger, more complex development issues.
Brinkley states that “Haitians were as poor and uneducated as ever” before the earthquake. It could be argued that this is simply not true. The 2009 Human Development Index report states that “Between 1980 and 2007 Haiti’s HDI rose by 0.77% annually from 0.433 to 0.532.” Not great, but still an improvement.
Yet this still leaves the fundamental question raised by Brinkley: earthquake or not, is Haiti in a position to be able to direct all international aid resources through its own government systems? Absolutely not. On this we agree. But does this mean we should not be working with the Haitians? Or does it mean we should be working to help them get to a point where aid can eventually go through Haiti’s national systems? We believe the answer is the latter. Absolutely, we should and we must.
At the heart of the issue is the question of how to combat corruption. Punishing a crime requires legal institutions. Should foreign charities or donor governments run these too? Rather than standing on the high moral ground and telling Haitians what they must do, shouldn’t we be helping Haiti to build those institutions?
The Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States are about just this – how do we move from the chaos of disaster and conflict to a stable development path? The ultimate aim is to support Haitians in building the ownership (in the form of democratically elected government, strong institutions and a voice for the poor) that will enable them to achieve – and sustain – their own development. Fragile states realise this and the g7+ group of fragile states is calling on donors to recognise it as well.
Just as South Korea was able to use aid as a catalyst to move from poverty and conflict to leadership of the G20 in less than two generations – building on strong national ownership and committed international support – other countries can do the same. Liberia, Timor Leste – and Haiti.
The Paris principles are highly relevant to Haiti’s current situation. In particular, they highlight the need to coordinate the many aid efforts more effectively so aid gets quickly to those who need it. But they can’t stand alone. Without action on many fronts – and action that takes into account the location-specific realities of each country – neither aid nor development will be effective.
The Partnership for Democratic Governance (PDG) is proposing Service Delivery Guidance in English, French and Creole to assist Haitian authorities and the donor community
Watch the trailer of an OECD-PDG documentary about Haiti made to accompany the forthcoming OECD-PDG Handbook on Contracting Out Government Functions and Services in Post-Conflict and Fragile Situations.
Catalyzing development: A new vision for aid, a workshop organised by Brookings in July 2010, concluded that: “Donors remain far too eager to lead, despite empirical evidence that aid programs that are truly owned by recipients have the biggest impact.”
The DAC Network on Development Evaluation works to increase the effectiveness of programmes through evaluation. In Haiti, the Network is supporting a collaborative approach to assessing the international aid response.
The Development Co-operation Report is the key annual reference document for statistics and analysis on trends in international aid.
The Dili International Dialogue sets out a new vision for peacebuilding and statebuilding