Development aid: no more cogs tyrannic?

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In today’s post, Jonathan Glennie of the Overseas Development Institute continues the debate with OECD DAC Chair Brian Atwood on the role of the OECD in the architecture of international aid. You can also follow the debate in today’s Guardian.
Brian Atwood will be the moderator of New paradigms for development at the OECD Forum on 25 May. Speakers include Paul Collier and Dambisa F. Moyo.


In his reply to my blog suggesting a shake-up of global governance of aid effectiveness Brian Atwood, the chair of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), quotes his colleague Jon Lomoy, Director of the OECD’s Development Co-operation Directorate: “Hopefully in the future, there will be no more central cogs – rather, I see the OECD as part of very efficient machinery in which each of the pieces contributes to a truly balanced, equitable and prosperous whole.”

That is a good starting point, and one that I expect most agree with. The question is what it means in practice, and how to get there from here.

Let me first say that it is possible to exaggerate the importance of a change in global architecture. People on the ground, trying to make aid work on a day-to-day basis, will probably have more pressing concerns than the management of global bureaucracies that are at best only partially effective. On the one hand such changes are notoriously hard to achieve, let alone get right, and on the other hand even when changes are fairly positive, complex problems usually remain complex.

Most important of all is national level management of aid, regardless of global goings-on. If each country developed its own mini-Paris Declaration and insisted that all donors (DAC and non-DAC) stuck to it, aid effectiveness would improve dramatically. The Kigali Statement signed at the development partners meeting in Rwanda in November last year is an example to follow, as is the regional agreement of the Pacific islands back in 2007.

Nevertheless, as a government representative from Uganda said at a meeting I was at recently, “[Global aid governance] doesn’t matter that much on the face of it, but when you look a bit deeper, it does. I feel freer in, say, Malawi to discuss aid effectiveness than I do in Paris. And I would give different answers on a questionnaire from the OECD than I would on a questionnaire from [a more inclusive global body].” So it is an issue worth discussing, although not obsessing about.

What would an effective and inclusive global governance structure to support national level management of aid effectiveness look like? Actually, it is not that hard to imagine.

The OECD DAC Working Party on Aid Effectiveness (known as the WP-EFF) is an increasingly inclusive body comprising bilateral and multilateral donors, emerging economies, aid dependent countries and private sector and civil society representatives. It has emerged in recognition of the view that recipient countries should increasingly take the reins of this reasonably successful campaign to improve aid effectiveness.

The problem is that, as its name implies, its home and administrative support are provided by the OECD, a club of rich countries with all the instincts and interests of rich countries. To take one symbolic example, the first draft of the Busan outcome document is currently being written by the co-chairs of the WP-EFF (good) assisted by a team of OECD staffers (not good).

Anyone and everyone has been invited to submit ideas and comments, and a serious debate will take place in June onwards about the text. But as anyone who has been involved in international negotiations knows, the first draft matters. It not only needs to be neutral, it needs to be seen to be neutral. A Partner Country Contact Group is being established that has been invited to input a coordinated position, but this is not the balanced whole that Jon Lomoy envisions. 

A simple two-stage process would move us in the right direction. First, the WP-EFF should formally delink itself from the OECD DAC. The DAC club of donors would have the same status as a corresponding recipient club (like the Partner Country Contact Group) and both would help manage and support the WP-EFF. Crucially, the DAC would continue to play its vital role in monitoring data and indicators.

Second, the WP-EFF should eventually come under the auspices of the United Nations. The UN’s Development Cooperation Forum met in Mali last month to talk about aid effectiveness in an entirely separate process to the OECD-led aid effectiveness talks which culminate in Busan in November this year. It is plainly a waste of time and money to have two parallel processes claiming to oversee aid effectiveness, one based in the OECD, the other at the UN. It is also ridiculous to spend millions on an aid effectiveness process that does not involve China, Brazil or the Arab donors in any serious way.

The UN is the only body that can credibly bring all the different interests together under one roof, setting out rules of the game for the present era of development.

It is not the case, however frequently it is asserted, that the UN is ineffective while the OECD is effective. Of course it can be easily criticised – no global bureaucracies can escape rampant flaws. But possibly the most important globally agreed targets in history, the Millennium Development Goals, have been handled both inclusively and effectively by the UN.

And it is the MDGs which provide the model for this move of aid effectiveness coordination from the OECD to the UN. Few remember that the origin of the MDGs is the 1996 OECD report Shaping the 21st Century: the Contribution of Development Co-operation. The report set out six goals, and these eventually became the MDGs adopted and managed by the UN at the turn of the millennium.

In summary, the OECD should see Busan as an opportunity to pass on the responsibility and power of managing this important process to a body that is more representative of the interests of poorer countries which, ultimately, are the ones that matter. The first principle of the Paris Declaration is ownership.

Useful links

OECD work on aid effectiveness including the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda

Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics (ABCDE conference) 30 May 1 June at the OECD

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