Nastasya Tay
Nastasya Tay

Reaching the summit? Aid ineffectiveness

Over the last week, all hotels in Accra have been booked out and streets closed to the chagrin of local taxi drivers, for the third time so far this year. The High Level Forum (HLF) on Aid Effectiveness – the third in its series – alongside the civil society Parallel Forum which aimed to prepare civil society organisations (CSOs) for the HLF discussions, consititute Accra’s third major international conference this year. Of the three, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), talks on Climate Change, and this, the negotiation of a strategy to improve aid, this is by far the least sexy. Few outside the International Conference Centre (including disturbingly, a few inside) have detailed knowledge of the relatively technical aid effectiveness issues on the table. And everyone pretends to know what the acronyms mean – the ISG of CSOs meeting with the WPEFF and the OECD in the AICC at the HLF3 for the AAA.

Aid clearly isn’t working. We are highly unlikely to reach the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. Why? The current aid system is hierarchical and the people at the bottom, whom aid is supposed to benefit, have little or no ownership of aid programmes. Too much aid is prescriptive and beneficiary countries are not given the freedom to make their own policy decisions. The most impoverished certainly have no say.

Given Ghana’s ranking in terms of the human development index (135th out of 177 countries), the most interesting discussions I have had so far have not been with delegates, ministers or donors. My taxi drivers all have had very firm views on aid effectiveness issues, given that they live everyday in the poverty we’re all here to attempt to alleviate. Shame they’re not given the opportunity to voice their concerns – few even knew what the conference was about. Albert, my taxi driver who comes from the northern Volta region, asked me, “Why are you all just talking? What are you actually going to do? We are the ones who must live with what happens when you all leave.”

Why are we all simply talking?

Yesterday, over 1 200 delegates from more than 100 countries met to agree upon an Accra Agenda for Action – a document that acknowledges the negligible progress on making aid more effective since the landmark Paris Declaration on aid effectiveness was signed in 2005, and maps a way forward. Or so one might think. The Accra Agenda for Action, or the ‘Triple A’, is an agenda full of good intentions, but only marginal concrete commitment to change.

It speaks in lofty tones of prioritising ‘effective partnerships for development’ and ‘strengthening country ownership’, but provides only vague outlines of how this can be achieved and says little about when it should be achieved by. Civil society organisations (80 delegates were invited to join the discussions, the largest CSO engagement on this subject at this level so far) have been referring to it as the Accra Agenda for Little-Action.

Over the last few days, there has been much politicking in corridors, over drinks at wine receptions and behind the scenes in the press room, with progressive delegates muttering under their breath about the pigheadedness of the US and Japan, with the disclaimer “ … but don’t say how I got my information”. There are few actually in the room, making the decisions on the AAA. The others, with their ears pressed to the ground, have little choice but to lobby the remainders of their delegations outside.

The HLF was supposed to be a consultative process. Two days of roundtables to discuss the issues, followed by a third day of closed ministerial meetings to make the tough decisions. The roundtable discussions are all well and good, but have been taking place on the sidelines, while the quiet discussions of the Consensus Group take place down the hall – the ones who are actually drafting and finalising the AAA. So who’s listening?

A colleague from a major international NGO gave an excellent summary of the whole HLF process. “Why should I attend interminably long meetings, to passionately lobby for reform, when countries like the US and Japan are refusing to sign on because of some ‘language issues’ with the AAA? In the end, we will have worked incredibly hard to, if we’re lucky, change a few words. And it’s just another document.”

Just another document indeed.

So little progress has been made on the goals of the Paris Declaration that one has to question the point of building upon it – when there appears to be little or no commitment on the part of some powerful governments to genuine change. When it comes down to it, it is the implementation of any ‘agenda for action’ that will be the real measure of success. After all, the point of aid effectiveness isn’t aid effectiveness – harmonisation, ownership and alignment are only tools – it is development. Sustainable development that should be measured in terms of improvements in the lives of people who need it most.

On Wednesday, civil society made a statement about the current aid system by building a human pyramid – the aid hierarchy with donors at the top, governments in the middle, and beneficiaries on the very bottom, tangled in the mire of ropes of tied aid and conditionalities. The use of acrobats to convey their message is so very relevant. The HLF has become nothing but a show. A show of good intentions – but its real successes will only be measured once the curtain has come down.

  • Alisdair Budd

    It looks like the Chinese, Malaysians and Russians are making the same mistakes as the World ban and European made thirty years before, without even learning from them.

    Throwing money without accounts or audits at the countries in return for mining licences and large, visible buildings (railways, dams, harbours, parliaments) as publicity, without actually researching as to whetether it will help the local people.

    Let alone when the building projects require the removal of the local population, open up areas to exploitation and reduce the locals to prostitutes and beer sellers at the local truckstop or mining camp.

  • Perry Curling-hope

    In real life, as a conclusion of empirical studies, there is a negative correlation between aid and prosperity in developing nations.
    Whether such a developing nation prospers or not is determined by domestic policy, and is unrelated to the degree of ‘aid’ received.
    In a study conducted by William Easterly of the University of New York, it has been demonstrated that aid is in fact harmful.

    (Cato: Why Doesn’t Aid Work?

    African governments tend to adopt anti growth policies which are characterized by high levels of state intervention in the economies with low levels of economic freedom.

    This contrasts sharply with the SEZ’s (Special Economic Zones in China, with virtually entire absence of economic regulation) where growth rates of up to 20% p.a. were being achieved while we were patting ourselves on the back for a paltry 4½ to 6% in a progressively more regulated economy over the same global boom period.

    Not only does prescriptive aid impinge upon policy freedoms of the recipients, it seldom reaches its intended target, producing an ethic by the elite of fostering poverty in order to receive more aid.

    Developing nations which are struggling with poverty need to abandon restrictive interventions, and emulate the domestic economic policies of those nations which are prospering rather than making excuses and seeking more aid.

  • Alisdair Budd

    What you mean like Angola? And its combination of masive economic growth and massive poverty, with nowt to with aid at all, and more due to greed of the elite?

    And when mentioning China, did you also mention the massive corruption involved in moving peasants off their land without compensation, for housing estates and business parks, (usually involving bribes to local politicians and local businessmen, when they weren’t one and the same), resulting in displaced internal, poor refugees, uually kept alive by relatives or internal aid charities. (In a similar situation to Cambodia)

    Or were you too busy being academic to be realistic?

    (According to your theory Darfur can be solved by not giving aid, which will solve it since they will all eventually die, or flee abroad, thereby solving the problem. Which is what the Khartoum govt wants, incidentally whilst they export food for profit, whilst the UN feeds their population.

    Which has nothing to do with aid but more to do with the inhumanity of the Khartoum regime that African and Arabic leaders like to spend their time protecting from warrants for crimes against humanity.

    So stop with the academic jargon and start with pointing out that nasty govts will let their populations suffer and let the UN pick up the pieces, in moral blackmail, whilst they sun themselves in villas, having fourteen wives and a collection of expensive limousines cf: The King of Swaziland.)

  • Perry Curling-Hope


    Whilst you may not approve of the ‘intellectual jargon’ (sorry, my bad) it does not negate the findings, namely that more aid equals less growth, which in turn affects the poor of such a nation most negatively.
    This is in no way ‘my theory’ at all, and is not ‘an opinion’ but the conclusions of independent objective studies conducted with no vested interest in any particular outcome, William Easterlys’ 40year study being but one.
    This may be distressing to those who vest their belief in the effectiveness of aid, but this does not change the realities either.

    Government to government aid transfers do not reach their intended beneficiaries (the poor) while the political elites fail to implement the economic adjustments intended to increase growth and improve the plight of the poor. As you say, they sell food for profit while the aid agencies try to feed the starving. That is if the paramilitary thugs don’t get hold of it and sell that too, or use it as a political weapon to prop up their criminal regime.
    Should such aid continue?
    There is much talk of transforming aid to render it ‘transparent’ and the recipients ‘accountable’. This would require the cooperation of the very criminally inhuman leaders of which you speak.

    It is no coincidence that those economies which are least free are also the ones having the most oppressive and abusive regimes. “Nasty govts” are out there and this has “nothing to do with aid” so what, exactly is your point?

    China is not a recipient of aid, rather a manipulative donor of such. Their human rights record may be appalling, but this does not negate the fact that in those regions where economic freedom has been tolerated, spectacular growth has been achieved. This does not ‘justify’ the human rights abuses, it indicates the direction in which to move if growth is to be achieved, and in the absence of growth, improvement of the plight of the poor is not possible.

    Governments which opt for economic freedom do not have to do so by implementing human rights abuses, in fact the reverse is true.
    Human rights and political freedom follows growth and economic freedom, oppression follows economic stagnation and collapse.

    It may be a none too palatable reality, but the ‘inverse relationship’ between aid and growth unfortunately exists, and can be ‘empirically’ demonstrated.
    It simply does not work if growth and development are its ostensible purpose.

    ‘Aid’ to developing nations continues because it serves manipulative political agendas and vested interests, but that is another matter entirely.