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.