I’ve just been listening to the latest but one Development Drums podcast, in which Andrea Cornwall and Prue Clarke discuss with Owen Barder where now for the gender movement in development. At one point Andrea Cornwall queries what happened to the power empowerment, accurately critiquing much of what goes by the name of empowerment in development as being almost entirely emasculated of any real shifts of actual power.
Professor Cornwall suggests that the bureaucratic nature of Big Aid is the culprit, that bureaucracies have trouble grappling with such issues. It is certainly in the nature of big bureaucracies to hoard power, but I would be inclined to point the finger elsewhere. Towards the end of the podcast, the discussion veers closer to my diagnosis without ever quite coming out and saying it. As for me, j’accuse the locus of international aid that puts it firmly within the diplomatic sphere.
Back when aid began as a quasi expiation of post-colonial guilt, I imagine it made sense to empower the newly independent governing states just launched. Then in the 1970s and 80s when aid focused a lot on capital inputs, new roads, tractors and power stations to go with those shiny new industrial policies the state to state model would have still been the most appropriate. But in the 21st century, when much western aid focuses instead on softer concerns like governance and participation, and service delivery in sectors such as health and education which aim to boost human capacity, such a model seems utterly out-dated.
Alas, most bilateral aid agencies are either part of the donor country’s foreign ministry or clearly subsidiary to said ministry, whilst the multi-lateral agencies are all ultimately controlled by diplomats. Indeed, donor country governments often justify aid budgets to their electorates in terms of self-interest and improving relations with international partners, i.e. that some quid pro quo may at some point be asked for and given. The US appears only to be one of the most brazen in its demand that every donation be prominently stamped as a gift from the American people, with humanitarian philanthropy apparently a poor second in political motivations for international giving amongst most donor governments. When the act of giving – those high profile pledges of funds – gains far more attention than any actual outcomes of giving, is it any wonder that aid agencies struggle to deliver meaningful development?
Coming back to the challenge of empowerment, the problem, as I see it, is that as soon as you define aid as a government to government transfer, your capacity to achieve any significant transfers of power are almost negligible. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, and the prestige of a presidential jet, alas, nearly always appears to be higher priority than the provision of clean drinking water to a developing country’s people.
I suppose there is an argument which says that all the official government aid is a bribe to provide cover to the funding given directly to civil society groups which otherwise are liable to get painted as nefarious agents of foreign powers or other euphemisms of the dictatorati. Working as I do in community conservation, I try to remember – as I lament all the money wasted through largely ineffectual official bilateral and multilateral projects in this sector – that without such colossal greasing of the wheels it is extremely unlikely our small NGO would have ever even got off the ground. But, if that is the case, it would be nice to see rather more honesty about the processes and what they are expected to achieve. Channel money for empowerment and governance initiatives primarily through NGOs and other civil society groups, accept that official state aid will be primarily be spent on salaries and physical assets, and seek to work with that flow rather than against it. Whatever you do, please do not ever pretend that sending some senior officials on the next foreign junket (aka international workshop on governance best practice) is even remotely empowering for anyone who actually needs empowering.
You never know, we might just succeed in empowering the empowerment movement …