Last week I blogged about the failure of donors to achieve the governance reforms they desire. This week Owen Barder has provided the perfect explanation as to why that has happened: for all their own domestic attachments to the rule of law and clear systems of government (which they wish recipient countries would adopt), international diplomacy (under which most aid is governed) works primarily through informal pacts, “coalitions of the willing”, or, as Owen puts it, by forming a posse (also see here).
Thus, in the name of a robust, independent (and nationalistic) foreign policy, donors are frequently falling over themselves to offer developing countries money. As Owen discusses, the high-minded cooperation and “local ownership” of the Paris Declaration never really came to pass, and now donors seem to be retreating from this in an effort to justify their budgets to electorates facing economic entrenchment.* (Owen’s plausible thesis is that public support for general budget support and the like is weaker than that for specific development projects.) DFID is being re-branded UKAid (so much for local country ownership, there!) and USAid asks recipient NGOs to submit marketing plans as to how they are going to trumpet to the poor and wretched that it is good ol’ Uncle Sam providing the largesse.
Although no great fan of general budget support, this retrograde step saddens me, but there is probably not much that can be done about it. (Not much that I could ever do – we subsist right at the bottom of the aid “food” chain!) So time to be a pragmatist then, but will the donors? Their approach in recent years has not yielded the sustained improvements in governance which they sought, and I venture to suggest that more posse action will similarly fail. Will future donor posses be more discriminating in their selection of targets, I wonder!
* Owen’s diagnosis was vindicated to me personally with impressive speed: less than an hour had passed from reading Owen’s post and I was called by someone from the British Embassy here, asking about local NGOs active in climate change matters with strong British connections. Not the best NGOs, just the ones with a passing familiarity with God Save the Queen. Ho hum!