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Towards a New “Aid Biosphere”?

août 15, 2012

by GERD SCHONWALDER

The North-South Institute

If the recent Rio+20 Summit, last year’s high-level forum on aid effectiveness in Busan, and the growing debate on the future of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have one thing in common, then it is the realization that the international development enterprise is becoming more and more complex. A whole range of new development actors – not least the “emerging countries” of the developing world itself, but also private philanthropic foundations as well as other non-governmental organizations, both large and small – are challenging the dominance of Western donor governments, along with that of the OECD-DAC which has been so central in coordinating their views and framing most of today’s debates and policies. At the same time, new (and old) questions are being asked about what really matters in international development today and indeed, what the whole enterprise should be all about.

At first glance, it’s easier to see what separates these different views than what unites them. Western donors – and their electorates! – continue to be preoccupied with greater aid effectiveness, often worrying about not getting enough “value for money”. Focusing on the needs of the poorest, they tend to condition their aid on compliance with governance, human rights and other criteria. The emerging countries reject such strictures and instead put the emphasis squarely on economic development. Providing assistance to less-developed countries in a spirit of mutual solidarity, they aren’t shy to admit that building roads, laying track and installing other infrastructure serves their own interests, too, not least in supplying their growing economies with natural resources. Philanthropic foundations add other elements to the mix, bringing business thinking to bear on today’s “grand development challenges,” promoting new tools and methods to deliver aid, or spearheading social causes such as social justice or democracy. This is even more central for non-governmental organizations, who see development chiefly as a means to expand the rights of the poor and who excel at holding donors’ feet to the fire reminding them of their various pledges and commitments.

Virtually everyone agrees that more and better coordination among these various development actors is needed, but perfect alignment may not be necessary. As the Busan participants recognized, distinct strengths may imply “differentiated responsibilities,” as long as these remain based on a common set of “shared principles.” What form this coordination will take is hard to predict: it may well fall short of the new “Global Partnership” envisaged at Busan, which ideally would contain not just principles but rules and standards that apply to everyone, and instead resemble a more fluid and less structured new “aid biosphere”. But this is not to say there is no common ground. Take, for example, the kind of global, cross-cutting challenges – climate change, the spread of infectious diseases, state fragility, to name a few – that affect everyone, not just the developing world. Confronting these challenges and transforming them into “global public goods” requires truly novel forms of collaboration – including new governance arrangements – that go far beyond current aid practices. In fact, such collaboration would put a whole new spin on the meaning of “development” since it would revolve around a set of shared challenges, not concerns specific to developing countries in which more developed nations have little or no stake. Of course, approaches would differ and developing nations may adopt a “development perspective” or “development lens,” given their diverging capabilities and resources, as well as the specific ways in which they are affected.

More coordination and collaboration may be desirable but it’s obviously not a given. In addition to new governance arrangements, tighter policy coordination or greater transparency and accountability, more and better research can also help. Collaborative research designs that favour shared learning and capacity building seem particularly suited to finding joint solutions to today’s development challenges. At the very least, research can play a crucial role in sifting through the diverging viewpoints that exist, illuminating underlying drivers and interests and supplying vital evidence. If nothing else, this would make for more informed debate and – hopefully – better policy and practice; it can also give voice to those that otherwise would remain voiceless.

Gerd Schönwälder is Director is of the Policy and Planning Group at the International Development Research Centre.  The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone.  This blog is published as part of the International Development in a Changing World series.