LONDON — Discussions on the future of aid at an influential British foreign policy forum last week identified five key areas for change.
Convened by Wilton Park — an executive agency sponsored by the U.K.’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office — the first meeting in a series on the future of aid saw wide agreement on the need for significant changes in public development spending.
A growing band of global health researchers and activists says power imbalances need to be addressed.
Around 40 participants heard presentations from development leaders and thinkers during the invitation-only virtual meeting, which replaced a planned three-day conference that was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is a consensus that a new and updated conceptual framework for aid is required,” said a report summarizing the event. “It is no longer the case that there is one group of countries giving aid and another receiving aid,” it added, highlighting changes in the global economic and political landscape.
Five broad themes for action emerged from the discussions:
1. Changing the conceptual framework of aid
While acknowledging the importance of public development financing, the report said that “there was general agreement that the conceptual framework for aid needed to be updated.”
Due to the global political landscape, aid is no longer based on “donors” and “recipients,” it said. Instead, “the future is much more about global and regional solidarity and countries being both aid providers and recipients simultaneously.”
It added there was “fundamentally” a need to acknowledge that aid has often been used as a “soft power” tool to advance the interests of powerful countries. The report highlighted a divide between those donors calling for a “mutual self-interest” approach to development — as demonstrated in recent times by the U.K. government’s “mutual prosperity” agenda — and those supporting “mutual solidarity.”
“The future is much more about global and regional solidarity and countries being both aid providers and recipients simultaneously.”— A report on Wilton Park’s “The Future of Aid: Towards Global Public Investment?” event
2. Changing the power balance and colonial-era discourse
The power imbalance inherent in the use of aid as a political tool is rooted in its colonial origins, according to a presentation by Pascale Allotey from the International Institute for Global Health at the United Nations University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“The persistent colonial nature of development assistance for public health … must be challenged,” she said.
Allotey said her vision for the future of aid was about “about identifying and building better models for balancing power between donor and recipient.”
She praised Ghana for its recent moves to go “beyond aid” and rely on its own resources, particularly its health care experts.
3. The goal of aid: Reducing poverty or inequality?
Poverty elimination has long been the main focus of aid — in the U.K., this is enshrined in law by the 2002 International Development Act — with consequences for where official development assistance is spent.
But the meeting emphasized a growing argument that reducing inequality — blamed for numerous social and political ills in recent years — should also be the focus of aid.
Participants discussed which matters most for global social welfare and whether new indicators on development were needed to reflect this. While addressing structural inequality is a more difficult political message than poverty reduction, attendees said it should play a role in how aid develops.
4. Regional, national, or local?
Inequality is an important consideration, because extreme poverty is not just concentrated in low-income countries, but also in marginalized areas of relatively wealthier countries, where official development assistance often cannot be directed.
“Both bilateral and multilateral aid has traditionally been packaged into national programmes which may only be relevant for some parts of a country given the large inter-regional disparities observed,” the report said. The meeting discussed the benefits of targeting aid more precisely where it is needed.
5. Changing institutions
Multilateral institutions, especially the World Health Organization, have been subject to widespread criticism from across the political spectrum in recent years. While the meeting agreed they have played a key role since their formation in the postwar period, participants said “their time may now be up unless their governance can be significantly reformed,” according to the report.
There was also “widespread agreement that the OECD-DAC” — the committee that sets the rules on official development assistance for 30 of the world’s biggest donors — “lacks real legitimacy to lead future discussions” on aid.
A critical question for the development sector is whether these institutions should be reformed or new ones should be created, the report added.