Brian Atwood’s legacy as OECD-DAC chair

Brian Atwood. Photo by: personal collection

That the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee is a miracle of diplomacy was abundantly clear at an early-December gathering of bilateral aid leaders in London’s sumptuous Marlborough House.

There, in a back room deep inside a warren of corridors, as negotiations continued in the grand rooms just feet away, OECD staff frantically tried to decipher updates and type amendments as representatives haggled over not just substance but also phrasing. The path to agreement for this club of 24 mostly Western donor nations is anything but smooth.

At the center of it all was Brian Atwood, the even-tempered U.S. foreign aid veteran who cast a wide shadow in his post as chair of the OECD-DAC over the last two years – a post he stepped down from at the end of 2012. Atwood, who has referred to the DAC as the “intellectual center of the development mission,” led tough negotiations on everything from aid effectiveness to climate change to aid cuts during the financial crisis.

Emblematic of his tenure as DAC chair, Atwood provided “sharp arguments on many development issues” during the London gathering, recalled Erik Solheim, the Norwegian aid chief who assumed the DAC chairmanship on Jan. 1.

“No one was in doubt concerning his views on major issues,” Solheim told Devex. “Still, he managed to keep an extremely positive atmosphere due to the respect people have for him, his humor and his integrity.”

Other DAC members we spoke to agree. Christian Bach, Denmark’s minister for development cooperation, called Atwood a “close partner” and “very inclusive” leader “with a clear agenda, clear objectives and thus a clear determination to reach the objectives.” He praised Atwood for involving new actors such as China in development cooperation – especially through the late-2011 High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea – and for “lifting the aid effectiveness agenda to a truly international agenda and thus not just an OECD exercise.”

AusAID Director General Peter Baxter called Atwood a “consensus builder” who “also takes a no-nonsense approach to issues to ensure that the focus of the DAC is on core issues rather than tangential ones.”

Atwood, who also chairs Devex’s board of advisors, honed his powers of persuasion as a diplomat in Côte d’Ivoire and Spain, an official in both the Carter and Clinton administrations – ultimately as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and chairman of the Overseas Private Investment Corp. during both Clinton terms – and, more recently, the dean of a prominent U.S. university.

In a position typically held by senior development officials, he was without question the heaviest political hitter to ever get the job. With the 50th anniversary of the DAC looming, traditional aid architecture seeming out-dated and growing pressure from non-DAC members like China, India and Brazil, he was anointed by the Obama administration with the hope that someone with political muscle could bring together the biggest donors around a common agenda. (Emphasizing the importance of the DAC to American foreign aid diplomacy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself gave a major speech in Busan about a new era in global development cooperation.)

When Atwood was elected DAC leader in January 2011, it was clear that he was setting the direction for an institution grasping for relevance into its sixth decade. In a statement on the future of the DAC, he flatly stated that the panel risked losing influence unless it managed to find a way to define its place in a rapidly changing world in which emerging donors, international corporations and other investors hold increasing sway.

Since then, aid officials we interviewed say he’s put the DAC on a new path.

“Under Brian’s stewardship, the DAC has reaffirmed its place as a thought-leader for the donor community and worked with partner countries, emerging donors, international organizations and civil society to reshape the international architecture for development,” USAID Deputy Administrator Don Steinberg told Devex.

Looking back, Atwood cited as his greatest obstacle opposition from people who wanted the DAC to remain “a sort of donors club, who didn’t really want to look more broadly.”

He told Devex: “If we had followed their lead, we would’ve been irrelevant in no time and we might never have achieved the global partnership [which includes non-DAC members such as the BRICS nations]. So I think the biggest challenge was simply conservative governments who wanted to keep the club together and not expand its horizons.”

The growing confidence of emerging donors, still largely untapped power of remittances and ever-growing private investment in the developing world have prompted much soul-searching within the global aid community. For DAC members, the very definition of official development assistance is at question.

The international community needed agreement on the way forward in this new environment.

Preparations for Busan dominated Atwood’s attention throughout his first year. The summit, he said, represented a “global learning moment,” a milestone for the international development community in search of answers in a global context that had changed markedly since the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the 2008 Accra Agenda for Action.

In its capacity to enhance country ownership and deliver much-needed coordination among all of the providers of development cooperation, Atwood likens the agreement to the Millennium Declaration in its scope to be a game-changer for developing countries.

“It will hopefully put us on a path so that this irrational aid architecture that exists in the world today will be reduced,” he said.

Finland’s international development minister, Heidi Hautala, told Devex: “There is absolutely no doubt of Brian’s greatest achievement as the DAC chair, and that is the visionary, determined way in which he widened the discussion on development cooperation to involve all the development actors who actually are present in developing countries as their partners.”

In truth, a year after the summit, there is little consensus on the extent to which Busan’s legacy will be a lasting one. It may have acknowledged more clearly than ever the new power dynamics in development cooperation – but will it drive real change?

In a recent conversation with Devex, Atwood was quick to admit that there is much work to be done to ensure that progress made at Busan is built upon – not in the least by engaging and creating trust among the likes of China, Brazil, India and other emerging donors, some of which now hold an OECD-DAC observer status.

“We have to get beyond people’s suspicion that this is somehow a Trojan horse to get people to join the DAC,” he said. “We’re not interested in that, we simply want to have a dialogue.”

But dialogue on development cooperation during Atwood’s tenure was taking place against the backdrop of fiscal crisis, particularly in the eurozone. With deep cuts to aid budgets threatening to make development coordination irrelevant, he sought to raise the DAC’s profile on global finance issues and make the case to finance ministers – not just aid ministers – that foreign assistance is essential.

“There was a good deal more focus being put on development as an important mission,” Atwood recalled, “and that brought in finance ministers who really don’t know a lot about development, frankly.”

Still, in today’s era of austerity, bilateral aid in many cases is falling; it was down by 2.7 percent last year and could fall again. Atwood, like many of his peers, has been pushing for new, innovative financing for development. After all, ODA represents just 13 percent of all capital flows to the developing world. But, as a lifelong proponent of foreign assistance well-known for his bruising budget fights with former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms in the 1990s, Atwood stresses that a focus on leveraging private sector investments for development should not come at the expense of ODA.

A case in point is Canada, whose bilateral merchandise trade with Nigeria has risen by 44 percent since 2010 while net ODA fell by 5.3 percent from 2010 to 2011. The OECD has warned that this approach “may undermine the support it has given in recent years to poor countries with weak capacity, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.” A 2012 peer review published by the DAC suggested Canada ensure that development objectives and partner country ownership were paramount in the activities and programs it supported with no confusion between development objectives and the promotion of commercial interests.

All indications are that Solheim, the new DAC chairman, will continue down the path Atwood paved – broadening the international development tent, mainstreaming development cooperation on the world stage, and perhaps even reevaluating the very definition of ODA.

Having served as both an environment and international development minister in Norway, Solheim is poised to advocate for a sustainable development agenda to replace the Millennium Development Goals come 2015. Indeed, upon his selection, Solheim released a statement highlighting the need for ODA to address wider sustainable development concerns and for development finance to “promote the uptake of green growth policies using innovative channels.”

Solheim says his greatest challenge will be to continue the work Atwood has started. He wants to focus on the environment, yes, but Solheim’s also a self-confessed advocate of cash-on-delivery payment schemes; he appears to have little time for aid projects “which are well-intended but with limited results.”

And, like Atwood and an increasing number of aid officials, Solheim emphasizes the importance of putting developing countries in the driver’s seat of cooperation.

“True, it might be easier with the most-organized developing nations, with strong states,” he said, “and not so easy in fragile states for instance. But that’s no argument not to do it.”

Ultimately, the DAC’s power rests on the degree to which it can make themes like country ownership the global standard, something Atwood’s boosters insist he did and his successor clearly understands.

“A very important role for DAC, and for myself as DAC chair, will be to do my utmost to encourage global leaders to show political will,” Solheim told Devex, “to show leadership because unless they do that, nothing will happen.”

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About the author

  • Zoe Smith

    Zoe Smith is a Devex correspondent based in London, where she works as a journalist and communications consultant. Over more than 15 years, Zoe has written for publications including New Internationalist, The Guardian and Rolling Stone. She established Full Fact, a U.K. nonprofit, in 2010 and continues to provide strategic digital communications advice to the nonprofit sector. Zoe holds a master’s of science in violence, conflict and development from the School of Oriental and African Studies.