Busan reflections: We came, we saw, we conquered!

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at a private sector donor during the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / UN

I leave the city of Busan in Korea with a new development cliché: “country heavy-global light.”

That is the character of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, which is the outcome document from the Busan Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held from Nov. 29 to Dec.1, 2011. This was the conference that formally brought the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness of 2005 and the Accra Agenda for Action of 2008 to an official end. These two earlier declarations were supposed to define how the world was going to use aid and development cooperation resources to fast-track the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

It is interesting that we came ready to erase the words “aid effectiveness” from the development vocabulary and replace them with the words “development effectiveness.” But we left with a more convoluted process and document whose title had little to do with the aspirations of the meeting. Nevertheless, we leave this high-level forum with a nice collection of metaphors like “enabling environment,” “triangular cooperation,” “social entrepreneurship,” and “results focus” as new words that will define the new era of development cooperation.

The Busan outcome document has been received with mixed feelings. Just like the Korean dishes that are made with sugar and salt, it has some progressive language, it has very little in terms of specifics, and it is imbued with contradictions about what the world would like to do about aid and development. For instance, the title speaks to the issue of effective development cooperation when we all agreed that what we are coming together to speak about development effectiveness. When that was raised by civil society in the final negotiation on-site in Busan, there was outright resistance to make any changes to the text. Then China suggested language at the eleventh hour and it was hastily inserted in the second paragraph of the outcome document to appease a global power. So the Busan outcome document was a modest win, an interesting paradigm shift and a compromise-laden document.

The word that kept lingering in my mind after all 100 side events, knowledge and information events and plenary sessions is “results.” Every speaker both at the opening and closing ceremonies and in the two thematic sessions and one plenary focusing on results spoke about the importance of showing results – to tax payers, to voters, to poor people and donors as well as partner governments and parliaments in both the north and south. But three issues stand out around the concept and idea of results that we may need to pay more attention to.

First is for every development actor to understand that results are about people. When we think about a result we should think about the beneficiaries who are impacted by aid and other development cooperation resources. Results should be the children who do not die of curable diseases and conditions like malaria, diarrhea and even malnutrition. Results should be children enrolled in schools and learning. Results should be about no mother dying while giving birth and ensuring that all development investments lead to people living dignified lives. This is what real results should be about. But sometimes our high-level forum speakers collapsed into discussion of better public finance management systems, results-based financing, cash-for-delivery schemes, and public sector results management as ends in and of themselves.

Second is whole issue of process, and results was one that was glossed over quite a bit. Sometimes it looked like we were more engrossed with the idea of achieving good results without thinking about processes. When the private sector participants spoke of the impressive jaw-dropping numbers of how they had turned little money from donors into millions of dollars, the discussion did not question the processes used in achieving these results. If indeed results are about people, then processes are important so that we do not only look at results as if they are produced without any impact on people’s lives.

We were, for example, reminded by a trade union activist from Korea during the Busan Civil Society Forum that was held before the high-level forum, how a prominent company from Korea was working with the Philippine government to build a large shipyard. But as this took place, the workers at the shipyard worked very long hours, fell off very high cranes and died, and the workers at the shipyards could not even speak freely to the trade unionist who was visiting from Korea. As the trade unionist put it very graphically, we should not be creating graveyards while building shipyards.

The third dimension that still stood out for me was risk. As we produce results, clearly there are certain risks that are involved. What we did not focus on is what kinds of mechanisms we should be putting in place to ensure that as we achieve results we do not let only one development actor take responsibility for the risks.

For example, I did ask the Global Fund representative on the round table I spoke, about the unexpected decision by the Global Fund board of directors to cancel the next round of grants (named round 11) that countries like Uganda would have been eligible to apply for from 2014 to 2016, and how the risks would be shared that emerge from this cancellation. It looks like this was not a priority in the cancellation discussions. All I was told was that each country has a local coordinating group and their failure is their responsibility. Yet we know that sometimes as we pursue results, failures happen and the costs are picked by one party. In this case, the countries that will not get Global Fund monies will have to look straight in the eyes of thousands of HIV and tuberculosis patients as they try to explain the shortage of drugs because of “lack of funds.”

As we leave Busan, civil society remains concerned about the lukewarm reference to rights-based approaches to development; how unfinished business from Paris and Accra have been hurriedly swept under the carpet since there are no time lines and targets to conclude this business; we are now dealing with common principles and not commitments; the neoliberal market-driven agenda still reigns supreme with private sector mentioned more times than any other actor; and, for countries in situations of fragility, their much-anticipated endorsement of the “new deal” left civil society actors still yearning for a clear road map for implementation of the new deal.

But as mentioned by the chair of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, using a legendary proverb from neighboring China: “You can resist an invading army, but you cannot resist the power of an idea whose time has come.” Civil society arrived in Busan as development actors in their own right – that is an idea whose time has come!

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About the author

  • Richard ssewakiryanga

    Richard Ssewakiryanga

    Richard Ssewakiryanga is a prominent civil society figure in Africa and beyond. He currently serves as executive director of Uganda National NGO Platform, a “sharing and reflection platform for NGOs to influence governance and development processes in Uganda, and enhance their operating environment.” He is also a member of the Open Forum’s global facilitation group.