Debate on the future of aid ‘makes me worry’

Marta Foresti, director for governance, security and livelihoods at the Overseas Development Institute facilitates the closing session of "Doing development differently," held at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on Oct. 22 and 23, 2014. Photo by: ODI / CC BY-NC

In my job I strive to understand how policy reform happens: what, how and — crucially — who makes change possible.

Much of it has to do with the political realities and power structures in any given country or sector. With this in mind, the debate on the future of aid and of the Department for International Development in the United Kingdom — but also in other Western economies — makes me worry.

I worry that, on one hand, we know that the aid industry needs urgent reforms and, on the other hand, that the political space to make the case for aid is shrinking — and so is the opportunity to rethink the way aid works.

The terrain for seriously rethinking global development and how aid can realistically contribute to it has never been more fertile. The world has changed: Western economies are increasingly less relevant and their aid dollars cannot deliver the transformative change needed, nor buy them much influence on the global stage.

It is now clearer than ever before that aid alone will never be the answer to development and that a “beyond aid” agenda is firmly taking root. Yet the “global development” sector is struggling to keep up with all this change. Sure, the debate is raging and many in the sector are calling for reform and change. But confronted with the serious challenge that this may well be the end of aid as we know it, appetite for change is rapidly lost.

Money, money, money

Too much of the debate about global development focuses on volume instead of how to use it well.

Take the sustainable development goals: The process leading up to 2015 has been characterized by a broad, inclusive dialogue, yet the end result looks like a shopping list of fairly predictable ideas.

Much of the debate is now focused on the financing questions: Who will pay and — crucially — how much official development assistance will be committed to the implementation of the SDGs?

While the financing gap should not be underestimated, no amount of aid will ever deliver such an ambitious vision. Much effort went into attempting to cost the Millennium Development Goals, yet approaching development as a problem of finance can shift attention away from what is actually needed to reach these goals and deliver for development.

The debate on 0.7 percent in the U.K. has similar risks. While renewing a commitment to aid may well be a priority in the current uncertain political climate, focusing on the capacity of donor countries to disburse aid — rather than on what recipient countries need — is a bad idea. The debate needs to shift away from what donors can commit, and focus instead on how to use the money wisely, including to ensure no harm is caused by external interventions.

Losing the learning game 

Despite a lot of talk, aid agencies are not great at learning. In particular, they are not good at changing the way they do things. Review after review — and the experience of many aid recipients — suggest that internal incentives are not shifting fast enough, with donors still tending to clamp down on, rather than enable, flexible and innovative approaches to delivering development.

Instead, the norm remains large-scale, top-down, risk-free “traditional” approaches that seem designed to keep them in business, rather than transforming lives. It is not surprising then that international agencies are failing to learn any lessons from past mistakes.

Myths and cults still rule 

Debunking development myths can be a fun game — and a useful one too as so many ideals about how development ought to work just do not ring true in reality.

Yet many of these myths persist and show no sign of extinction. Take the notion that “good governance” is always a precondition for development progress, or that community development is the best way to achieve change: Despite growing body of evidence that this is mostly not the case in reality, some of these ideas can even turn into “cults.”

The “good governance agenda” still permeates most aid policies and programs around the world. Those who unveil these inconvenient truths and challenge the development orthodoxy too often remain lone voices, rarely listened to in development circles.

This is all the more worrying in the U.K. context, where a highly polarized political debate mostly focuses on the unhelpful question of whether aid works or not, often playing into the hands of the so-called aid skeptics. This risks tainting any much-needed attempt to reform international development and move the debate beyond aid itself.

The status quo is not an option and focusing on aid alone when the objective is global development would be a mistake. There is a need to deal with the unintended consequences of other domestic policies in donor countries — think migration — and move to a more realistic and honest dialogue about how development actually works and why it is often difficult.

Defending aid as we know it may well see us through the next U.K. Parliament — or not — but in the long run there is a need for radical change. The sooner we realize it, the better.

Stay tuned for more U.K. election coverage and news, views and analysis on how this impacts DfID and U.K. aid in the coming weeks. To explore additional content, visit the Future of DfID series site, follow us on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Marta Foresti

    Marta Foresti is director for governance, security and livelihoods at the Overseas Development Institute. Marta’s interests include the political economy of development, service delivery, conflict and fragility. She has over 15 years of research, evaluation, policy and management experience and has an interest in applied social research methodologies and policy evaluation.